Consensus and bipartisanship seem like a distant fantasy in today’s America. “Hamilton,” the musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda that débuted in 2015 and is well on its way to becoming a billion-dollar production, is a rare source of general accord. Miranda’s hip-hop-inspired telling of Alexander Hamilton’s rags-to-riches rise is all things to all people: a humanizing portrayal of the Founding Fathers that has just enough irreverence—in its soundtrack and, crucially, in the casting of performers of color in the roles of Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, et al.—to lend it an air of subversion. Barack Obama once joked that it was probably the only thing that he and Dick Cheney agreed on.
There have been a few notes of dissent along the way, though, particularly from historians. Perhaps no one has been as constant in his criticism as the writer Ishmael Reed. In August, 2015, he published a piece on the Web site CounterPunch accusing Miranda of smoothing over Hamilton’s slave-owning past and overlooking his involvement in the genocide of Native Americans. He insisted that the African-American and Latino actors who were cast must have been “ignorant” of Hamilton’s history; otherwise, they surely would not have helped burnish the legacy of someone who probably hated them. “Can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin’s theaters taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?” he wrote. He published another piece on CounterPunch, about the play’s rapturous treatment in the mainstream press, less than a year later.
Reed, who moved to New York City in 1962, when he was in his early twenties, and co-founded a biweekly underground newspaper called the East Village Other, has described his own writing as “combative.” He has published dozens of books—of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama—and is most famous for his satirical novels, including “Mumbo Jumbo,” from 1972, about a conspiracy to stamp out a joyful, liberating virus propagated by black artists, and “Flight to Canada,” from 1976, which comes off as a trippy, inside-out rewriting of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Reed’s works are rooted in a meticulous study of slavery, black performance, and political revolution, but he shapes these materials into sweeping, manic stories that are preposterous and perverse, because they try to make sense of a country that, in its founding, normalized the most preposterous and perverse institution imaginable. Even as Reed has become part of the canon himself, he has remained prickly, resisting attempts to assimilate his work into any story that flatters American progress.