Despite my best efforts to make it through two class periods discussing Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) without referencing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s record-breaking Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical (2016), I simply can’t help indulging myself with a blog post. Miranda’s fresh take on USAmerican history, where, in President Barack Obama’s words, “rap is the language of revolution and hip-hop its urgent soundtrack,” has received near universal acclaim, including extensive praise for its race-conscious casting: Miranda, a Puerto Rican from New York, enlisted a diverse array of actors and actresses of color to perform as the lily white “Founding Fathers.”
This praise and the show’s courageous, ethical investment in portraying the USA as always already an ethnically and nationally heterogeneous nation notwithstanding, the show has given a number of cultural critics pause. Poet/Novelist Ishmael Reed wrote a scathing, brilliant, and timely-titled piece about the show’s attempts to sanitize the Founding Fathers’ often complex, convoluted, and contradictory views on the institution of slavery, most aggressively with the show’s namesake, “whose life has been scrubbed with a kind of historical Ajax until it sparkles”; he was no more an abolitionist than the Great Emanicpator himself, Abraham Lincoln (also not an abolitionist).
Thomas Jefferson doesn’t fair quite so well though in Miranda’s musical though, nor in the recent historiography of the Revolution. Indeed, whispered caveats about Jefferson’s enslaved Black mistress Sally Hemings always seems to accompany mentions of Jefferson’s indispensable contributions to the USA’s foundational documents and doctrines — Miranda himself can’t resist the temptation either, writing a throwaway line in Jefferson’s first song, “What’d I Miss?,” in which the future president beckons “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, wontcha open [the letter from Washington]?” And certainly no “Founding Father” stands in more dire need than careful scrutiny for his complex views on race and slavery than Jefferson, as we saw in his unabashed expressions of anti-Black racism and white nationalism (i.e. the idea that the USA was supposed to be a white nation).
The irony of Jefferson, who, as Reed reminds us, “beat and fucked his slaves and spied on their fucking,” being depicted by an actor of African American descent (Daveed Diggs) serves as a microcosm for a problem the entire musical embodies. Reed writes, “Now the masters, the producers of this profit hungry production, which has already made 30 million dollars, are using the slave’s language: Rock and Roll, Rap and Hip Hop to romanticize the careers of kidnappers, and murderers.” Ultimately, though, an attempt to whitewash the legacies of the “Founding Fathers” isn’t especially surprising (just ask the Texas Board of Education); the attempts to do so by and through nonwhite performers, however, should give us pause.
But the romanticization of this country’s founders is but one issue. Rutgers historian Lyra Monteiro wrote an excellent review of the musical in The Public Historian in which she aptly questions how Hamilton’s casting actors of color to play white men and women continues to obfuscate the roles that historical people of color actually played in the founding of the nation. For example, the translation of the Washington administration’s ferociously contentious cabinet meetings into the genre of the “rap battle” is arguably Miranda’s most ingenious modernizing adaptation. As Diggs’s Jefferson taunts Hamilton in “Cabinet Battle #1,”
‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
Don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ‘em
What might the show look like if it more explicitly engaged with the “enterprising men” who quote Jefferson, not in earnest but in irony? The Black men who brought to the nation’s attention the limited scope of Jefferson’s “real nice declaration”? What might the show look like if, instead of Hamilton trading lyrical jabs with Jefferson, we saw David Walker challenging the Virginian about “whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello” (another not-so-subtle reference to Jefferson’s sexual liasons with his slaves)? Walker, whose words, wit, and tone are just as sharp as Hamilton’s, and provide an equally compelling critique of the hypocrisies that course through Jefferson’s highly influential writings. Moreover, such an inclusion would restore an actual African American interlocutor of Jefferson’s into the divisive debates over how the nation would take shape; such an inclusion would provocatively elevate Walker to the status of “Founding Father.” While historians might balk at such a promotion (Walker’s writings, however important and interesting, were certainly nowhere near as impactful or well-circulated as Jefferson’s), allowing Walker to “rise up” to the level of his oppressors certainly seems more in line with the show’s thesis and ethics than the almost complete exclusion of historical figures of color.
The inclusion of Walker, of course, would be an anachronism and this suggestion, however apropos, remains a bit unfair (Walker wrote his Appeal in 1829, three years after Jefferson’s death and 25 years after that damned fool, Aaron Burr, shot Hamilton). With that said, there are any number of African Americans who exchanged letters and ideas with Jefferson — most notably Benjamin Banneker, who penned a letter to Jefferson engage the Secretary of State on his views regarding race and slavery — that the show might have included in order to recuperate rather than revise the diversity of the nation’s founding. Or why not include Cato, the enslaved African American and right-hand man to George Washington’s spy-on-the-inside, that’s right, Hercules Mulligan?!
But I digress.
To conclude, we might underscore how Hamilton, not unlike the writings of Jefferson, is replete with ironies — like “independence” itself, as Miranda’s Hamilton pleads to Burr in the Act I-ending number “Non-Stop”, it is “full of contradictions.” The most difficult irony to excuse, ultimately, is that a show obsessed with the problematic of legacies and characters actively taking themselves in and out of “The Narrative,” concludes by posing challenging questions about the multiple narratives and inevitable biases of historiography (i.e. “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?), but fails to interrogate or investigate the role of the Black and Brown peoples it seeks to represent on stage in the narrative (and The Narrative) itself.