Hamilton and the critical race theory

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Tony Dunbar speaking at MVCC’s Library. Photo by Jessica Kubacka

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has taken the country by storm as a pop-culture phenomenon that embraces diverse forms of expression and a diverse cast.

The musical relies heavily on rap and hip-hop elements and portrays white historical figures by black and Latino actors. In 2015 Miranda stated, “We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”

Considering recent data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) revealed children’s books by and about people of color made up less than
5% of those published from 2002-2014, this makes the casting of non-white actors even more significant.

On February 15, Dr. Anthony Dunbar examined the significance of Hamilton gaining unanimous critical acclaim using Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a lens to
understand the importance and impact of social justice. The end goal of CRT—and social justice in a broader sense—is to reach equity of political, economic, intellectual, educational, and legal
resources for all citizens.

CRT emerged to discuss disparities of race in critical justice studies in an effort to challenge the myth of fair objectivity and neutrality in a variety of settings;
since then, the theoretical and political framework has been expanded for use in the different contexts and situations that emerge from differences in class, race,
gender, disabilities, age, religion, or sexual orientation.

Dr. Dunbar highlighted several aspects of CRT and explained it as “a critical analysis, involving skillful judgement toward truth” noting that truth can oftentimes be subjective and sometimes relies on textual variants which provide a counter-story.

The counter-story narrative seeks to challenge accepted premises or myths which are often held by majority groups, particularly those with demeaning or
negative connotations. The last aspect of the CRT lens highlighted was Derrick Bell’s interest convergence, which states “the majority group tolerates advances for racial justice only when it suits its interest to do so.”

So what does all this mean in relation to Hamilton? Its
box office success coupled with its critic and Tony acclaim has led to the dominant culture accepting
Hamilton as interest convergence due to its appealing business enterprise. Miranda exerts political power in casting black and Latino actors portraying historically white characters as a challenge against the common practice of placing white actors in the roles of people of color—an unfortunate aspect of American entertainment known as white-washing.

The significance of a founding father’s success as an immigrant story can also serve as a counter-narrative and the incorporation of rap and hip-hop elements also adds a fresh twist to the musical scene. Two video clips were also included in the lecture, a 2008 clip of Michelle Obama in which she stated “America is hungry
for change” and another of Renee Elise
Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones—Hamilton’s original Schuyler sisters—performing “America the Beautiful” at Super Bowl LI, tweaking the lyrics slightly to “and crown thy good with brotherhood, and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.”

Hopefully Hamilton’s success signifies a shift in the wind to a more diverse and more inclusive entertainment industry and an audience hungry for change who will never be satisfied.