The inestimable John McWhorter:
It’s been a shoe that had yet to drop.
The praise for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical phenomenon has been resoundingly unanimous. There are already plans for a touring production, one in London plus a sit-down production in San Francisco. Miranda has performed for the president. The cast album has won a Grammy, Miranda himself a MacArthur. Hamilton is certainly about to sweep the Tonys. Musical theatre obsessives such as myself are having the odd experience of finding that our next door neighbor with no interest in musicals is actually listening to a theatre recording we love. One takes the show’s name in vain no more than one wouldThe Wire or Handel’s “Messiah.”
Or at least not until around now. You just knew a certain type was biding their time.
Yes, it’s the usual crowd of “contesters” who remind us that we aren’t feeling sufficient shame at our ancestors. Apparently a musical about Alexander Hamilton, who owned no slaves and opposed slavery, fails to remind its audience of the existence of slavery (as though we had forgotten about it). Since slavery existed in America (as in every other society on the face of the earth) in 1775, and since slavery was evil, to discuss America in 1775 without reference to slavery is to pretend that slavery did not exist or was not evil or something.
The boildown version of this idea has become that race and racism are the very essence of what America is…overall, this country is too vast and protean a mess for the idea to hold up that any single factor, even as massive and tragic as the racial one, constitutes the key to the whole business. Yes, there is race. But there is a humongous deal more, and there always has been.
Especially considering that Hamilton was himself that “deal more”. There are those who argue that Hamilton’s political and economic theory laid the groundwork for the progressive kleptocracy we struggle under today. It’s an argument that has its merits and its problems, but it needs to be pointed out that our voices were by no means uniform on slavery or race in Hamilton’s day.
To consider Alexander Hamilton’s lack of passionate commitment to abolition a central pillar of what he should mean to us today, then, is less higher wisdom than faulty logic. It is premised on a fundamental lack of understanding of the evolutionary nature of social history, and an inability to conceive of the basic nature of personhood within it. To tar any portrait of a historical figure as incomplete without blaring announcement of their failure to pass today’s antiracism test is a kind of witch-hunting in the guise of civic discussion.
Witch-hunting is precisely the right term, as is “recreational Puritanism”. Both point to the reality that modern antiracism is less a political or a sociological exercise than a spiritual one. As McWhorter points out, even if there had been depiction of slavery in Hamilton, someone would have found a way to contend that it was not enough, just as they did for The Help. For the modern race “contesters”, no discussion or depiction of the realities of race or slavery is ever enough. There’s always a way to critique it more, push it farther, be more aware of injustice than the next man. I’d be willing to bet money that somewhere out there a consciousness-advocate is angry at 12 Years a Slave because Solomon is freed at the end. This fails to accurately demonstrate how slavery worked for most slaves, you see.
Because if the problem is a society that permits slavery, then the problem is solved when the slave is transmuted to a citizen. But if the problem is how, in a society that no longer keeps slaves, and has written legal protections of the rights of the descendants of slaves, to maintain the moral authority that the abolitionist enjoyed, then the problem can never be solved, and we are bound to ever greater and greater inquisitions into our sins. Just as no man on earth can cease to resist the Devil on his shoulder, no honky in America can cease to hunt the subliminal racism and privilege that constitutes his Original Sin. Thus,
if Hamilton included a single slave character or two gliding around with everyone else, or had a song where a slave came out and rapped about his misery, or had a couple of the female chorus members shown doing one of the Schuyler sisters’ hair before the party scene, let’s face it, it would just occasion more contesting. The slaves would be too marginal to the action, would not look miserable enough, not depicted as full human beings, etc. Contesters often put it that the goal is that America “come to terms” with its past on race. But it’s unclear what the expression here even means. Just what would indicate that the terms in question had finally been come to? At what point would the contestation no longer be necessary? How unwelcome such questions are considered is an indication that an end point is not exactly on these critics’ minds—contestation is forever.