ANDERSON: Painting gold-tinted version of U.S. history
Opinions Column: A 'Popped' Culture
Unless you have been living under a literal, physical, Patrick Star rock, you’ve heard of the newest Grammy and Tony award-winning musical “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Anyone that knows me knows that I love this musical and think it is a masterpiece. But, as with all things that we love, it is important to seriously critique the areas in which they can be improved. The first indication of the show’s incompatible progressive attitude came via this years' New York City Inner Circle Show. There actor Leslie Odom Jr., who stars as Aaron Burr in the show, participated in yet another one of Hillary’s backfiring pandering tools. She made a play on the age-old “Colored People Time” joke along with Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-N.Y.) by changing the “CP” into “Cautious Politician Time.” The joke was tasteless and clearly offensive. Yet there was Leslie Odom Jr., a black man, standing there, allowing these offensive remarks with a smile on his face. His presence affirmed that everything was O.K., and that he was in on the joke.
Lin-Manuel’s “Hamilton” is probably one of the most creative endeavors I have actively engaged with in my lifetime. As a poet, a writer and a fan of hip-hop and musical-theatre, the shows ability to weave narratives, interpolate outstanding rhymes and exude a sonic confidence that permeates my skin and enlivens a room, is impeccable to say the least. Yet, this musical continues to be used as a historical reference for many non-history buffs. It is, sadly, a vital modern tool that corroborates the dominant narrative in the perpetuation of the hagiography that is our nation’s history, especially concerning our founding fathers.
The danger of the musical is that it forcefully places rose-colored goggles over the eyes of the audience in regards to the historical figures, their actions, their moral convictions and the historical complexity of the entire “revolutionary” era. The catchy melodies, the witty lyrical content, the graceful yet hard-hitting choreography and, most importantly, the multiethnic actors on stage collectively makes it hard to zoom out and remember that these historical figures were highly problematic. Additionally, as Annette Gordon-Reed points out in her ncph.org article “Hamilton: The Musical: Blacks and the founding fathers,” the overwhelming number of black actors distracts from the fact that there are zero black historical figures documented in musical.
The sad truth about Alexander Hamilton is that he owned and sold slaves, despite the musical purporting that he was a “manumission abolitionist” who was ardently against slavery. “The Manumission Society, of which (Hamilton) was a president, was extremely moderate and not at all an abolitionist outfit," Reed said. Moreover, the fact that the audience doesn’t have to grapple with a traditionally casted white actor but rather the jovial, “ethnic,” Lin-Manuel Miranda aids the audience’s capability to forgive and overlook these crucial details. This allows a toxic reimagination of history. Author Ishmael Reed in his CounterPunch article “Hamilton: the Musical: Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders … and It’s Not Halloween,” asks, “If Hamilton had negotiated the sale of white people, do you think that an audience would be paying $400 per ticket to see a musical based upon his life?”
Reed also adds to our knowledge that the Schuyler family that Alexander Hamilton married into owned 27 slaves. The black actress who plays Angelica Schuyler, Renee Elise Goldsberry, has defined the Schuyler sisters as the Kardashians of the 1780s but with more “dignity and grace.” Given the shows exclusion of black historical figures — save an unflattering nod to Thomas Jefferson’s slave/mistress Sally Hemings — Goldsberry's quote is a slap in the face to the black female lives that afforded the Schuyler's the luxury of said “dignity and grace."
The non-white casting of the show gives a pass to the historical, racial and social travesties enacted by the main characters. It screams of the post-racial bliss that some Americans unabashedly live in day-by-day. The main argument behind the casting is to show how the story of early America is “everyone’s” story, but as Lyra D. Monteiro states in her essay “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past," there is a deep issue with having black and brown actors portray figures in a show that does not highlight how these very figures were complicit in excluding black and brown people from the narrative of freedom. “Hamilton” is the spoon full of historically-manipulated sugar that helps the white guilt go down. It is Leslie Odom Jr. standing on stage as Hillary Clinton throws out racially inappropriate jokes to a crowd of upper-class onlookers. The show is heralded by white audiences because it allows them to take pride in the historical fairytale public school curriculums spout to students on a daily basis.
This “color-blind” experiment is difficult to fully execute because on one hand, one must be cognizant of the blackness of the characters on stage in order to understand that this is “our story too” — despite black people and Native Americans being explicitly left out of it — and in the next moment it is expected that the audience be so absorbed into the story that they do not feel the uncomfortable pang that comes from singing “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Who’s lucky?
Michael Anderson is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in Africana studies and digital communication, information and media. His column, “A ‘Popped’ Culture,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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