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Race is only skin-deep

My children are growing up fast – these days they know more about the latest films than I do. My daughter recommended that we watch the hit Broadway musical Hamilton the other week. I had my doubts at the start, because the music was mainly rap or hiphop, but to be honest I was blown away by the performances.

     Hamilton is the story of Alexander Hamilton, a little-known Founding Father of the USA. He wrote most of the American Constitution, but has been largely forgotten by history. Everyone has heard of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but who has even heard of Alexander Hamilton nowadays? It may be surprising that a musical about such a topic should be so popular, but the unusual choice of music is one reason behind its success.

     The musical’s main talking point is, however, that nearly all the actors are Black or Hispanic. All of the Founding Fathers were White Americans of European origin. At the time the only Blacks in America were the slaves, and the only Hispanics were those who lived in states like California which at that time belonged to the Spanish Empire, not the United States. There were also Native Americans in the USA, but they were excluded from power, just as the Blacks were. 

     Hamilton is deliberately historically inaccurate for a reason. Whatever the country’s past, its institutions are now for a very ethnically mixed nation. Americans of all colours can reap the benefits of the work of the Founding Fathers, benefits that are sadly at serious risk in the currently extremely volatile and unstable USA. Non-Whites were excluded from public life in the late 1700s, but are fully part of it nowadays. America has had a Black President and now has a Black-Asian Vice-President, an unthinkable achievement back in 1787.

     At the same time Hamilton makes a statement about cultural appropriation. How often have Western Europeans and White Americans falsified the history of other parts of the world? Renaissance paintings depicting a white Jesus and twelve white apostles? A white Holy Family? Mel Gibson as Jesus Christ? So Lin Manuel-Miranda, the maker of Hamilton, is not doing anything that his white peers haven’t done. Authenticity in drama need not be taken too far: it is well known that in Shakespeare’s time boys played the role of women in plays, but no-one would suggest excluding actresses from playing women’s roles in Shakespearean plays nowadays.

     Hamilton is a reminder that race is only skin-deep. There is so much more to a person – clothes, accent, language, values, beliefs. It took me approximately one minute to get used to seeing Black or Hispanic Founding Fathers. There were more important things to concentrate on, and more important things to enjoy.  

     One final thought: I do not think the Bible mentions race at all. Nations, countries, languages certainly, but I do not recall coming across references to skin colour. There are Israelites, Romans, Ethiopians, Egyptians and many others: their skin colour is not mentioned.

Probably because it is irrelevant.

Chris Montgomery

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