Can Hamilton prevail in the BLM Era?
The controversy over Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton could not have been anticipated in 2015, especially during the Obama presidency. Black Lives Matter, as a response to a two-hundred year thorn in the nation’s heart and as a movement, did not occupy the center stage of U.S. politics at the time, in spite of the fact that Blacks were being assassinated then as much as five years later.
The election of the U.S.’s first Black president served the purpose of providing oxygen and his highly acclaimed hope, to the idea that a different U.S. was possible; that the nation could live up to the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Beyond the purported “Black” presidency of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama’s was the real deal and much of the country, perhaps naively yet firmly, believed that at last the country was moving in the right direction.
In this context, Hamilton, the story of an immigrant (albeit Scottish) from the Caribbean who travelled to the mainland and rose through the ranks to become “Washington’s right hand man” and one of the “founding fathers”, somehow naively complemented MLK’s dream that seemed to resonate in Obama’s presidency. If the country was, at last, coming to grips its original sin of slavery, then recreating the triumph of the Thirteen Colonies over the world’s most powerful army in that distinctly American genre, the Broadway musical, contributed to the slow-cooking “world upside down” new reality symbolized by a Black president.
The fact that the Pulitzer winning musical was written by a Puerto Rican, who had the audacity (another Obama emblematic term) of using Black actors to represent the “founding fathers”, the fact that a musical in the contemporary (and highly popular among young urban Blacks and Latinos) hip-hop genre could masterfully portray the conflicts and triumphs of the young nation two centuries later, served as a symbolic bridge between its romanticized and morally-dubious past and the 2008-14 fragile social structure bound by the tenuous resin of “hope”.
Hamilton was another triumph of hope. The country’s most progressive citizens felt and praised it, while the spirit of the Confederacy festered under the pale skin of non-metropolitan non-educated, poor whites who felt disenfranchised, not by their opulent white brethren but by the poorer than them, marginalized and exploited Blacks, Latinos and Orientals. Their indignation and resentment over being displaced by minorities who did the work they would not do, brought forth their no-longer politically correct disposition to reclaim their heritage: white supremacy.
A master of audience-reading and deceit, Donald Trump read the discontent and expanded his TV antagonistic business persona to flaunt his decades old racism while embracing the false marginalization of the evangelical right bent on draining the Washington swamp. Their goal was not to bring more jobs and prosperity to their fly-over, rural communities, but to revoke the heirlooms of liberal east/west-coasts’ socialites and socialists: Roe v Wade and Brown v Board of Education, reestablish school prayer, defund Planned Parenthood, and push Blacks and Latinos back to their own ghettos, if not back to “where they came from” so America could be Great Again.
In the past three years, Trump has done everything in his power to make his in-part disenfranchised poor and working-white base feel that he is in the right track to rescue the country from Democrats, liberals and minorities. He promised the post-WWII prosperity, prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that gave Blacks so many opportunities and “undeserved” access to education, high paying jobs and even ranked positions in government, the military and private business.
And then Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. In an era of social media George Orwell could not have imagined, the country came to grips with a fact it had ignored for two and half centuries: racism not only was alive in the South and the Republican Party, but it had become institutionalized within the ranks of law and order all over the country. Suddenly, Rodney King was not an anomaly that had resulted in the devastation of Los Angeles by violent Blacks, and did not remain in the past. Chauvin and Floyd were the two faces of a coin that, as coins go, looked in opposite directions, would not speak to each other, and could not blend into one legal tender.
The U.S. government was no longer the Black version of King Arthur’s fairy-tale kingdom, with Obama as the smooth and fair (as in just) king and Michelle as a remarkably smart and classy Guinevere, that brought about unprecedented economic growth after 43’s market bust, and no corruption, no scandals, no conflicts with allies, and the bold riddance of Osama bin Laden.
Trump’s election promised to bring the country back to the future of its eugenistically validated, post-Civil War, white supremacy dreams of Southern grandeur.
In the context of George Floyd’s assassination, all statues and monuments to that “immediate” past –most Confederate monuments were erected at the beginning of the XXth century– were a stark reminder that the Confederate antithesis of the history the East and West Coasts had conceived was alive and burning in its desire to regain and retain power.
Then came the backlash. “Liberal America” would not have it. Three years of Trump’s white supremacy baiting were too much to tolerate. First, confederate statues were toppled. Then the Confederate symbol was removed from flags and sports. Then the First Nations reminded the country that Christopher Columbus was not an adventurer and explorer but an invader who looted and killed Native Americans south of the border. Every remnant of the European conquest of the Americas and the world was suspect of crimes against humanity for which they were never tried.
Then Hamilton was streamed via Disney+ and audiences, inflamed by a new intolerance towards all things colonial, racist and genocidal, took a hard look at the musical about the Scottish immigrant who rose through the ranks and became the first Secretary of the Treasury and created the U.S. financial system.
What was his relationship with slavery since he was married to a daughter of anti-British slave-owner Phillip Schuyler? Was he against for or against slavery? In an age when the country at last was coming to grips with its “original sin”, beyond the tolerance but rather the exploitation of kidnapped Africans who were sold into bondage, what was Hamilton’s role in the slave trade?
Since most of the founding fathers were slave-owners, how should we, at present, remember them, as wise and brave men go brought forth one of history’s greatest nations and empire, or as slave-owners who contradicted in action the very words that served to claim exceptionalism and justify its economic, political and military global preeminence and supremacy?
Can and should we judge those who fought for a more just society based on their words or on their actions? Should we honor the contributions of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Jay, Franklin and Hamilton using the XXI century re-invigorated values that actually hold men and women to the values set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or should we understand that in order to attain those goals it was necessary to find common ground with those who did not wholeheartedly believe in those principles, in order to establish a system that was not to become viable and true until more than two hundred years later?
Can the country trust wo/men who hold power to live according to those ideals or are we to prolong tolerance in the process of transforming a society that has not reached that level of conscience and truthful commitment to its ideals? Said more plainly, will present generations be more forthcoming living up to the nation’s ideals if their political futures hang on the balance?
Are these questions about values or political expediency in the hope that more enlightened persons may occupy those positions that make possible a future bound to its professed ideals?
Can we judge the legitimacy of a play like Hamilton, written and brought forth in an era when its message resounded with audiences in spite of the fact that what we question now about its characters was as true then, during “Obama’s reign” as they are now?
Should we judge Miranda’s musical in the context of the BLM’s struggle and potentially in the midst of an impending racial civil war, and its impact in the hearts and minds of Disney+ viewers as well?
Does Hamilton, the musical, retain its value as the story of the white Caribbean immigrant who became a founding father, and especially due to its not white cast that confronts the audience with the U.S. nation’s diversity as a whole?
Should we judge its legitimacy based on values held to be true in 1776 but not implementable in the soon to be nation that “depended” on slave labor? Should our present values, so aligned with the ones used to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, finally within our grasp to change the future, censure a play that played a role in creating the sort of conscience that makes the BLM so important and its opposite so reproachable in 2020?
Are the values that guide our past goals and actions timeless, or are they still constrained by what is attainable in a present so divided in terms of race, class and ideology?
As a historian I have learned that the significance, the meaning of ideas, actions and aspirations are conceptually universal and timeless, but in practice very much linked to their consequence in the historical moment they are adopted as guidelines for individual and societal norms and mores, as Weber would say.
Hamilton, like any work of art, has a time-bound significance and value. But its true contribution towards understanding the nation’s past lies, not only on the quality of its script and music, but also although not primarily, in its trail-blazing casting of non-white actors to represent the nation’s diversity and identity. That significance, should prevail over the rightfully questionable mores of its characters.
Copyright 2020 by José E. Muratti-Toro, Ph.D. All photos in the public domain.