Hamilton and the White Gaze

After shelling out way too much on a ticket about a year ago, I finally went to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton last week. It was amazing, of course. And yet.

I have such conflicted feelings about the experience of sitting in an audience that looked like this:

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Tweet of emojis about what it felt like being the only POC in my section at Hamilton.

Here I was at a f-cking brilliant Broadway show that borrowed heavily from black musical traditions, written by a genius of a latinx man, with a cast full of people of color, and all of it, all of it, taking place under the laser focus of the ever-present white gaze.

Especially given the period-ness of the piece and the references to black enslavement, it made me think about how white slave owners, like Washington or Jefferson, used to make their enslaved folks perform songs and dance from their native traditions for the amusement of white folks on the plantation. Even today the white gaze voraciously lays claim to the cultural heritage of us “others”: white people designate their “spirit animals” as they sit back and listen to jazz, rock, or pop and contemplate checking out the latest film featuring ancient traditions from this or that culture that has been white-washed beyond recognition. Yet, for many, never once do they stop and reflect on the cultural appropriation taking place to make their chosen entertainment possible.

“It must be nice, it must be niiice…” to be able to use your gaze to claim ownership to the creations of others. To mark that territory as your own just as surely as your ancestors planted flags in inhabited lands and killed the native “scourge” in the names of their kings and queens.

All of this felt so real to me sitting there with all those white folks, watching this amazing show that showcased so much of what people of color bring to culture, and sensing that so much of that simply bounced off their privileged white bubbles. To my dismay, my seat-mates sat stone-faced while I rejoiced openly at all the sampling and references to music my people have created, most of which I recognized right away. (Except, good grief, I don’t know where I was when Biggie released the “Ten Crack Commandments” cuz I didn’t catch that one and my sis had to set me straight. Forgive me, y’all.) I cried “Amen!” when Jefferson got called out on his ownership of slaves and watched as the folks sitting next to me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I hooted and whistled, much to the annoyance of those around me, when someone successfully spat a particular witty and fast-paced set of lyrics. I groaned out loud when a character said or did something stupid, thereby catching side-eye from those to my left and my right.

To them, I was disrupting their enjoyment of this show on the “Great White Way” (oh, so much loaded into that phrase)—this show that was their show, created for their amusement. Just made me shake my damn head.

I wish I had millions of dollars—with the gentrified ticket prices to this show, it would take that much at least—to buy up the Rodgers Theater and hand out tickets in my Harlem neighborhood (“Hey, neighbors! Did you know Hamilton lived right up the street? You can still visit his house. Also, this show is great!); “In the Heights” that Miranda has always called home; in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy where Biggie grew up (well, what’s left of his neighborhood given the rampant gentrification of Brooklyn); in the Bronx where hip hop was born; throughout all the communities of color in this city that witnessed the actual events on which Hamilton is based. “Folks, come on in! Feel free to whoop and holler and dance! Make some noise! Enjoy! Relish in seeing folks who look like you on stage. Live the experience. See what it’s like to finally recognize yourself in the story of a Founding Father. Delight in this brilliant show. ‘History has its eye on you’…but maybe, just maybe, this can be a moment for you to enjoy outside the white gaze.”

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This Is What (Straight, Cis, Capitalist, Christian, White Male) Democracy Looks Like 

If I hear one more white person whine about free speech, I will scream with a deep primal yell borne out of the viscera of my enslaved ancestors down through the ages on whose blood, sweat, and stolen tears this mock-democracy of a country was founded and built. 

A little while ago, the almost-ironically named American Library Association Think Tank on Facebook was full of white people determined that we should go out of our way to do outreach to the KKK, and other white supremacy terrorist groups, in the hopes of promoting free speech and intellectual freedom. Not just allow them to use public facilities, mind you, but do active outreach. Because their opportunities to share their hate-filled message are so limited. 

Lately, many white people have decried the negative response from many black folks and allies to a proposed new HBO show, from the makers of the already problematic Game of Thrones, about an “imaginary” world in which the confederacy won the Civil War and slavery still existed. As if the white supremacist legacy of slavery and settler colonialism and genocide isn’t still very much alive and well in this, the real world. These folks falsely, though typically, equate the #NoConfederate response as a form of “censorship” and call for all of us to relive the spectacle of black subjugation for the sake of “free speech.”

Just recently there’s been literal outrage about the firing a white dude from a big private company for releasing a statement about the so-called “biological inferiority” of women in his field and the need to do away with calls for more diversity and inclusion. Because, ya know, when your private employer fires you from your at-will job for behaving in the job as a racist, sexist jerk, that’s such a travesty of the constitutional protection against government sanction of speech. (Please note the intense sarcasm here.)

Apparently, white people care a LOT about free speech. 

They care so much that a couple of weeks ago many of them took to calling administration at my workplace, sending me heinous emails and tweets, and leaving me threatening voicemails to demand my firing because I dare to exercise free speech to call out white supremacy and racial oppression. 

They care so much that when researchers of color across the country are faced with reprisal, including job loss, for speaking up about oppression, many celebrate the destruction of these professional lives as the cost for speaking the truth. 

They care so much that some of them, who are long-time members of the Society of American Archivists, are quitting in a huff because the SAA dared to allow a program on dismantling white supremacy in archives, in which archivists of color and white allies exercise their freedom of speech to educate others about the inherent oppression of the profession. 

(Again, please note the sarcasm.)

The fact is, these fighters for free speech only care about free speech that serves to maintain the white supremacist status quo. Freedom and democracy for all comes with an unspoken asterisk.* (*Only straight, cis, upper-class, Christian white men need apply.)

I’m tired of these proponents of oppressive democracy. Folks who pretend to care about equity and inclusion but only care about keeping whiteness front and center. 

But I appreciate the work of those who continue to speak up and speak out, even when it’s made clear that freedom of expression is just not for us. Those who take on the burden and personal risk on behalf of their communities or as allies, or both. Let’s continue to support them and each other. Let’s make “freedom for all” really mean something.