[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. 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.
 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.