Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I love Hamilton. I love it so much that I refused to listen to the soundtrack for months because I knew that I would love it too much and it would be a Problem. And it is. But here’s the thing about me: I’m like the subject of that Onion article “Graduate Student Deconstructs Takeout Menu,” and if I love something, you can bet that I’m going to deconstruct it. Even if I don’t want to. And Hamilton is no exception to that.

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Cast of Hamilton. Left to right: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Christopher
Jackson (George Washington), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler Church),
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), and Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating and contradictory piece of theater. It takes a foundational American myth starring white men, and re-centers it on people of color while, at the same time, unquestioningly perpetuating that same myth while erasing women and slaves from the narrative. And that is powerful, because Hamilton, by virtue of its immense popularity and growing cultural status, is a space of memory construction.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Memory is an entity constructed by screenwriters, directors, journalists, the executives who control broadcast media, museum professionals, the politicians who set history curricula, the corporate bodies who decide what will be on standardized tests, novelists, Texas school boards, tv writers, and yes, playwrights and composers. History is the discipline which—through the science of reading, understanding, and questioning sources and the mastery of one or more historical fields—seeks to determine what happened, why it happened, how various groups interacted with the thing that happened, how the thing impacted groups, etc.

The institutions and individuals with the power to shape memory have very little interest in actual history; actual history is too complicated and too damning to fit neatly into a desirable, marketable narrative. And the characters of Hamilton, funnily enough, seem to be all too aware of that reality.

Aaron Burr laments that he will be remembered as a villain (there is an entire genre of sci-fi/historical fiction featuring Burr doing stuff like raising Aztec deities, stealing the Constitution from parallel worlds, and I think there’s something involving Napoleon and aliens but I refuse to research that one further without a drink in hand); Alexander Hamilton frets over his legacy; George Washington understands that he is at the mercy of memory; and one of Eliza’s recurring musical themes is centered on the concept of narrative.

In “That Would be Enough,” Eliza sings “oh let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write someday;” in “Burn” she sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Perhaps my favorite part is Eliza’s finale solo in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She sings “I put myself back in the narrative/…I interview every soldier who fought by your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings/…I rely on Angelica/While she’s alive/We tell your story/…I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument/…I speak out against slavery.” In all of these songs, and especially the finale solo, she is singing about her determination to exert her own agency over how she is remembered.

That solo (begins at :41), while it does, of course, have a strong narrative purpose, speaks to the long history of female labor performed to commemorate the actions and careers of American men. Whether it be raising funds for monuments, providing medical care to soldiers, starting historical societies, protesting for the rights of the men in their lives, or taking oral histories, American women have long been instrumental shaping American collective memory; the irony is that their labor is left out of that memory. In Eliza’s solo, this labor is re-centered.

This history of forgotten female labor isn’t the only larger historiographic reality Hamilton speaks to.

In Writing History in the Global Era, historian Lynn Hunt writes:

Historians have only recently discovered globalization. Their neglect of the topic hardly makes them unique, however, as interest in globalization, as shown by the increasing use of the word in titles of books, dates only to the 1990s. It hardly appears at all in titles before the late 1980s, but a sharp increase occurs during the 1990s and continues into the 2000s.

Before globalization became a force in historians’ interpretation of early American history, it was much more the trend to portray the New Nation as an isolated country hanging off the eastern coast of the New World.

Indeed, Hunt continues:

Historians of the early United States…always drew attention to the links between American and British history, but now they also link the United States to the Caribbean islands with their slave economies and to the role of the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who also colonized parts of the North American mainland.

Hamilton takes place in a highly globalized world, reflecting both the twenty-first century international environment and contemporary historiographic trends. From the very beginning, we see the links between the North American colonies and the Caribbean colonies as Hamilton travels from St. Croix to New York. Angelica makes regular trips between London and New York. Lafayette jumps on a ship to France in the middle of the Revolution to acquire guns and ships—and other sundry supplies—and makes a quick return.

Further, despite the prohibitive cost and availability of tickets, Hamilton is hosting New York City Public School classes, which are using Hamilton as an educational tool. The New York City Public Schools are 39.6% Hispanic, 31.6% black, and 14% Asian*. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, nearly half of all New York City Public School students speak a language other than English at home; while this figure does not necessarily imply that nearly half of all NYCPS students are immigrants, it does imply that they come from families which arrived in the United States within the last one or two generations.

Hamilton openly and passionately addresses xenophobia, and the positive impact of immigrants on the United States (“Immigrants, we get the job done”)—indeed, one of Hamilton’s defining traits in the eyes of his supporters and adversaries is his status as an immigrant—and features non-white actors in every role (except for that of King George III). Thus, Hamilton allows students to see themselves as the protagonists of a story they are typically tacked to the margins of, if included at all. Seeing themselves and reflected in this foundational story allows these students to become much more engaged in learning about this vital period of American History.

And indeed, the show’s stars have discussed the importance of this representation.

Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) said to New Yorker reporter Rebecca Mead that “It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”

Christopher Jackson (George Washington), said in the same piece that “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to. By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage.”

Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) said to Playbill writer Olivia Clement that “the best I’ve heard [at the stage door] is a lot of young Asian-American women coming up to me and saying thank you for representing Asian-American women.”

However, even as Hamilton reflects contemporary historiographic trends, illuminates female commemorative labor, and re-centers those typically left out of the narrative, it ironically excludes the groups Americans work the hardest to forget: enslaved men and women.

Now, Hamilton doesn’t ignore the issue; it arises in multiple songs, and many characters speak of their desire to abolish slavery—especially John Laurens and Eliza in her finale solo. But there are two central persons whose lives and experiences are largely erased within Miranda’s narrative: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave; and Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s slave.

In the Act 2 opener “What’d I Miss,” Thomas Jefferson has Sally Hemmings open a letter from George Washington (whose own status as a slave owner is barely alluded to), and sings “Sally dear be a lamb and open this.” Sally then performs a cheerfully choreographed spin and opens it.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as portrayed in Hamilton. Gif courtesy of http://wholivesdiestellsyourstory.tumblr.com,

There is no mention—despite the fact that Hamilton calls Jefferson out on his status as slave-owner in “Cabinet Battle #1″—of the fact she is his slave, and no mention of that fact that Jefferson, as we can now understand in our present historical context, was her rapist.

Meanwhile, the spy work Hercules Mulligan so epically raps about (beginning at 1:49 below) in “Yorktown” (”A tailor spyin on the British government/I take their measurements, information then I smuggle it/To my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m runnin with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin it”) could not have been accomplished without the unpaid, dangerous labor performed by his slave, known to us only as Cato.

Cato acted as a courier for Mulligan’s spy work, smuggling intelligence through British territory. When the British took New York City in 1778, British Provost Marshal William Cunningham suspected Mulligan of spy activities. He arrested and interrogated Cato, who refused to divulge any information. In 1779, Cato delivered intelligence to Alexander Hamilton, alerting him of the British plan to kidnap or kill George Washington. And that is really all we know about Cato**.

Also excluded from the narrative are the wives of some of the central characters, with the exception, of course, of Eliza. John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette were all married when the action begins in 1776, yet their wives are never even alluded to.

John Laurens married Martha Manning in 1776. Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of a Royal Navy Admiral, in 1773. This union allowed him access to British officers, from whom he gathered valuable intelligence. The Marquis de Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francois in 1774.

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Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. Image courtesy of Christie’s, by an unknown artist in the French School.

She supported his quest for the spread of liberty. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, he took command of the army at Metz. He was accused of treason upon his return to Paris, and fled to the Dutch Republic. On the way, the Prussians intercepted and arrested him. Adrienne, fresh from imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, traveled to Vienna to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to obtain permission to join her husband in prison. He allowed it, and they were released in 1797.

I understand that Hamilton is a work of historical fiction and, as such, must take creative liberty with fact in order to craft a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Further, I understand that it is a problem to assume that a production which re-centers people of color within a foundational narrative shaped by white supremacy is obligated to discuss slavery. However, historical fiction is a powerful vehicle of memory construction, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda did, indeed, set out to confront that memory, then I cannot ignore the exclusions detailed above.

Historical fiction allows complex human beings to be shaped into the protagonist or antagonist of ahistorical narrative; allows creators to construct historical figures into characters with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one; it puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure or their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

And I have all of these concerns about Hamilton; specifically, about how it contributes to what I refer to as the “cult of the Founding Fathers.” Americans hold these eighteenth century men…well it’s beyond a pedestal, some politicians and legal authorities base their decisions—decisions which directly affect the lives, health, and freedom of millions of people–on what those eighteenth century guys may have thought.

Hamilton doesn’t question the mythic aura surrounding these guys. It humanizes them, sure, and it certainly does something very powerful in casting them as men of color (as discussed above), but it doesn’t question the fundamentals of the mythos surrounding them, or the impact of that mythos on contemporary American politics and political rhetoric.

In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore. In this book, Chernow describes how Hamilton wrote a poem about his dead-end life as an impoverished orphan in St. Croix. The poem caught the attention of some very wealthy people who helped Alexander to get ahead in life and leave for New York.

In this part of Alexander Hamilton’s life, Lin-Manuel Miranda saw the ethos of hip-hop.“To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are,” said Miranda to Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, “I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.“

In April 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to perform in a series of live performances centered on the “American Experience.” He performed the song telling the story of a young, orphaned, illegitimate boy who built himself up from nothing through sheer intelligence, writing skill, and determination.

That song is now the opening number of Hamilton.

The “American Experience” Miranda saw in the story of Alexander Hamilton was that of the American Dream. The American Dream is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history behind it. That idea is built on the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and functions as an unquestioned ideology used to silence and shame those who cannot—for any number of reasons I can’t tackle within the confines of this post—access the middle class lifestyle promised by that fantasy of meritocracy.

It is powerful that Miranda expressed the American Dream through a musical genre which is frequently marginalized, appropriated, and held to a content-driven double standard via actors who are part of the populations historically excluded from accessing that dream. However, Hamilton uncritically elevates the myth of the American Dream just as it does that of the Founding Fathers; it doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dream, it just skews the audience’s perception of who embodies that dream

Hamilton presents a vision of America which has no interest in overhauling the narrative, but is instead concerned with creating a space within that narrative where everyone, not just those who look like King George III, can succeed. It’s only a shame that Miranda couldn’t open that narrative up just a tiny bit further.

*These figures courtesy of the Hunter College School of Education.
**In 1785, Mulligan became one of the founding members of the New York Manumission Society. Thus, we can assume that he recognized Cato’s humanity and freed him from slavery, but even that is just a guess.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai

Turn of the century Shanghai was a hotbed of imperialist engagement, capitalism, revolutionary politics, crime, and intellectualism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it was in Shanghai that the 1905 anti-American boycott was conceived, and that it was in Shanghai that a work of American literature gave Chinese intellectuals a new vernacular.

The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years, and required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry an ID. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, making re-entry into the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long term US residents. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, extending exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, Congress extended Exclusion Act indefinitely while expanding it to cover both Hawaii and the Philippines in addition to the mainland US.

This Act, combined with the humiliating treatment Chinese immigrants and laborers received once on American soil, were met with widespread anger in China. On May 10 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of American goods. They sent telegrams to merchant guilds across China urging them to take part. The boycott officially began on July 10, 1905. It received an enthusiastic response as Chinese merchants ceased to order or sell American goods.

The boycott was not merely a creature of the merchant class. People of all levels of Chinese society partook. Students, writers, artists and intellectuals turned to literature to illustrate and find new ways to understand the suffering of Chinese in the United States.

In 1901, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese and titled “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.” By 1905, “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” was so popular in Shanghai that it existed in multiple reprints, was included in numerous anthologies of fiction, was frequently referenced in other works, was adapted into an opera, and performed by traveling theater groups.

The story gave Shanghai-based Chinese intellectuals a language to use to understand and discuss American imperialism, race-based oppression, and European imperialism. Through the plight of the characters in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens,” they saw the struggle of their countrymen and women. Through the treatment the characters received as a result of their skin color, they saw their own treatment under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Historian Meng Yue refers to this as “compassionate association.” This association, however, was part of a larger pattern. Chinese intellectuals looked to the experience of Indians under the British Raj, the diasporic Jews, the Poles under Russian rule, and the Cubans under American rule to understand the experience of their own overseas. The boycott lost momentum by September 1905 as the Chinese government feared that it would turn into an anti-government, rather than an anti-American, movement, and it was over by the early months of 1906. However, as the boycott died, the language of compassionate association only grew stronger.

“Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” traveled from Shanghai to Japan, where an amateur Chinese theater group performed an adaptation of the story in Tokyo in 1907. Not only was the performance praised by Japanese journalists, writers, and critics, but it was quite possibly the vehicle through which Japan first encountered the story of American blacks. It was through these performances that the language of compassionate association first nurtured by intellectuals in Shanghai traveled outside of China.

It is interesting to note that Japan declared an imperial protectorate over Korea in the same year as the Chinese anti-American boycott, and officially annexed the peninsula five years later. I can’t help but wonder what those Tokyo based writers and critics thought of this imperialist aggression in light of the new language the Shanghai actors introduced to them in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.”

White Nonsense Historiography

I think it’s time for us to talk about the effects of white guilt on historical revisionism, especially within the USA. The following sentiments need to gtfo of ~National Dialogue~

The blacks sold each other into slavery before the whites came along, so the white people were just as bad as the Africans.

-Black people in America had slaves too, so I don’t get why we’re demonizing white people.

-The Indians screwed each other over and worked with the Europeans, so the white people weren’t that bad.

These sentiments are horribly offensive, deeply ignorant, erase the identities of millions of people, and post-humously deprive people of their agency.

First of all, “Africa” is not and never has been a nationality. It is a continent filled with a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities. Before the Europeans came along, the power structure in Africa was driven by wealth and ethnicity. When these African nations went to war with each other, they did take prisoners of war, and those prisoners of war were sold into slavery. However, to identify this as “blacks oppressing other blacks” or “Africans oppressing other Africans,” is to view pre-European Africa through a colonialist lens. Those people were the Bantu, the Yoruba, the Igbo; they weren’t just people in a continent you don’t understand.

The block/white construct of race was not even developed until Europeans arrived in Africa in the late 1400s, and even then, the white=superior, black=inferior dichotomy took over 100 years to develop. Which leads me to the second point.

The development of the construct of race in the New World isn’t as simple as it is made out to be. When Europeans first landed in Africa, an entirely new culture developed from the interaction between the European and African populations. This culture was that of the Creoles: a society whose culture combined elements of both African cultural attributes and European cultural attributes to create a third, entirely new culture. This culture saw itself as neither African nor European, and in fact, to have identified a Creole person as an African or a European would have been deeply offensive to them.

Members of the Creole culture settled in parts of the New World, and owned slaves from Africa. The New World Creole population was highly affluent, and affluent people held slaves regardless of skin color; wealth ruled the hierarchy of the Atlantic World.

However, as time went on and the racial construct solidified, the Creole population, though they had never been slaves, were slowly deprived of their agency, and often found themselves being forced into slavery by virtue of their darker skin. To identify the Creole slaveholders as “blacks owning slaves” is to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the realities and identities of the early Atlantic World, and the history of the construction of race.

As to the final point, the peoples inhabiting North America before the Europeans showed up were hardly a cohesive group of people with one language and culture and mode of dress. North America was populated by a huge variety of nations with their own cultures, languages, ethnic identifications, gender roles, and worship practices. You know, just like Europe. And Africa. And the Near East. And literally any large piece of land with multiple functioning polities.

Between those North American nations there were alliances and rivalries and enmities. When the Europeans arrived, some nations saw them as a key to thwarting their enemies; some didn’t.

To imply that the foreign policy decisions of a few nations, while, of course, labeling the decision-makers as simply “The Indians” is to blame Native populations for their own destruction, and let European Americans off the hook for ethnic cleansing. I don’t think you need me to tell you why that is disgusting and offensive.

The United States of America was built on the backs of African slaves and the native populations of North America; not to mention the young, poor, and mostly Irish indentured servants the colonists went through like tissues before slavery became normalized.

The perpetuation of these harmful narratives further marginalizes and erases non-dominant populations. It’s lazy, harmful, ignorant, offensive and like, generally, not a good look.

Sojourner Truth: Needs Subtitle

“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.” (spoken to young, male hecklers at the 1853 Mob Convention)

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) spent her life campaigning for equality, and successfully fought against the brutal system which had taken her son away from her.

Born into slavery in 1797 with the name Isabella Baumfree, Truth and her parents—James and Elizabeth Baumfree—were the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenburgh, who owned on estate in the modern day town of Esopus. In 1806, Truth was sold for $100 with a pack of sheep to a man in Kingston, NY.

After two years in the ownership of a man who would regularly beat and rape her, she was sold for $105 to a man in Port Ewan, and then again 18 months later to John Dumont of West Park, NY. All things considered, he was a step up from her previous owners.

Truth spent the first 30 or so years of her life as a slave, and then as a free-woman, in the mid-Hudson Valley region of New York

It was during this time that, in 1815, at the age of 18, Truth fell in love with a man named Robert who was a slave at a neighboring estate. Robert’s owner, however, did not want him in a relationship with a slave he did not own, so he forbade the relationship, and beat Robert. Robert died shortly thereafter of injuries from the beating. One child, a girl named Diana, came of her relationship with Robert.

Two years after this occurrence, she was forced by her owner into marriage with a slave named Thomas. With him she had four more children, although only three of them survived to adulthood.

Truth’s early years took place against the backdrop of the slow implementation of the abolition of slavery in New York State. Though the process began in 1799, it was not legalized until 1827, and the provisions put in place by the laws which abolished slavery had enough loopholes to ensure that many would remained enslaved into the 1840’s.

Truth’s owner had promised to free her in 1826, a year before state emancipation was legalized. But when he went back on his word, she escaped with her infant daughter Sophia; she had to leave her other children behind as they would not be legally free until they reached their 20’s. Of her escape, she said “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

Isaac and Maria Van Wagener took her in for a year until the New York State Emancipation Act was legalized; it was during this period that she became a devout Christian. It was also during this period that she learned that her five year old son Peter had been illegally sold south to Alabama.

With the help of the Van Wageners, Truth took the issue to court at the Kingston courthouse, and filed a suit to have Peter returned to her. After months and months, she won her case, and her son—who had suffered abuse at the hands of his southern owner—was returned to her. She was one of the first black women to take a white man to court and win the case. In 1839, Peter took position on a whaling ship, and he most likely perished during the subsequent voyage.

In 1843, a year after Peter’s disappearance was confirmed, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told her friends that “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.”

And she did. She spent the rest of her life speaking across the North about the abolition of slavery, and working towards the goals of abolition, women’s suffrage, pacifism, and religious tolerance. She delivered her first speech in 1850 at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In May of 1951, she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It was here that she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

Though she was a pacifist, she worked as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War. It was during this time that she spoke of women’s rights with the most fervor because she feared that, once black people had attained their freedom from slavery, people would stop caring about the rights of black women.

Beginning in 1870, she spent seven years working to secure land grants for former slaves; she even met with President Ulysses S. Grant. However, she was unsuccessful in this endeavor.

After a lifetime of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, and fighting to gain a voice for the voiceless, Truth died in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883.