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Hamilton and the Negro Whisperers: Miranda’s Consumer Fraud

Among the types of black writers are the “Negro Whisperers,” whose assignment is to explain blacks to whites like the guide in the Tarzan movies, who, in the words of Adolph Reed, Jr. tells them what those drums mean. Then there’s the native who challenges the lies that come down from the colonial office. The native that is regarded by the occupiers as “dangerous.” John A. Williams, whose memorial service will be held in Teaneck, New Jersey, on May 29, didn’t have as many readers as the “Negro Whisperers” but he was so dangerous as to be placed on the FBI list of black writers to be placed in “custodial detention,” * in case of a National Emergency. (They spelled my name, “Ismael.”) He was part of a tradition of black writers dating back to the 1800s, and though these writers could be as hard on blacks as whites, this entire tradition is being dismissed by the new post race “Negro Whisperers,” as one of scorn and of “hating whitey.” Williams, and Amiri Baraka would have a field day with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.” So would Gwendolyn Brooks, who could have attended all of the occupier’s dinner parties, but chose to remain in the forest with her people. (Baraka is now so beloved by The New York Times, which hated him while he was alive, that they recommended his book of poetry for a Christmas gift.)

Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” originated the sales pitch for his musical, which, according to the Times, might earn a billion dollars for its investors. During an interview conducted by Rob Weinert-Kendt, New York Times, Feb. 5, 2015. He said:

“As for the question of slavery, which is the great original sin of this country, it’s in the third line of the show. But it’s this thing that keeps getting kicked down the field. Hamilton and Burr were part of the [abolitionist] New York Manumission Society, so they were actually very progressive. But there’s only so much time you can spend on it when there’s no end result to it.”

In the show’s last song, his widow, Eliza, sings that Hamilton would have “done so much more” against slavery had he lived longer. Miranda’s is an odd assertion since even Ron Chernow, one of these historians who long for a period when powerful white men were in charge, maybe the country that Trump followers want “to take back,” says that Hamilton “may” have owned two household slaves. Miranda says that he based his musical on Ron Chernow’s book “Hamilton.” Miranda should have consulted other sources that challenge this high school notion that Hamilton was some sort of abolitionist. But that would have been a real turn off for the feel good version of the Founding Fathers, enslavers and what’s often left out, Indian exterminators, which has drawn largely white audiences, who can afford tickets that sell for as much as $700.

There would be no demand for tickets had it not been for an extraordinary bit of salesmanship from The New York Times, which had been rooting for “Hamilton” since 2012, culminating in a rave review from Ben Brantley published when it opened in August, 2015. He wrote

“I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But ‘Hamilton,’ directed by Thomas Kail and starring Mr. Miranda, might just about be worth it — at least to anyone who wants proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come.”

I challenged the enthusiasm for a show that glorifies a man who participated in holding people against their will in my article written for CounterPunch, August 21, 2015. What was the difference between Hamilton and Ariel Castro who did the same thing, I asked. Should Castro’s face be on the ten-dollar bill? Hamilton’s defenders maintain that Hamilton was smart. So was Castro who was able to accomplish his despicable deed without being detected. In my article I quoted historians who were not as swept away by Founding Fathers chic, or Hamilton fever as much as Chernow, Miranda and writers for The New York Times. Professor Michelle Duross, of the University at Albany, State University of New York, is much more direct  and shows what happens when someone from a class, whose voice has been neglected, invades the all-white male country club of historians. Unlike Chernow, her treatment of Hamilton as a slave trader is not couched in equivocating qualifiers that are favorable to this founding father, I wrote. She takes to task the Hamilton biographies written by his awe-struck groupies:

“Alexander Hamilton’s biographers praise Hamilton for being an abolitionist, but they have overstated Hamilton’s stance on slavery.

“Historian John C. Miller insisted, ‘He [Hamilton] advocated one of the most daring invasions of property rights that was ever made– the abolition of Negro slavery.’

“Biographer Forrest McDonald maintained, ‘Hamilton was an abolitionist, and on that subject he never wavered.’”

She writes, “Hamilton’s position on slavery is more complex than his biographers’ suggest.” Some historians maintain that Hamilton’s birth on the island of Nevis and his subsequent upbringing in St. Croix instilled in him a hatred for the brutalities of slavery. Historian James Oliver Horton suggests that Hamilton’s childhood surrounded by the slave system of the West Indies “would shape Alexander’s attitudes about race and slavery for the rest of his life.’”

She writes,

“No existing documents of Hamilton’s support this claim. Hamilton never mentioned anything in his correspondence about the horrors of plantation slavery in the West Indies.

“Hamilton’s involvement in the selling of slaves suggests that his position against slavery was not absolute. Besides marrying into a slaveholding family, Hamilton conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army.”

I cited another historian, Allan McLane Hamilton, who writes to counter the claim that Hamilton never owned slaves: “[Hamilton] never owned a negro slave… is untrue. In his books, we find that there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.” Why isn’t this entry regarded as a smoking gun? After creating the Hamilton mania, which the Times began in 2012, and which one letter writer termed the Times coverage as “Daily Worship,” the newspaper acknowledged that there was dissent. Finally. It came in Jennifer Schuesslera’s April 10, 2016 article entitled “Hamilton’ and History: Are They in Sync? ” She described the dissent. Critics, according to her, claim that “Hamilton”:

“over-glorifies the man, inflating his opposition to slavery while glossing over less attractive aspects of his politics, which were not necessarily as in tune with contemporary progressive values as audiences leaving the theater might assume.”

In a note to me she acknowledges that she read my August 21st CounterPunch piece but traced the beginning of “Hamilton” dissent to a September response by David Waldstreicher’s to remarks made by historian Joseph Adelman, who claimed that Miranda “got the history right.”

She wrote that Waldstreicher, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, “sounded an early note of skepticism on The Junto, a group blog about early American history.” (Apparently CounterPunch is a name that dare not be mentioned at the Times.) Waldstreicher wrote, “Nobody’s pointing out the pattern of exaggerating Hamilton’s (and other Federalists’) antislavery….” Exaggeration is to put it mildly; nowhere in his comments does Waldstreicher say that Hamilton actually owned slaves. Nobody pointed out that Hamilton’s antislavery has been exaggerated? (Hamilton’s mother also owned slaves and in her will, left the slaves to Hamilton and his brother.) Professors Michelle Duross and Alan McLane among others have pointed it out. Maybe he, like Miranda reads only the Good Old Boys and Girls of the American Historical Establishment.

Professor Lyra D. Monteiro’s article in the journal The Public Historian was also cited. She wrote,

“the show’s multiethnic casting obscures the almost complete lack of identifiable African-American characters, making the country’s founding seem like an all-white affair.

“It’s an amazing piece of theater, but it concerns me that people are seeing it as a piece of history.”

“The founders,” she added, “really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today.”

Ms. Monteiro also read my Counter Punch article and quoted from it in Salon and the Huffington Post. “And one of the points Ishmael Reed made that I loved is that for Elizabeth Schuyler to be a Kim Kardashian of her era involved several slaves preparing her to be so gorgeous at that ball where Hamilton met her. “

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed was quoted in the article as sharing “some of Ms. Monteiro’s qualms, even as she loved the musical and listened to the cast album every day.”

“Imagine ‘Hamilton’ with white actors,” she wrote. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?” Good question. Would an all white cast portraying Idi Amin and his cronies in a Broadway musical earn billions for the investors? One letter writer defended Miranda’s taking liberties with history. She cited Shakespeare. Well suppose that you had Jewish actors playing Hitler and his Generals and there appeared a scene in which Hitler pleaded, without success that the Jews be spared. That he was some sort of Philo Semitic.

Defending the show Chernow wrote: “This show is the best advertisement for racial diversity in Broadway history and it is sad that it is being attacked on racial grounds.” Chernow, who is reaping huge profits from the show, is not concerned about the fraudulent representation of Alexander Hamilton? Mr. Miranda, who began the mania, was not available for comment. If I’d misrepresented Hamilton as a “progressive,” I’d be hiding too. Ms. Gordon-Reed further commented that while Hamilton publicly criticized Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of blacks, his record from the 1790s until his death in 1804 includes little to no action against slavery. “Hamilton the ardent lifelong abolitionist,” she said, is “an idea of who we would like Hamilton to be.” And so the debate among those members of the Historical Establishment, some of whom are Pulitzer Prize winners, has come down to an argument as to whether Hamilton was abolitionist or not abolitionist enough. This tepid response amounts to a cover-up of the kind that John A. Williams, John O. Killens, Chester Himes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka would have challenged.

This latest attempt to whitewash a founding father for money, is preceded by a farce called, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” which lionizes Andrew Jackson, the Eichmann of American extermination policy. Another Establishment historian, Jon Meacham, cast Jackson as some sort of Rock and Roll star. This musical was also praised by Ben Brantley.

Rihanna Yazzie, a playwright who helped organize a protest of the Minneapolis production, said the musical “reinforces stereotypes” and left her feeling “assaulted.”

“The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rock star and his campaign against tribal people—known so briefly in American history textbooks as the Indian Removal Act—is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive, brooding celebrity,” Yazzie wrote in an open letter. “Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rock star?” The danger of something like “Hamilton” is that school children will be seduced into believing that Hamilton was some kind of “progressive” using Miranda’s words.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has created a curriculum for 20,000 low-income New York City public school students who will be able to see the musical, in a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and subsidized by the show.” I wrote the Rockefeller Foundation on April 12, 2016, proposing that if they must send these kids black and Latino to see “Hamilton” on the grounds that he was a “progressive,” and an “abolitionist” that they might organize a panel during which those who make such a claim defend it against historians who say that he was a slave trader. They could have the panel before or after the show.They didn’t answer.

It’s also a disappointment that Miranda persuaded the treasury to keep Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, a man who held slaves, instead of replacing him with Harriet Tubman, who freed slaves.

Such views of Yazzie and mine are smothered by millions of dollars in publicity of those who want to pamper the white ticket buying audience. Finally I asked the writer Jennifer Schuessler why there was no mention of Hamilton as a slave trader in her piece. She said that she didn’t have enough space to include this fact.

“@jennyschuessler
Apr 11

@ishmaelreed Thanks. Of course read your earlier [Counterpunch] piece. No room in story to get into issue of Ham and slave selling, etc., alas.”

Such a revelation would be an embarrassment for the show’s main booster, The New York Times; would expose Miranda as not being forthcoming about Hamilton’s true history in order to make money, and also be bad for the box office.

To paraphrase the slogan used by these brave young souls, Black Lives Never Mattered, Indian lives even less.

Notes.

*  F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature:  by William J. MaxwellJan 4, 2015

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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