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.”

How to Be Less of a Gentrifier

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“snob” by Charles LeBlanc on Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since moving to my Harlem apartment about three years ago, I’ve been thinking a ton about gentrification. Not that it’s anything new to me. The black community in Tallahassee where several generations of my mother’s family have lived (and where my grandparents still reside) has been fighting encroachment from Florida State University for decades. (One of my long-held dreams is to do a big oral history project of the area, including my family’s history. I gotta get on that. Archivist friends, I’ll definitely be asking for advice.)

I know about gentrification and have seen its effects, but moving to Harlem really made it hit home for me because I knew that I myself was a part of the problem. I make more and pay more in rent than the average for the area. I’m helping to raise costs for the people who live here. And I reflect on that and do my best to mitigate the effects. I buy most of my groceries at the local latinx-owned and operated store up the street. I grab coffee and hot breakfast from the Syrian-owned bodega at the end of my block. I use the black-owned laundry service for my washing. I bypass the new hipster brunch spot a few blocks away to head to the black and latinx-owned and operated diner.

I love my adopted neighborhood; it feels like home to me, and I want to invest in its continued existence as a place created by and for marginalized folks.

But even in these last three years, I’ve seen the changes. More hipster brunch spots popping up. More Peapod trucks and fewer folks at the local grocery store (I’m also guilty of using Fresh Direct for big purchases myself.). And, as my sister noted on one of her last visits, “Damn. There are a lot of white people around here.”

Other folks who have lived in Harlem their whole lives have written and spoken on the effects of gentrification on their home neighborhood. So I won’t try to retread that ground. But I do want to offer a bit of advice for the average—particularly white—gentrifier who wants to be more careful about the effect they have on their new black/brown neighborhood. So, here are a few tips:

  1. Shop local. Yah, I know you just love that organically-sourced kale that you got every week from the coop you left behind in Brooklyn, but guess what? The more you invest in local grocery stores, the more financially stable they’ll be; the more able they are to provide affordable fresh produce for everyone—not just you. Need a caffeine fix? Forgo that brand new Starbucks and check out the bodega on the corner. Why settle for an overpriced half-caff macchiato that tastes like scorched earth anyway when you can have a delicious paper cup of fresh java with two scoops of sugar and cream, all while helping a local POC businessperson? It’s not hard. Get out of your apartment and find local replacements for the stuff you pay for anyway.
  2. Speak to your neighbors.  I know there’s this myth out there that New Yorkers keep to themselves and don’t know their neighbors, but that’s only true of white New Yorkers. In black and brown neighborhoods, we speak. And if you don’t speak back, it is the very epitome of rudeness. I can’t tell you how many of my new white neighbors hear me or one of my POC neighbors say hello to them and they proceed to look at us like we’re growing tusks out of our nostrils. Get over yourself and say hello. Start a conversation. In the stairwell. On the stoop. Outside the bodega. Talk to your neighbors. We all speak around here, from the Jehovah’s Witness granny who sits outside her building handing out religious tracts, to the block’s resident pusher man, to little ones tossing the Nerf football around. Everyone. It’s a cultural thing. You’re in a new culture. Acclimate. Which leads me to…
  3. Don’t try to change stuff. Don’t be like every other generation of your forebears and come into the POC neighborhood to stake your claim, plant your flag for queen and country, and kill off whatever you find of the existing culture. Don’t pass out your metaphorical smallpox blankets or set up your metaphorical slave trade. Don’t colonize. You are a guest. Learn the culture, the language, the rhythms. Adapt. There’s going to be the smell of fried fish and the sound of gossip and pleasantries in the lobby. Deal with it. Embrace it. Don’t complain. Soak it in. And for crying out loud, don’t try to change the name of the neighborhood.
  4. Show respect. When you do speak to your neighbors, show the proper respect. Refer to older folk by “Miz [name]” or “Mr. [name].” Don’t ever ever ever look an older POC person in the eye and use their first name without permission. There’s a ton of racist, oppressive history behind that. Be aware. And show respect. Not just for the culture but also for the people. Which finally leads to…
  5. Don’t call the cops!!! Obviously, if there’s a real emergency, you do what you gotta do. But if you see an unfamiliar black or brown man sitting on your stoop, you may want to back off. Chances are, he lives in your building and you just don’t recognize him because…white supremacy. Whatever it is, just ask yourself, “Would I want to phone the cops if I were living in a white neighborhood right now?” Then examine your honest response. For anything. Because you think you smell weed or you hear your neighbors music or it sounds like someone’s arguing outside…just take a moment to reflect. And realize that, again, there’s a huge amount of violent, racist historical and present context that makes inviting the cops into your new neighborhood for any old thing not a great idea.

These are just a few tips. I’m sure there are many more. But ultimately, it all comes down to self-reflection. We can all mitigate our effect as gentrifiers if we engage in a bit of self-reflection and take time to learn from our new surroundings. Let’s leave our new neighborhoods just as great as we find them.