‘Hamilton’, Representation, & diversity-washing white colonial history?

Let me start by saying ‘Hamilton’ the musical did mention slavery a few times. Nonetheless, let me quote this:

“If it is not OK to normalise hatred, and of course it is not, then Hamilton is not OK. A musical that bleaches a very savage history, which led to a savage present, by the use of actors of colour is not worth fighting for. A wall has been built by this overwhelming obsession with cultural moments: did Tony Abbott wink, did Mikey Pence “rap” along in a diverse musical that does not mention slavery? That it is painted often in rainbow colours makes no difference at all.”

I enjoyed Hamilton, so I am not posting this to “bash” the artists who created it or the art itself. In fact, the piece from which the above quote is taken is not a critique of the music, great performances, or any technical aspect of the production.

Rather, THIS PIECE at Crikey.com.au is a harsh and flawed take-down of the very premise of Hamilton, which author Helen Razer says excuses the racist horror of America’s past merely by switching the race of its players: “sounds to me like revisionist bullshit.”

There is an excellent response to the piece in the comments section that counters a number of inaccuracies contained within the op ed. Nonetheless, Razer raises a number of important political questions, in addition to criticising the merit of using a diverse cast (as astonishingly talented as they are) to tell the stories of – and humanise – brutal white colonisers.

In another (better, longer) analytical Hamilton “takedown” on currentaffairs.org, that point is also raised by Alex Nichols:

‘The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves. Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he did this intentionally, to make the cast “look like America today,” and that having black actors play the roles “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” (“Cultural baggage” is an odd way of describing “feeling discomfort at warm portrayals of slaveowners.”)  [emphasis mine]

I write stories, so empathising with villains, despite my social justice warrior exterior, actually comes easy to me; but that line (bolded) makes my skin crawl a little. Suffice to say, as someone interested in centering Black and Brown bodies in my work, I am honing my ideas about what diverse representation means and the political implications of not just stories, but how they are told, and who performs them. Here’s another excerpt from that piece:

‘“Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to,” said the New York Times. But fixing history makes it seem less objectionable than it actually was. We might call it a kind of, well, “blackwashing,” making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it.’

I recommend reading the piece HERE entirely because there is so much I want to quote from it that I’ll end up just copying and pasting the whole thing.

But I’ll leave you with this one:

‘As the director of the Hamilton theater said, “It has liberated a lot of people who might feel ambivalent about the American experiment to feel patriotic.” “Ambivalence,” here, means being bothered by the country’s collective idol-worship of men who participated in the slave trade, one of the greatest crimes in human history. To be “liberated” from this means never having to think about it.”’

Ooofph. Let that sink in.

Lord give us a dope theatrical portrayal of Black and Native people valiantly fighting for their freedom since colonizer/invasion day one, please. That would be worth mortgaging ones house to acquire a ticket for.


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