Recently someone asked me about my feelings on Hamilton, most especially the way slavery is downplayed in the show. How could I, an author who is pretty vocal about representation, see that kind of sidestep of the elephant okay?
Let’s talk about two things: audience and intent.
All artists think about their audience when they set out to create, even if on a subconscious level. If you’re creating for yourself then your audience is people like you. If you’re creating for your fans, you have an idea of what those people are like as well. No matter who you think you’re creating for, the perceptions of your audience will shape your narrative.
Now, intent. There are two levels of intent in every story: that of the actual story itself, and that of appealing to an audience. A story about the Black Panthers is going to look very different whether it’s created for a black audience or a white audience. So the intent, to tell a story about the Black Panthers, is greatly shaped by the audience it’s intended for.
Which brings me back to Hamilton. One of the reason it’s such an amazing piece of art is that Miranda is actually writing for two very different audiences within the same piece of work. He is writing for a Broadway audience (usually white and well to do) AND he’s writing for everyone else. By taking the format of a Broadway show and using hip hop (an art form born in the streets) and PoC tucked into traditional musical minutiae, he’s presenting this amazing façade of propriety to the denizens of Broadway while sneaking the rest of us in through the back door.
But what about slavery, you ask?
Miranda addresses the issue of slavery in two ways. By addressing it indirectly he is developing his characters. Burr never talks about slavery. Jefferson calls Sally a lamb (little Biblical reference, anyone?) and Washington dismisses it (Washington's "Not yet" is chilling at the end of Yorktown). Laurens wants start a battalion of freedmen. Hamilton is an abolitionist and speaks openly of how wrong it is. But slavery was never a cause that fully eclipsed these men's lives, so it's cast as the background issue it was for them, and the background issue it would be for most Broadway audiences. But at the same time by using hip hop and POC within the cast Miranda is saying "We were there, we've always been here, and just because you choose not to acknowledge us doesn't mean our story is any less important." So even though he puts slavery into a sort of backdrop function, the cast itself makes the issue the forefront of the conversation. It's brilliant, really. By not talking about it in an obvious way, Miranda has actually forced traditionally unwilling audiences to confront it on a subconscious level. What I like to call “medicine in the hot dog diversity” (if you have pets you get this reference).
But at the same time, the call outs in the Cabinet Battle and the aside of “immigrants, we get the job done” assure audiences made up of PoC that Miranda is still thinking about them as well.
By not talking about slavery and equality Miranda is actually talking about it very, very loudly. His intent has been shaped by the audiences he’s creating for, but the statement is still there.
This is something every author has to consider. When you are creating your intent and your audience will always inform your narrative. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t talk about some things. You just need to find a better way to do that.
Sometimes it’s not the things that are said, but the things left unsaid, that give the greater impact.