Hamilton and The Handmaid’s Tale – Alternative American History
Written by Myron J. Clifton
Like many of who take vacation and bring along a few books to read while lounging on a beach or in a hotel room, Lin-Manuel Miranda did the same thing back in the summer of 2008.
Except instead of a romance novel or the latest Tom Clancy or Anne Lamott book, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
The rest, as they say, is history. Intrigued by Hamilton’s story, Miranda penned a rap song and over the course of a few years refined the song countless times so that the rap accurately reflected Alexander Hamilton’s renowned intelligence.
A few years later Miranda would recite the rap in person at a White House event during the Obama presidency.
The rap, “My Shot” was the catalyst that launched an entire industry around the story of Alexander Hamilton simply called: Hamilton.
The musical officially opened on Broadway in August 2015 and was an instant success, leading to record breaking lines, ticket prices and, finally, numerous awards for Miranda and his cast. The list of awards are too many to list but include 38 awards and 78 total nominations. Among them are multiple Grammy’s, Emmy’s, Tony’s and Academy Award nominations. He has won the MacArthur Fellows, Genius Grant, Kennedy Center Honors, and many national and international awards for Hamilton.
Perhaps most celebrated is Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Hamilton the play can now be seen in many cities and the album, once number one on Billboard, is still popular with adults and students.
What made Hamilton so successful? Was it an outstanding Lin-Miranda as the title character? Its stellar soundtrack? Or because it is the classic American story of a man who fought against the odds using his intellect to help shape the early nation to become one of its found fathers?
The answer is yes, of course, to each of the questions.
But there’s more.
Miranda’s stroke of genius extended beyond his words, music, lyrics, and historical figure to build a musical around.
His genius best expressed itself by casting mostly Black and People of Color in the key roles, including himself as the titular character, Alexander Hamilton. With the exception of King George, each of the major characters in Hamilton are played and performed by Black actors and performers.
Miranda used all his duly earned clout to create a special experience that continues to break records. Miranda built his clout on the success of his first musical “In The Heights” and it propelled him to a special place as writer, lyricist, and performer that in the world of major Broadway shows is rare and all too often closed to non-whites.
But the risk-taking Miranda pushed ahead with a remarkable musical made for the general public but which featured a mostly Black cast. It cannot be overstated how radical, crazy, and out of the ordinary such an idea and proposition he successfully unleashed on the public.
The audiences, initially mostly white as is normal on New York City’s Broadway with first run shows, loved it and though there were questions about the casting of so many Black men and women – George Washington! Thomas Jefferson! The Schuyler Sisters! – the music and performers won over everyone and their skill washed away the limited early questioning of the race of the performers.
The audience roars as Puerto Rican Miranda opens the show with the “Alexander Hamilton” song; when Black George Washington takes command; When Black Aaron Burr maneuvers around and through Alexander Hamilton; when the beautiful Black Schuyler sisters, Anjelica, Eliza, and Peggy, strut around New York looking for intelligent conversation; and laugh when a heretofore absent Black Thomas Jefferson returns from France to rejoin the country now that the war is over.
That white Americans so readily celebrated a musical about their Founding Fathers as played by Black and POC actors and singers so much so that it has became the phenomenon it has cannot be overlooked, ever, but particularly as the country experiences the spreading of white nationalism and racism from the White House and many the president’s followers.
What would Black audience members think, though?
Here is a person of color, Miranda, placing Black men and women in the roles of people who owned our ancestors. Would that be.. odd? Would Black audience members feel the tense struggle to leave the King and establish a representative government? Could we identify with Alexander Hamilton’s drive to move above his station in life and want to achieve more than he was “supposed” to? Would Black women select their favorite Schuyler sister based on wanting more in life than to just to honor their father’s goal or follow their hearts?
Well, yes and no. Black people and POC also celebrate Miranda’s Hamilton and it is, after all, Black/POC talent that brings power to Miranda’s lyrics and genius.
Black talent drives the success of Hamilton in a celebration of the Founding Fathers who were all white and who owned slaves and benefited from enslaved labor.
Let that sink in.
And that brings us to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Written in 1985 and now called speculative fiction and also dystopian, Atwood’s story is about right-wing religious men who overthrow the government and install a religious Theonomy, i.e. a government that follows biblical law. The men enslave women for the purposes of breeding kids in a society where most women are now unable to conceive babies.
The focus is on white women and the totalitarian government that rule all aspects of women’s lives for the sole purpose of breeding new white children. In Atwood’s novel, Black Americans have already been killed and those who survived were kicked out of the country. So the Handmaid’s Tale book is exclusively about white women fertility problems and how white men decide to deal with those problems in order to maintain and sustain the American white race.
However, in the Hulu series, now in its third season, the writers have changed the racial elements of the story so that Black men are now part of the hierarchy. They join white men in holding women in subjugation, including regular instances of rape that take place with a designated “Aunty” who is present to pray and instruct the Handmaid on proper positioning to give her a greatest chance of conceiving a baby.
There’s regular discipline as the Handmaids are infantilized and their every move watched and guarded by heavily armed security guards – all men – who are empowered to shoot to kill for such grievances as talking to other Handmaids, talking back to a guard, being out without a escort, or other minor offences.
Torture can be ordered by the head of the house or his wife – these are the upper class white women – the wealthy and one-percenters who live a better life than Handmaids and in fact it is for these upper class white women that Handmaids have sex with the head of the house so they can become pregnant and give their babies to the upper class white women who are infertile.
In Atwood’s dystopian world Handmaids are revered for being able to successfully conceive and deliver a baby, but they are hated and loathed by the upper class to whom they give their babies and in whose service they live and die.
So Handmaids are slaves.
To say that Handmaids is difficult to watch doesn’t begin to capture the tenseness of the writing that smothers viewers in unable to look away horror at the trauma being visited upon the women of Gilead, the fictionalized city/State of the Handmaid’s Tale.
There are glaring issues with Handmaids though, starting with the “slavery porn” that white women have taken to heart during the Trump administration as they have protested in public while wearing the standard Handmaid uniform: deep red full body robes and white head-covering that is shaped like a cone – like what your pet wears following surgery that prevents them from biting/licking/chewing.
The show doesn’t show many Black men other than those who are part of the armed guards who are stationed throughout the cities and charged with ensuring the handmaids who are out to run errands remain compliant and under control while walking predesignated and approved walking routes.
There is one named cast member who is a Black man, Luke, and he is the husband of the show’s protagonist “Offred” (the women lose their birth names and are named for the person who owns them. So the title character is called “Of Fred” to designate Fred owns her).
Offred is white and her husband Luke is Black. He escapes to Canada, a free country, while she is caught and placed in servitude as a Handmaid.
To recap: The Black man is free, the white woman is a slave.
There are many problems with each of these story elements not the least of which is the simple fact that a right-wing takeover of the U.S. Government would not result in those white men accepting Black men as their equal. Margaret Atwood recognized the truth of what we all know and dealt with it accordingly, if not clumsily by killing off or shipping off all Black people because There has never been a right-wing or conservative movement in the US that included and welcomed Black men or women into the fold.
And there never will be.
The idea behind white extremist viewpoints start with the elimination and death of Black people from America first, then the world. There is no scenario where if white nationalists get their way as happens in Handmaids, that Black men will be elevated above white women. It is an absurd premise that Atwood handled in her book but the Hulu show runners (almost all of whom are white, male and female) fully fumbled.
Or did they?
Like Hamilton, Handmaids substitutes races, but in reverse. Hamilton inserts Black men and women, and other people of color, into historical personas of famous white men and women. While Handmaids swaps out Black enslaved women for white women who then proceed to show a lot, but not all, of the horror that was chattel slavery: dehumanization, violence, rape, baby stealing, beatings, and body’s only used for breeding for the benefit of the slavers.
Seeing fictional white women treated as real life Black women were treated, by white women no less, has inspired real life white women to protest real life anti-women issues by dressing up as fictional white women who are imitating Black women. And often the real life white women who are protesting are doing so without including Black women.
Life intimidating art intimidating life intimidating another race.
Perhaps most shocking and offensive was the current season that detailed Handmaid Offred’s rebellion wherein she appropriated Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad by risking her life to plan and execute the escape of dozens of women and children in a daring nighttime run to Canada.
Within months of the White House abandoning the years long plan to place Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill, Handmaid’s season finale shows Offred, a white woman, as the leader and hero of the rebellion and emancipation of slaves mimicking Tubman’s famous rebellion, underground railroad, and rescue of other enslaved people.
Black women have been most vocal about calling out Handmaids for specifically appropriating Black Woman history and using their actual history to tell of a fictionalized white woman’s travails for entertainment. The criticism frequently points out that fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump, a real life misogynistic world leader not too unlike many of the men in The Handmaid’s Tales. And further pointing out that forty percent of white women owned slaves and were active and full participants in all aspects of slavery above and apart from their husbands and fathers.
Like Hamilton, which flips real history from white to Black, Handmaids takes real history and reverses it from Black to white.
America’s focus on white men and their history, part of the country’s racism and misogyny that often erases Black men and women, also routinely erases white women from history, allowing white women to be perceived as blameless for perpetuating, benefiting, and profiting from slavery and systemic racism.
But as Black scholars research and write about Black history, additional viewpoints are uncovering and sharing heretofore unknown facts that sharpen our knowledge of the early forefathers and foremothers – see 1619 – A New York Times Interactive piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones and others that center the significance of the year 1619 when the first twenty Africans were sold and enslaved in the British Colony of Virginia.
The essays and poems are powerful and sets the four-hundred year anniversary – 1619-2019 as reframing and replacing 1776 as the official founding of the country.
A retelling of American history that is inclusive of Black women and men, and white women, is critical as we move deeper than “George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and admitted it because he could not tell a lie” and “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” because history – real history – is always more complex, more messy, beautiful, horrible, and it always includes good and bad women and men.
Both Hamilton and Handmaid’s Tale (Netflix version) flip convention and toss out something entirely different in switching the race of the protagonists (Hamilton’s white to Black change) and victims (Handmaid’s Black to white change) to reframe historical stories to a new audience, a different race, and different gender. Black and white audiences celebrate Hamilton fully unbothered by Black men and women debating how to win a revolution and start a new nation because we can identify with the struggle to assert our independence from a tyrannical overseer who uses brutality to maintain his brand of honor, subservience, and society.
Black people can see a way to fight against tyranny by using all means necessary, as the Founding Fathers did even when they disagreed with one another and killed one another in their disagreements on the best paths forward.
Will Hamilton’s almost all Black cast allow Black Americans to embrace the full story of the founding of the country – including the struggle of various Founding Fathers who were men of great hypocrisy and great accomplishments? Who were not perfect but who cheated one another, cheated on their spouses, lied, stole, and engaged in petty disputes because they believed not only in freedom but individual liberty.
And white women can identify with the creeping pervasive horror of unchecked misogyny from elected officials working hard to restrict women’s rights, suppress women’s equality, and limit women’s access to healthcare services.
White women understand those real life impacts of policy on their own lives, but as their voting shows, 53% are okay with those regressive and racist policies, kids in cagers, mass incarceration and worse because those horrors are delivered to Black and brown babies, and not white babies.
Handmaids allow white women to imagine they are Black women and recipients of society’s universal disdain for any and everything about themselves.
Will white women’s enchantment with the fictionalized Handmaids result in more empathy to Black women’s real history and real lives today?
We can hope that a walk in the other person’s shoes – or shows in this case – may have a positive effect on Black and white, male and female, and result in more empathy and less ignorance as we move together and forward as a society that’s been in a lopsided conflict since 1619.
The two shows appeal to different audiences but each was sprung from fertile imaginations of two creatives who saw something in the human condition – the American condition – that speaks to each of us in common and uncommon ways. Through singing, acting, writing, and dancing, the American story can be told by each and indeed, any of us, because though we are in a constant four-hundred year battle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of sustainable happiness, we will not achieve equilibrium until we reach a point of walking in the other’s shoes and shows, and understanding through empathy how our collective history brought us to this point in time – and will take us to the next point in time.
It is up to use to decide if we will continue to watch ourselves in reruns or if we choose a different path and a new story that is informed equally by what we have collectively gone through and share those real truths with our kids and generations who follow.
Because despite our differences, our shared histories, and our hidden histories, perhaps Lin-Manuel and Margaret Atwood got it right.
Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you, I, and each of us will learn a lot, and if we extend that to race and gender – vicariously walking in another person’s race and gender – perhaps our nation can accelerate forming what Alexander Hamilton fought and died for: forming a more perfect union.
© 2019 by Myron J. Clifton, Dear Dean Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
wow…what an eye opener. As I watch TV for entertainment, I sometimes get lost in the story of the characters, without really seeing the STORY. These comparisons not only educate me, they make me open my eyes to all my stories I watch. Thank you for another well written essay!
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Very wise analysis by the author. There is sociology masquerading as entertainment all around us. Takes a wide lens to observe behavior and reframe it with a historical lens. This is the best example I’ve seen. Up to now I was most impressed by the popular television Star Trek deciding, with it’s remake in the 1980s, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” to attack imperialism and colonialism by creating the concept of the “Prime Directive.” The Federation (read England, France, Spain, Holland, Italy and Portugal) decided it was best to let planets develop at their own pace while gently beginning the slow process of “requests” for the planet, that recently obtained warp speed, to join the federation. The old ways of nationalistic Imperialism getting beat out by democratic equality and respect, even compassion. Keep writing Mr. Clifton. We need your vision to frame popular culture and society.
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