U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 1)

[Editorial note:  the following essay is a guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez.]

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 1)

by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

As the end of 2016 approaches, the Hamilton phenomenon continues its successful march in the United States, spreading across the nation its hip hop-inflected celebration of the Founding Father.  A new production of the play will begin its run in Chicago later this month, while a national tour has been planned for the next two years.  Not only has the massive demand for tickets not abated, but also a lavishly designed book based on the musical has now become a bestseller.  The title of the book, which contains the play, chapters dedicated to Hamilton’s production history, and a plethora of photographs and footnotes, affirms the far-reaching impact of Lin Manuel Miranda’s creative genius in bold fashion: Hamilton: The Revolution.  Theater critic Jeremy McCarter, who wrote the book’s laudatory chapters, explains the meaning of the book’s subtitle in the introduction, saying that the musical “doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: it continues it.” (11)

But what does it mean to continue Alexander Hamilton’s “revolution” in the year 2016?  The musical’s most prominent fans, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, offered their own interpretation in the video introduction to the cast’s performance at the Tony Awards this year.  It is worthwhile to cite a portion of their presentation here to indicate how much the Obamas identify with the musical’s social and political vision:

Hamilton has become not only a smash hit but a civics lesson our kids can’t get enough. One with fierce musical energy, one where rap is the language of revolution and hip-hop its urgent soundtrack. It’s a musical about the miracle that is America, a place of citizenship where we debate ideas with passion and conviction.  A place of inclusiveness where we value our boisterous diversity as a great gift.  A place of opportunity where no matter how humble our origins, we can make it if we try.  That’s the story of America, an experiment that is not yet finished, a project that belongs to all of us.

In this reading, which sums up quite well the general consensus among mainstream critics, Hamilton represents a contemporary allegory of liberal patriotism: its hip hop histrionics and race-conscious casting communicate the politics of diversity common to the Obama era; its inspiring story of a Caribbean poor orphan-turned-Founding Father falls neatly in line with the “up from your bootstraps” narrative of individual opportunity characteristic of the so-called American Dream; and its staging of political debates as impassioned rap battles seemingly embodies the ideal of a democratic public sphere (in hip hop culture these “battles” are usually called cyphers).  All of these elements combine to convey the “miracle that is America,” whose origins are traced back to the times of the revolution and the early republic.

Needless to say, historians and leftist critics have put into question the musical’s ideology and historical accuracy, calling attention to the absence of enslaved or free black voices, the lack of allusions to Hamilton’s participation in the slave trade, the casting’s subtle racial hierarchies, and even the marginalization of women.[1]  In one of the most sophisticated analyses written yet, literature scholar Jeffrey Lawrence connects the political and aesthetic dots of Hamilton’s “Obamaesque historical vision.”  Lawrence highlights how Miranda and McCarter explicitly connect throughout the book the lives of Hamilton and Obama, utilizing the “historical mode” of “typology”: through this transhistorical narrative, Hamilton prefigures the experiences of not only contemporary Caribbean immigrants and their progeny, such as Miranda, but the U.S. president himself.  As Lawrence points out, it is virtually impossible to separate the musical’s casting of black and brown actors as the Founding Fathers from the first black presidency: “Although the musical dramatizes the counterfactual, it makes its greatest emotional pitch to the actual.”  Part of Hamilton’s affective power, which Lawrence duly recognizes, lies in its performance of the incremental “miracle” of  “inclusiveness” described in the Obamas’ celebratory speech: aside from Hamilton, we witness the commanding yet humble presence of a black George Washington that inevitably brings to mind the figure of President Obama.  As the speech suggests, this “miracle” also represents a story of economic and political “opportunity,” a narrative that, according to Lawrence, links Hamilton’s ideas with Obama’s own politics, in particular the creed of free market liberalism and a strong executive power.

Lawrence argues that ultimately the musical’s transhistorical connections give the sense that only Hamiltonian liberalism can fulfill “the story of America,” as echoed by Obama’s presidency.  One might counter that Miranda’s purpose is to simply tell a story about Hamilton, the Founding Fathers, and their ideas.  This rejoinder, however, ignores that the aesthetic mode of Hamilton is not realist: through its casting and the use of hip hop, the musical enacts what Lawrence calls “the counterfactual” and enters thus the realm of fantasy.  In my next post, I will examine how Miranda has shaped himself as a prominent if not revolutionary voice in the U.S. and Puerto Rican public sphere. I will focus in particular on how through his public interventions—ranging from interviews and op-eds to his performance in Last Week Tonight—Miranda has spoken out in favor of the Fiscal Oversight Board recently created by the U.S. government with the alleged objective of solving the territory’s financial crisis (critics of the Oversight Board, which was pushed forward by President Obama, perceive it as a reaffirmation of U.S. colonial control over Puerto Rico).  At the same time, I will ask how does Miranda perform the role of a Latino public intellectual in an era where Black Lives Matter and other movements have put into question the story of incremental “miracles” in the United States.

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[1] African American writer Ishmael Reed wrote probably the most polemical salvo, declaring that the musical “romanticize[s] the careers of kidnappers, and murderers.”  Among other historians, Lyra D. Monteiro and Nancy Isenberg have engaged critically with the musical’s racial politics and its uses of history.  It is also worth mentioning James McMarter’s trenchant critique, which is written from the perspective of theatre and performance studies.

Kahlil Chaar-Pérez is an independent scholar whose work addresses Caribbean and U.S. Latino aesthetics and politics from the nineteenth century to the present. He has a forthcoming article in the collection Uncle Tom’s Cabins: The Transnational History of America’s Most Mutable Book, to be published by University of Michigan Press.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. So wonderful to read this! As is entirely expected, the analysis is terrific and creates great anticipation for the next installment.

    My peer group consists largely of Hamilton skeptics and Hamilton ultra-skeptics. I have been troubled, though, by the apparent whitening of Miranda in casual critiques– because so many softheaded liberals of the lanyard set love the musical so much, the fact of its origins in subcultures of color seems to be forgotten (not only is Miranda a Nuyorican but Daveed Diggs is an active member of Los Angeles’s multicultural avant-punk-hiphop scene).

    At the same time, the clunkiness of Hamilton’s verses makes me wonder about Miranda’s work as a cultural broker. I have written a bit about [email protected] hip-hop and, as far as I can tell, the official histories of hip-hop are very happy to include Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chicana/o, and Central American innovators in the pantheon of greats, whether in rap music and DJing, graffiti art, or breakdancing. At the same time, hip hop is irreducibly part of the Black Arts traditions, and Hamilton is clearly a show that is at least in part about transposing racial anxieties from one register to another within a binarized, white-black matrix.

    I wonder, too, if certain pop culture phenomena–such as the FLOTUS carpool karaoking with James Corden to “Sign, Sealed, Delivered” and Missy Elliott functions within the same basic symbolic economy as Hamilton. And I wonder, too, why Miranda’s appeals to the public to reject the plunder of Puerto Rico by vulture funds ended up being so toothless. I am sure that some of this will be covered in writing to come, so I hope I haven’t jumped the gun.

    In any event–thanks so much!

  2. As Kurt says, it is very exciting to have you blogging about this, Kahlil, and I can’t wait for further installments.

    I have to confess to being completely enraptured by the musical’s soundtrack–not only is it music that I really enjoy listening to, but my two-year-old loves it as well, and it is one of the few non-children’s CDs we can both listen to very enjoyably. So it’s on in the car a lot!

    Reading critiques of the musical, though, I get the feeling that my experience is vastly different–not just because I have a different feeling about the play, but because different things stand out to me in the libretto and the pacing of the plot as significant than those that the critics have picked up on. A good case in point is the significance of Aaron Burr. To me, Hamilton is a sort of Amadeus in New York, with Hamilton as Mozart and Burr as Salieri. The play is really a dialogue between the two men, a new version of the classic contest between genius and talent. It’s ultimately Hamilton’s story, but Burr isn’t just a sort of peripheral character like Lafayette or Madison or Laurens. Like Salieri, he has some of the narrator’s responsibilities, and he is given some extraordinary powerful soliloquies.

    Yet that’s apparently not what the critics are seeing, and I don’t know how to account for a reading like Nancy Isenberg’s when she writes (in the link you provided) that “Burr is a mere prop, a villainous foil, his personality an overblown caricature.” Perhaps since she wrote a biography of Burr, she couldn’t see past the liberties Miranda took with history, but a “mere prop?”

    Sorry, I’m nagging on, but my point was to ask you if you could talk a little bit at some point about how you’re experiencing the play, and how you think that affects your reading of it.

    • Kurt and Andy, thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I apologize for my belated reply, but I am in traveling mode at the time.

      Kurt, you describe the Hamilton soundtrack as clunky, could you explain this a bit more? I do not think at all that Miranda’s flow and verses situate him in the higher echelon of rap, but I do believe he is has a gift for creating hooks, the essence of pop–and perhaps part of of rap translating as a mainstream pop music commodity. And that’s why it is essential not to forget that Hamilton is first and foremost a made-for-Broadway musical. And this question is inseparable from how the play embodies race and ethnicity–which is why I want to focus on Miranda as a NY-raised Puerto Rican and Latino in my next post (I use the word Nuyorican only to identify cultural production and spaces, some see it is a problematic category for identifying actual people). I will definitely speak more about the toothlessness of Miranda’s politics in the next post. Btw, I am glad to see you reappear here, looking forward to your next theoretical musings.

      Andy, I had not thought about Burr in the way you describe here, but it makes sense what you write. I do think the liberties the musical takes with history adds nuances that many critics are not noticing. I think a lot about how Hamilton is a tragic hero, and to what extent the play takes a critical distance from him and all the characters represeted, that is, if it actually does. My relationship with Miranda and Hamilton is quite complicated, especially as a Puerto Rican. It is difficult for me to separate his work from his public interventions about Puerto Rican colonialism. And even as I can admire his creative gifts, I am deeply skeptical about work that limit itself to reaffirming a politics of recognition and visibility.

  3. Kahlil, I totally understand, and I hope my comment didn’t come across as challenging your position or the position of critics of Hamilton, particularly not for the reasons you have. I think it’s very clear that a significant part of my and other fans’ enjoyment of the musical is simply that we don’t have to think about other levels of interpretation while we listen or watch. And I think especially for people in my (privileged) position, the musical delivers a story very much like the meritocratic fables we are so often given, but does it so much better that it becomes difficult not to be a bit overwhelmed by its excellence at that one level of interpretation.

    • I did not read your reaction as a challenge in any way. I grapple myself with the issue of enjoyment, not only of Hamilton but much more problematic cultural production that somehow manages to attract my eye and even touch my heart. Politics and aesthetic pleasure, it’s often a difficult alignment.

      And I take the opportunity here to apologize to the blog for the grammar mistakes in my comments. Being used to posting in social media where you can edit comments, I typically write away–sometimes without enough caffeine–and then correct myself if I see any errors.

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