Yes, that’s a line from Hamilton The Musical. The same musical that is now a world-wide phenomenon and written and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda. And the same musical that’s about slave owning dead white guys. Now, this blog post is not about the story behind the musical. We know what it’s about and if you don’t listen to the soundtrack, honestly you should, it’s amazing. And the mixtape too while you’re at it. But this is about Hamilton as a musical starring an all people of color cast in a very VERY white Broadway context. This post is about what Hamilton contributed to representation in the media and our questions moving forward.
I’ll admit when I first heard about Hamilton I didn’t know what to think. I loved “In The Heights” a musical also written and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda. This musical was closely connected to his immigrant community in Washington Heights. It was amazing, I related to the story arc in a way I never did to other Broadway musicals (again, they are very white). So, when I heard about Hamilton I put on, what can sometimes be my snobby “woke” hat and said, “why would I want to watch a musical that glorifies slave owning, Native land stealing, white founding fathers of a capitalist country?” That was the extend of my definition of Hamilton.
I’m not entirely sure when I shifted my mindset, in a moment of weakness no doubt. But I started listening to the soundtrack, a few songs that were recommended by friends. And I was hooked. Half a year later and I am STILL listening to the soundtrack, much to the dismay of my friends. But the more I listen to it the more I observe its contributions. Considering its faults, of which there are several, this musical contributes to, and in a lot of ways produces, a conversation on issues often ignored in Broadway. Hamilton The Musical, and really the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, evokes a critical race theorist lens. Hamilton constructs a counter narrative and a possible critique of colorblindness. Ultimately this musical has created a conversation on social change based on the “columbising” of the white founding fathers.
Immigrants, We Get the Job Done.
Delgado (1995) defines a counternarrative as a space of resistance. While the master narrative justifies homogeneity in the world, counternarratives oppose it. With this in mind counter-storytelling centers the silenced voices and challenges the master narrative. Hamilton does something to this effect. It is not necessarily centering the voices of the silenced. In fact, it does the opposite. Major characters in this musical are Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and obviously, Alexander Hamilton. These are slave-owning, founding fathers, whose narrative is often taught in the classroom and their faces are on things like mountains, monuments, and U.S. currency. However, according to Giroux (1983) counterstorytelling also seeks to reveal, critique, and self-reflect through self-emancipation. One way that Hamilton achieves this is through on going reminders of an immigrant narrative and the hypocrisy of freedom in the US. It is made very clear that Hamilton is an immigrant to the country and helps to construct its foundation. It is not a footnote in the story but a constant reminder. Aaron Burr, the man who shot Hamilton (sorry, APUSH spoiler), constantly begins a new chapter of Hamilton’s life by reminding the audience that he is “…immigrant, orphan, bastard…” Whenever Hamilton’s immigrant identity is mentioned, it is often in a negative light. At some point, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sing “this immigrant isn’t someone we chose, this immigrant is keeping us all on our toes.” Hamilton’s immigrant identity is viewed as a negative one, especially when the rest of the founding fathers were all U.S. born. However, in the battle of Yorktown, Hamilton and Lafayette sing “Immigrants, we get the job done,” switching the narrative on the immigrant identity. The musical itself does this in some way by focusing on Hamilton’s immigrant identity, and by Lin-Manuel Miranda a Puerto Rican man playing the role of Hamilton. Although he is not an immigrant he connects to the immigrant experience as a Latino man. Moreover, in the Hamilton Mixtape, this line inspired a song of the same title by K’NAAN, Snow Tha Product, and Residente from Calle 13. This song is a critique on anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States with strong allusions to modern day politics.
Another way Hamilton the Musical incorporates counter storytelling is by shattering complacency. A clear issue with a musical about the founding fathers is that they were all slave-owners. Hamilton the Musical does not shy from this topic and in fact, brings it up often. In a Cabinet Battle where Jefferson is debating Hamilton, Jefferson claims the importance of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to justify denouncing his debt plan. He claims “don’t tax the south cuz we got it made in the shade. In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground, we create, you just wanna move our money around.” Hamilton retorts “a civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor, your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor. ‘We plant seeds in the south, we create.’ Yeah keep ranting we know who’s really doing the planting.” This is particularly impactful because Jefferson was a slave owner but constantly preached about freedom and claimed to have hated slavery. This disrupts the master narrative of the founding fathers in U.S. history. A third cabinet battle, originally in the off-Broadway version addresses a discussion on the end of the slave trade. The recording, titled Cabinet Battle #3 is included in the Mixtape and is rapped by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In this piece, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for his “relationship” (read: rape) of Sally Hemmings and even notes that George Washington has hundreds of slaves. There is something to be said that it was not included in the Broadway, however, the Mixtape adds to the conversation that began in the musical. The inclusion of these conversation disrupts the reproduction of structures than maintain a sanitized master narrative.
The Room Where It Happens
Like I mentioned, the musical itself is about the founding fathers. But it is important to note that it is mostly based off a biographical book about Alexander Hamilton. Therefore, the characters are based of the historical figures. It is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation. This is important to note because Lin-Manuel Miranda intentionally focused on hiring people of color to play the roles. With the exception of King George III, which is actually really fitting that the only white dude is tyrannical king. The cast is made up of Black, Latinx, and Asian women and men. This casting was intentional and actually got Lin-Manuel Miranda in trouble when he was accused of “reserve discrimination” because the opening casting call was seeking “NON-WHITE” actors. These claims changed the way Lin-Manuel Miranda could label his casting but it did not change the make-up of the cast, it is still majority people of color in the new casts in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. This type of casting is often known as colorblind casting.
Considering the historical implications of colorblindness, can we say that this method of casting is holistic and intentional in nature? Kimberlé Crenshaw (1988) argues that formalized colorblindness can fail to recognize the interconnectedness of other issues. Moreover, it forces a focus on one specific policy or initiative in order to fix racism and racist practices. It’s a focus on colorblindness that has produced a call for the end of affirmative action and other race-specific remedial policies. This can be particularly detrimental when representation is already practically none-existent. Moreover, it also implies that a singular color blind policy will ensure that a racially equitable society, which makes the assumption that the society currently exists. When in actuality, a colorblind policy would not be needed in a racially equitable society did in fact exist. Rather, a focus on colorblind policies fosters white domination (Gontanda, 1991).
If a colorblindness policy is applied in Hamilton it may dismiss other race-specific initiatives in Broadway. Moreover, because Broadway consists of more than actors other aspects of the musical production would be left behind. Although Hamilton has an all people of color cast, the same cannot be said for the composers, choreographers, musicians, costume directors, and other roles in a musical. However, these are more words of warning than analysis on the play. In fact, I am not sure how casting was done or if it has had a negative impact on race-specific initiatives. Really, the only person who would know that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and Broadway statistics. Additionally, the use of color-blind casting may just be something placed on to Lin’s casting, when in fact he didn’t intend to be make it color blind at all and rather intended his casting to be race-specific. We may never know. Which is why I titled this section “The Room Where it Happens,” a reference to the song in Hamilton where Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton met to negotiate his debt plan. In history, no one else was present and how they made decisions and discussed compromises is known by only those in the room. Although we are unsure what was decided in “the room where it happened,” we can analyze the impact it has had on musicals outside of Broadway.
History Has its Eyes On You
What makes Broadway appealing is the opportunity to perform it outside of professional Broadway actors. There is even a whole culture of theater kids. I’m not too familiar with it, my high school did not have a theater program, but I’ve seen enough coming of age movies to know it exist. And there’s also that SNL skit. There is no doubt that these theater kids, in high school and college, will soon be performing Hamilton the Musical in their schools. And so, the question that will have to be addressed is will the actors cast be true to the original Broadway cast? That is to say, are you going whitewash an all people of color cast? In fact, this conversation has already begun. As high schools and universities began to perform “In The Heights” controversy over casting provoked an important conversation. At UCLA when the cast was not majority Latinx, students demanded more inclusion. When Chicago theater group casted a white actor to play Usnavi, the character Lin original portrayed, it raised issues on representation. The same has occurred in a Phoenix theater group that cast Iranian-born actor. Questions of authenticity, whitewashing, and brownface came up in each of these instances. For Hamilton, this becomes a particularly interesting question to ask because the characters they were based off were white men, with a contested exception of Alexander Hamilton. It’s this conversation that I believe makes Hamilton so impactful and an agent of social change.
According to Delgado and Stefancic (2012), proactive social justice occurs in three different ways, as materialist who focus on numbers, systems, and quotas, and idealists who speak more on theoretical constructions and their impact, or a combination of the two. The representation, or lack thereof people of color in Broadway is addressed through a combination of both these constructs. Hamilton the Musical doesn’t only address this through a theoretical conversation but through real numbers and on the ground work. Hamilton Broadway and the Rockefeller Foundation donated money to provide tickets for high school students to see the play, write a poem, song, or rap, and perform it on stage with the cast and crew. Over 100,000 public high school students across the country in cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and LA participated in #EduHam. In fact, one of my friends who is a teacher in Bronx, NY took her bilingual history class to see the play and perform. Since then, her SnapChat story continues to consist of students performing history raps and musical numbers. This provides an opportunity for youth of color to begin or continue being involved in the arts. With this in mind Hamilton the Musical does both. It starts a conversation in very white schools and provides space in schools with students of color.
As Maxine Greene (1998) states, social justice in education is “for enhanced perception and imaginative explorations, for the recognition of social wrongs, of sufferings, of pestilences wherever and whenever they arise … it is to teach so that the young may be awakened to the joy of working for transformation in the smallest places, so that they may become healers and change their worlds (p. xiv).” The concept of Hamilton and what it means for people of color to portray historically foundational characters gives space to question those characters and take ownership of representation. It allows for youth of color to ask, “what is powerful, important, and ours?” (Stovali, 2006 p. 244).
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
Now before I’m bombarded with all the reasons why Hamilton is problematic I want to say that I agree. It is not perfect. It’s far from perfect (socially I mean, the music, plot, and construction is pretty damn near perfect). But the portrayal of women is subpar. All three and half women (one woman plays two women), are in love with Hamilton. And although they have their own plot and convictions their storylines revolve around Hamilton. Slavery is not a bigger focus as it should be and in fact the characters are given too much credit as “abolitionists.” Even though it’s Hamilton’s character that denounces Jefferson’s hypocrisy towards his slaves and his biracial children, Hamilton still married into wealth made on the backs of slaves to “rise up.” Moreover, the genocide of Native Americans is not even alluded to, it is completely gone from the narrative. And so, Hamilton is not perfect, there are so many ways to can be improved and help accountable for what it does and doesn’t include. Even the #EduHam is questionable with its ties to the Rockefeller foundation.
And so, in addition to the questions students will begin asking themselves, questions of representation, appropriation and inclusion, we must also begin asking ourselves similar questions. Should we completely disregard Hamilton or hold it accountable for what it claims to represent? And with this in mind should we do the same for its affiliation with problematic foundations? Or is the immediate impact and benefit of these spaces enough to justify their existence?
Crenshaw, K. W. (1988). Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 1331-1387.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press.
Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
Gotanda, N. (1991). A Critique of” Our Constitution is Color-Blind”. Stanford Law Review, 1-68.
Greene, M., Ayers, W., & Miller, J. L. (Eds.). (1998). A light in dark times: Maxine Greene and the unfinished conversation. Teachers College Press.
Stovall, D. (2006). Forging community in race and class: Critical race theory and the quest for social justice in education. Race ethnicity and Education, 9(3), 243-259.