The Inversion of Minstrelsy

The politics of art—any art—can’t be understood by holding it to the standard of historical accuracy. What the work “represents” may not, and often is not, a real event from the past, even when it’s apparently set in a specific moment of the past.

So my fellow historians quoted in the Times this morning have completely missed the point of “Hamilton,” which is not merely to depict the founding of the United States but to revisit and repudiate the conventions of minstrelsy–the most popular theatrical form in America from the 1850s into the 1920s. Hamilton’s political achievements and philosophy are incidental to the larger and more important purpose of rearranging our assumptions, ideas, and attitudes about where race fits in the imagined community we call America.

On this stage, no white faces, no black masks, no stereotypically shiftless fools. No blackface, just black faces as founders, as the people who built this country from scratch. No more permission for white men to project their fears and their hopes of release from necessity, obligation, and restraint onto the bodies of black men, or rather onto a grotesque caricature of the black male—which was precisely what Sambo and Jumpin’ Jim Crow made possible at the minstrel show. Also what more recent remarks from an ex-president about urban predators still make possible.

Yes, singing and dancing, but no celebration of a narrative end to repression. Just the reverse.   These are serious, self-conscious men and women (characters, to be sure) who sacrifice themselves to the future that we, as citizens, have inherited.

When I read the Times story today, I immediately thought of Nathan Huggins’s brilliant gloss on Frantz Fanon in the last chapter of Harlem Renaissance (1971). Here’s a passage worth pondering when you think about what Lin-Manuel has attempted and accomplished with his magnificent opera—when you realize that he has made the minstrel show and all its distant echoes impossible, unbearable.  Having seen it, you can’t think about the relation between race and nation the way you did when you arrived, regardless of what you know about American history.

“White men put on black masks and became another self [in minstrelsy], one which was loose of limb, innocent of obligation to anything outside itself, indifferent to success . . . and thus a creature devoid of tension and deep anxiety. The verisimilitude of this persona to actual Negroes, who were around to be seen, was at best incidental. For the white man who put on the black mask modeled himself after a subjective black man—a black man of lust and passion and natural freedom (license) which white men carried within themselves and harbored with both fascination and dread. It was the self that white men might become—would become—except for the civilizing restraints of character and order that kept the tension real. How much better it was to have that other self in a mask, on stage, objectified as it were.” (pp. 253-54; cf. 268-69)

I think Ron Chernow’s portrait of Hamilton is close to absurd–the man was afraid of democracy and thought the republic could survive only by cementing the interests of the “moneyed men” (his locution) and the new state, by means of a national debt and the Bank of the US.  So I  think Lin-Manuel’s portrayal of Hamilton as an historical figure is also close to absurd.  That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Lin-Manuel has re-imagined this nation.  He’s let us in on the secret of its resilience: it lasts only as long as we know it’s always in need of a new birth of freedom.

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