Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Neither Woke Nor Trumpican: Can Hamilton Heal America?

Courtesy Disney Plus

Hamilton, the musical is back. In some ways it never really went away. It continued to be performed to standing-room crowds throughout the land and globally (pre-Covid). Its curriculum courtesy of Gilder Lehrman is part of many schools. It remains a blockbuster. Now it is available in your very home and for a nominal price, at least compared to the Broadway prices. And you don’t even have to wait for months to see it.

In this way, the return of Hamilton seems a little like a time capsule from the distant past of 2015. The release gave me the incentive to reread some of the blogs I had written about Hamilton and about Miranda even before the musical. Reading those words can be painful today. It was a simpler moment of goodwill, good cheer, and good times. Like Brigadoon was to a jaded New Yorker.

Hamilton was the perfect musical for the Obama presidency. Hamilton delivered a message that the American Revolution belonged to all American citizens. That message might seem obvious but it wasn’t. It didn’t claim that America was perfect but that it was striving to be better, to become a more successful experiment to draw on a term from the Founding Fathers. Through its music and its casting, Hamilton reached out to people, especially students, who were studying the American Revolution in school but didn’t necessarily think it had anything to do with them. Now it did. Given the events of the past few weeks and the Mount Rushmore call to arms, it is hard to believe how optimistic people once were only a few years ago.

Today, there is no doubt that times have changed. Imagine, if you will, if Hamilton had opened this year, what the reaction would have been. Think of the presidential and hope-to-be presidential seals of approval it received in 2015. Could such a thing have happened today? Did the former-New-Yorker-and-now-Floridian President ever express any interest in attending a performance just blocks away from his apartment, no ramp walking required? Instead, the current president would love to indict the previous president and his vice president for the ‘greatest political scandal in the history of the United States”; you know which one I mean. Today, the statues of some of the leading characters in Hamilton are being pulled to the ground. They are experiencing the fate of King George III in lower Manhattan on July 9, 1776, following the reading of the Declaration of Independence with its ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What happened?

CASTING

One of the innovations of the musical was its casting. The characters in the historical play were all white. By contrast the casting was not. This action was deliberate. It was a way to reach out to new audiences. It also may no longer be legal or at least it is not woke to racially miscast people. Multiple white actors have decided to no longer voice black or biracial cartoon characters. The decision was expressed as an example of countering the systemic racism that exists in the country in general and Hollywood in particular.

Jenny Slate said, “Black characters on an animated show should be played by black people.”

Kristen Bell said, “We profoundly regret that we might have contributed to anyone’s feeling of exclusion or erasure.”

These two actresses acknowledged that they had been the beneficiaries of white privilege.

“Creating a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience,” wrote Kristen Bell.

Left unclear is whether only a mixed race person can perform as a mixed raced character or whether a black one can as well. For that matter, the casting of Shakespeare plays would change drastically if the new race-based casting guidelines were followed.

The implications for Hamilton are obvious. Just as a white person could not be cast in the role of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, so a black person cannot be cast in the role of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  Under the old rules, Hamilton could get away with such racism in the name of inclusiveness. Those days are over. Under the new rules, Hamilton could not be cast today the way it was in 2015.

WHY WOULD BLACKS WANT TO PLAY SLAVEOWNERS ANYWAY

Back in the old days, it was an honor for a black actor to perform as George Washington, the father of his country. The actors even said so. Now the statues to slaveowning Washington and Thomas Jefferson are being torn down. The message of inclusivity has been replaced by the desire to purify America of the taint of its slaveowner founders. The musical celebrates people whom the Woke denigrate. The audience that eagerly embraced Hamilton only a few years ago now is admonished to confront the racism of the founders of this country.

WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT WHITE WOMAN WHO WERE RACISTS?

Only a few years ago, there was a big push to increase the number of statues of women. Surveys were taken of the existing statues and the results showed were they were overwhelmingly male. The response was to commission additional statues to be sculpted that would be of women. But suppose the women turned out to be racists as suffragettes sometimes were. Now what?

Once upon a time, the Schuyler’s daughters were all the rave. They were witty, wonderful, and beautiful. Didn’t they make for good role models? If Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate were the beneficiaries of white privilege for performing as cartoon characters, what does that make the Schuyler daughters for an entire life of privilege? The statue of their father in Albany is coming down (see Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name?). Shouldn’t their stature in the play be reduced as well? Shouldn’t they be cast with white women?

MESSAGE OF THE MUSICAL

The message of the musical is outdated. Neither the Woke nor the Trumpicans accept it. One side demands purity, the cleansing by America of its original sin. That means the Founding Fathers are not to be praised for declaring their independence, winning the American Revolution, and constituting We the People. Instead they are to be toppled as racist slaveowners. For the other side, that means the statues are to be revered and protected and the ideals they fought for were only meant for white people anyway. The Mount Rushmore speech and the toppling of the Founding Fathers statues show that this is not a “come let us reason together” situation. Instead it is every hyphen for itself.

Hamilton with all its historical shortcomings provides another way neither Woke nor Trumpican. In a book review on Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America’s Past by Renee C. Romana and Claire Potter, eds., Brad Austin writes on H-FedHist:

Taken as a whole, [these essays] argue that while Miranda’s Hamilton is not as revolutionary…as many have suggested, it remains remarkably entertaining and presents an almost unique opportunity for historians to engage the public in meaningful conversations about the nation’s past and the nature of history itself.

Imagine if Miranda decided to revise the musical to account for some of the historical issues raised since 2015 and for the Woke approach to make 1619 the birthday of the country. It is not illegal to revise a musical or play. Every time one is revived on Broadway it happens anyway. Now the original author has an opportunity to do so for the post-Covid return to Broadway. But even if he does, Hamilton cannot heal the country. It’s still only a musical with a great message. To heal the country can only happen if one of the two national political parties decides it wants to heal it instead of dividing it….and says so.

4 thoughts on “Neither Woke Nor Trumpican: Can Hamilton Heal America?

  1. With sincere regret, I disagree with many of your comments re Hamilton. Why not a Black Washington? What’s wrong with white voice over actors withdrawing from voicing prominent black animated characters. TImes are changing. Times are evolving. I find your comments woefully out of date.

    Regretfully,

    1. I don’t understand your comment. I did not object to a black Washington. I simply stated the logical conclusion that if Miranda cast his musical in compliance with the race-base guidelines expressed by those white actors he couldn’t have made the casting choices he did. That is true regardless of any personal preferences for cross-racial casting. I also don’t understand your apparent double standard. If whites want to withdraw from voicing black roles, that is of course, their choice. Are they obligated to? Are they to be forbidden from performing as Harriet Tubman for example while so such restriction applies to casting of Washington. If so, then that is racist. Yes, the times are changing, but politically correct racism is still racist and to be condemned. Thanks for writing.

    1. Today history is politics. It seems like everything in American history is under discussion today including what can be taught, what should be cancelled, and what words can be used. All this relates to what history museums and societies can and should do. I don’t draw the same line you do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.