Luke’s Log- “Hamilton’s” Multiracial Cast is an America Beyond Multiculturalism
Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton engaged in a rap battle at one of President Washington’s Cabinet Meetings.
Anyone who knows me- literally anyone who knows me- knows that I consider myself a proud Hamilton junkie, an acolyte of the fabled third way in American politics that encompassed such great statesmen as Hamilton himself, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. No American intellectual tradition has been nobler.
So it was with great joy that I learned, many months ago, that the famed Lin-Manuel Miranda was adapting Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography of Hamilton into a musical- and not just that, but a hip-hop musical. I’ve been familiar with the chilling pre-released first song in the said musical for several years, and I am still awaiting in deadly anticipation Hamilton’s tour on the West Coast. My sources say I’ll probably have to wait a year or so, which only sharpens my desire.
Anyway, like any good fanboy I’ve been making a point of reading every laudatory article that came out since the show’s release in New York in late January, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far. Two key facts stand out above all, though.
First, the show features a multiracial cast. Whereas the historical evidence seems to suggest that the primary characters of Hamilton’s life were of Northern European descent, Miranda casts Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans into the roles of several of the Founding Fathers and their wives. One is reminded of Norm Lewis in the 2006 Les Mis, the famous ‘Black Javert.’
Second, the soundtrack of ‘Hamilton’ is a mishmash of classic broadway, Latin rhythms, 90s pop, and rap. This diverse score pretty closely mirrors the ethnic and cultural makeup of New York City.
So first off- yes, I can hear it now. I can hear the multiculturalists and the ethnic nationalists hooting and hollering, lauding the production for being more “representative” of the American racial ground as a whole, a sort of penance for the great sin of white supremacy that has burdened the nation for centuries. The presence of hip-hop as the musical’s soul is a rebellion against white patriarchy. I can hear them snickering to themselves at seeing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, slaveowners all, being portrayed by African-Americans in what I assume some of the multiculturalists must see as the ultimate irony, bordering on vengeance. I hear them calling this production a great mark of progress in race relations, when what they mean is it is a mark of empowerment- read, the transferral of power- to aggrieved minority groups, that they might have power as groups.
Well, I really appreciated- and I mean really appreciated– the multiracial cast too, but for very different reasons, I think, than the multiculturalists. First off, a look at some of the set photos recently made available online-
George Washington, portrayed by Christopher Jackson
Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler, and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton
When I looked over the cast photos, I didn’t see African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans portraying White Americans. I saw Americans portraying Americans. I see “Hamilton” as a step forward in race relations, too, but not a race relations of various groups competing amongst each other and scrapping for dignity- instead, it is the race relations of a nation of individuals of innumerable backgrounds, sharing a common heritage and a common destiny in the persons of their national heroes, and one which every one of them is capable of honoring regardless of the color of their skin. It represents a nation not of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans and White Americans living together in racial harmony, but of Americans living together in national unity, where race might matter to individuals privately but has neither bearing nor influence in the public realm. That’s what this nation needs to be and that’s what Miranda was pushing for in the casting. It would have been no different had the main characters been portrayed primarily by Asian-Americans. They would have been Americans all the same, not representing their ethnic groups but representing the country as a whole. As a friend of mine put it, “Americans are black; Americans are white.” E Pluribus Unum.
And nearly as important, the varying cultural influences behind the music don’t represent a host of cultures living together in multicultural harmony, but the mixing and melding of various cultures into an entirely new culture, something unique to our shores and genuinely American. This mixing and melding, a melting pot not of one-way assimilation but two-way assimilation, has been the driving force behind the development of our national culture for centuries, and has only been stymied by white supremacy in previous eras and multiculturalism today. A tearing-down of the walls which multiculturalism erects, and an allowing of the cultural blender to work its magic, as was done in “Hamilton,” is the true cultural fate of our nation.
One might object that this multiracial portrayal was not ‘accurate,’ and indeed it was not, nor was it intended to be. It was intended to tell a story and to help a divided people of diverse backgrounds feel as though they were united in that single story. The historically all-white portrayal of the Jesus story in European culture is a manifestation of this trend (and it’s interesting to note that one of the few modern linguistically and racially accurate portrayals of the Jesus story, The Passion of the Christ, came around only after the majority of Christendom was no longer white.) There have been plenty of culturally-accurate tellings of the Founding story; this one sought to be not accurate, but powerful and uniting, and I would say it succeeded admirably.
Again, I’m really happy about the racial and cultural message “Hamilton” seems to have given, though I’m not as happy with the explanation of it I attempted to give above. It pales in comparison to the sublime beauty of the American America.
In short, here’s what I think about race teleologically and here’s what I think “Hamilton” said about race.
-It doesn’t matter where you come from, what the color of your skin is, or what ‘community’ the media tells you you’re in- if you’re an American, that’s the most important thing.
-American culture is a beautiful thing, with influences from diverse groups across the world influencing it. While it should be noted that our political culture is fundamentally Western European, just about everything else has been subject to cultural mixing and mashing, creating the beautifully pure hybrid we know today.
-Multiculturalism and closed-minded white dominance are equally pernicious to the development of a truly unified American society, where Americans of all races are truly respected by their fellow citizens as Americans and nothing else. They merely attack it from different ways, multiculturalism by fighting for the existence of multiple cultures and white dominance by precluding others from entering the broader culture.
Now, an interesting thought experiment would be to think what Alexander Hamilton himself would have thought about all this. But that is a case for another day.