History In Color

Before Hamilton, United States history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I thought learning about America just consisted of memorizing the names of numerous old, white men and wondering how many more could have the name James or John. The American history they taught me in school never really applied to me for the most part. The only times it did apply to me was during the Civil War or rights units and from February 1st- 28th (and February 29th on the years they decided to allow Black history to be relevant in the American narrative for one more day). On most days, United States history was like looking at a painting made with white paint on a white canvas. However, in eighth grade, this all changed. The year was 2016, and my U.S. history teacher introduced the whole class to a new, up-and-coming musical called Hamilton. Being the theatre kid I was in middle school, I started listening to the soundtrack, and I fell in love. I listened to the soundtrack all the time, and for the first time, I saw American history in color. It was like the monochromatic painting of history I had been looking at before was now a large wall covered in colorful paints. 

The musical Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda, sparked my interest in American history because it did for me what my textbooks in class never did. It included me! The producers on Hamilton erased the performance of whiteness that most people associate with American identity by using a cast and ensemble entirely made of people of color to tell the story of the founding of America. Lin Manuel Miranda also used Hamilton to make American history inclusive of people from all backgrounds through his selection of characters, the way he embraced the black culture, and the way he celebrated immigrants in the production. 

One of the most notable aspects in the casting of Hamilton was its composition of an almost entirely non-white leading cast and ensemble. This unique choice of casting is a big part of why Hamilton became such a great success. However, the call for a diverse cast was also the cause of the production’s major controversy. Several people have accused the producers of Hamilton, that sent out an ad calling for non-white performers to try out for the musical’s lead roles, of being discriminatory towards white people. These critics failed to recognize the essential part that a minority cast plays in the narrative of America Hamilton attempts to create. The musical, Hamilton, fills its ensemble and leads with people of various backgrounds to rewrite American history in a way that allows all people to find belonging in United States identity. 

When people think of the formation of America, there is usually an assumption of complete and inherent whiteness. But Hamilton shatters this notion and presents a beautiful parade of Black culture and immigrant celebration in its rewrite of America’s creation. 

Black inspiration in Hamilton is evident when listening to the musical’s soundtrack. You can hear the incorporation of black culture within Lin Manuel Manuel Miranda’s use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and jazz in many of the songs. The producers of this show also display Blackness in the musical’s characters. Black actors and actresses play most of the lead roles in the performance of Hamilton that Disney Plus features. These actors are allowed to embrace their appearance and utilize Black style in the development of their character. A perfect demonstration of this is Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. In the musical, Daveed Diggs rocks his lively afro and exercises his swagger to steal the hearts of the audience. His suave movements and use of the pimp walk allow him to portray Thomas Jefferson without having to perform whiteness.  

Lin Manuel Miranda also stresses the value of immigrants in the creation of America. Throughout history, many have attempted to separate immigrants from the definition of American, but Hamilton teaches us that there is no America without immigrants. From the first song in the musical, Miranda emphasizes that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important founding fathers of America, was an immigrant. Another immigrant in the musical is Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, another crowd favorite. The producers portray Lafayette and Hamilton as incredibly hard-working, intelligent, and determined individuals. Together these two characters sing one of the musical’s most iconic lines: “immigrants, we get the job done.”

By emphasizing the immigrants that played a role in the revolution and founding of the United States, Lin Manuel Miranda writes American immigrants back into the narrative of this nation and shows them their identity as an essential part of our country. Lin Manuel Miranda also highlighted different important aspects and identities in American history through the selection of largely dismissed members of history that helped in the creation of The United States as characters in the musical. 

An exemplary member of Hamilton’s character selection that highlights essential aspects of America’s identity is the part of John Laurens. John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, is undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in Hamilton. His multifaceted role on stage taught me a new side of history that I never learned in school but is integral to American culture and identity. John Laurens’ first solo is in the song “My Shot.” In the solo, Laurens expresses his belief that America can not claim freedom until the enslaved Black population receives the same rights as white men. Throughout the musical, John Laurens is passionate about his goal to abolish slavery in the United States, but his dreams are cut short by his sudden death at the end of act one.

John Laurens was one of the few early allies in the fight for freedom and rights for Black Americans, and his exclusion from history allows the country to overlook the long and continuous struggle of Black people in the United States. By including John Laurens in Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda teaches viewers that Black people were always present and relevant in American history. John Laurence proves that there was a struggle for Black Americans’ rights even before the fight for American independence and long preceding the era of the civil war or the civil rights movement. 

Another aspect of John Laurence that makes him a crucial character in America’s narrative is his ambiguous sexuality. Based on the letters between Hamilton and Laurens, historians have speculated the two may have shared a romantic relationship. Knowing this, Lin Manuel Miranda did not shy away from displaying a very intimate relationship between the two characters in his musical. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton says, “Laurens, I like you a lot…” and throughout the production, you can see the two are closer and more physical with each other than any of the other men on stage. The display of this relationship in Hamilton sends a powerful message to the viewers. Introducing the possibility that Hamilton, Laurens, and other historical figures that aided in the creation of America, may have been queer provides representation for the LGBTQ community in the founding of our nation. John  Laurens represents a group of people that modern history has almost erased from the story of American. He was an ally to the Black American’s struggle for equality and a man who crossed the lines of heteronormative behavior. Hamilton “put [Laurens] back in the narrative,” and in doing so, represents the diverse people and struggles that made this country. 

Before Hamilton, United States history only taught the creation of a nation by white people and for white people, excluding minorities from the American narrative and identity. This teaching of history is the reason my sisters were thoroughly confused when they found out that I was obsessed with a musical about American history and yelled at me to stop when they heard me spitting bars about the founding fathers. They never had an inclusive and empowering experience learning about our country. But when my sisters watched the Hamilton for the first time on Disney Plus, I got to see their jaws drop as they danced with Thomas Jefferson and sang about George Washington. They literally could not stop raving about how much they loved it! Lin Manuel Miranda’s inclusion of minorities, celebration of immigrants, and use of black culture are the reasons why Hamilton was able to rewrite the way people think about American history. The musical was particularly impactful the year after it premiered on Broadway, during the 2016 election when some politicians and citizens were alienating and antagonizing United States Immigrants. Hamilton taught our nation that every member of America is an indispensable and crucial part of our counties story and identity.  

Ensembles

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Seli, thank you for writing such a wonderful essay! I was reading this nodding my head in agreement to every paragraph, because your topic of choice is personal to me too –> being seen and included into what it means to be American. You honed in on Hamilton’s critical choice of casting a racially diverse ensemble which served to rewrite white-washed American history on stage.

    I loved your beginning paragraph on your experience learning about US history in class – it was very similar to mine. Your quote describing US history education as “white paint on white canvas” stood out and served as a way for you to incorporate the “color” metaphor throughout the paper. This was a stylistic choice that worked well with the themes of inclusivity and inclusion present in the essay and I enjoyed it. The tone of your paper was detailed, informative, but also conversational and intimate, especially when you include your personal experiences. As an Asian American who doesn’t see herself much in media, I crave that feeling of being seen and validated- like the feeling your sisters felt when watching Hamilton for the first time. I think the biggest takeaway from your essay is that Hamilton allowed people to perform “American-ness” without having to perform “whiteness”, while also being a tremendous success. I really enjoyed reading this!

    Like

  2. Seli, I truly enjoyed your essay—from the title, to your engaging writing style, and finally to your analysis of the representation of people of color in Hamilton. You talk about how the diverse cast can simultaneously portray the American identity as well as the cultural identity of people of color which ultimately means that in this case, being American is not synonymous with whiteness. It’s funny you discuss this because, in my analysis of West Side Story, which keep in mind was made in the ’60s, I talk about the complete opposite: the American identity is synonymous with being white. And by reading your essay, I am filled with joy to know that we, as a country, are starting to move away from excluding people of color within the history and identity of America, and are instead moving towards an era of belonging. Overall, very good job!

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