By Megan Salmon
I would like to start off by saying that Hamilton was a very good show theatrically. Regardless of these criticisms about the concept, I enjoyed watching the talent that was expressed on stage. However, the racial politics of the show are a little hard to separate for me, and I think it brings to light the sheer uncertainty we have as to what ways are the most appropriate when discussing American history and its deep ties to racism.
It made me pretty uncomfortable that the founding fathers were black. They weren’t black. In fact, they owned slaves. They perpetuated rhetoric and ideas that actively oppressed black bodies. To have black bodies representing these men seems entirely dishonest and ignorant to what the actual dynamics were in American history. Speaking to some of our international students, I found that the immigrant rhetoric that was used in the show to depict Alexander Hamilton combined with the fact that the actor portraying him was black led to many of them mistakenly believing that he actually was black. This creates a much different picture of American history in relation to slavery. Further, Hamilton chooses to characterize both the founding fathers and the revolutionary period with quite rose-colored glasses. Alexander Hamilton seemed so cool and relatable, with his plucky personality and his side plot with his lovers. The show made the founding fathers out to seem very trendy, rather than bringing to light the racism that they perpetuated in U.S. policy. And they did it using black bodies. It doesn’t sit well with me that Hamilton romanticized the legacy of the founding fathers using the bodies of the very people than they oppressed.
Another key issue I had with the concept of Hamilton was that it erased real black and people of color during the revolutionary period. Though white characters are portrayed using people of color, there is a complete ignorance to actual black revolutionaries, whose stories are never addressed anyhow. The Schuyler family had slaves that participated in radical revolutionary-ism and so did Washington (the only reason Hamilton didn’t was likely that he couldn’t afford them as he had previously worked on a slave ship). Why aren’t any of those characters in Hamilton? There were plenty of black revolutionaries to choose from. We want to give people of color more spaces on the stage. Hamilton is very exciting in that it does just that. Yet, it begins to seem counter-intuitive when we realize that those bodies of color are being used to commemorate their colonizer, rather than their own legacy.
Overall, the show ended up coming off as a pander to white guilt rather than anything else. A bunch of black men running around the stage and rapping to glorify white American heroes? Not to mention the medium of rap– a historically black practice that is potentially (don’t quote me here) being appropriated for the benefit of the white man. Hamilton, and Broadway in general, remains with its predominately white audience. Black people aren’t showing up in large crowds to watch Hamilton. Maybe it’s because we’re made a bit uncomfortable by our bodies being used to make Alexander Hamilton likable? Watching the show, for a minute I really felt like the black George Washington was relatable to me and my community… it wasn’t a great feeling when I had to remind myself he owned slaves.
I love making space for people of color on stage. I don’t think any of us would disagree that Hamilton has done miles for its individual actors and neither black culture, nor American culture, will ever forget the impact the show has made. As many others of many colors, I did enjoy the theatrics of the show. Still, the feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was a little off that I took with me walking out of the Hamilton theater will likely prevent me from walking back into it.