The Nation

Ishmael Reed Tries to Undo the Damage ‘Hamilton’ Has Wrought

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs  Hamilton  in Puerto Rico, 2019.  (Photo by GDA via AP)  |

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs Hamilton in Puerto Rico, 2019. (Photo by GDA via AP) |

By Nawal Arjini

His new play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is an extremely earnest attempt to show Miranda the many errors of his blockbuster musical.

Ishmael Reed has spent much of his career rewriting American history. His best-known novel, 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo, is an ironic reimagining of 1920s Harlem as the focal point in a centuries-old battle between two shadow forces: a group representing European institutional order, and Jes Grew, a virus/movement/pleasure-seeking principle originating among black artists. A subplot about the much-speculated black ancestry of Warren G. Harding ends with his assassination once he’s suspected of being infected with Jes Grew. More real-life figures, as well as barely disguised stand-ins for Madam C.J. Walker, Malcolm X, and Carl Van Vechten, turn up in the course of the quest for a long-forgotten text from ancient Egypt.

It’s all part of what Reed once called “artistic guerilla warfare against the Historical Establishment.” In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed wants his reader to question how—or even if—we remember the US occupation of Haiti, the many facets of the Harlem Renaissance, and precolonial African culture and philosophy. The establishment, as he puts it, is too invested in the supremacy of white culture, white institutions, and white heroes to notice the contrary currents of black art, thought, and social life running underneath. “They can’t tell whether our fictions are the real thing or whether they’re merely fictional,” Reed observes; hence he rewires the past, transforming a stand-in for Van Vechten, the exploitative white patron of Harlem artists, into a 1,000-year-old veteran of the Crusades in disguise. “This is what we want,” Reed says: “To sabotage history.”

The (justified) paranoia animating Mumbo Jumbo is the forebear of the ghosts plaguing the creator of the musical Hamilton in Reed’s latest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Rome Neal at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe through June 16. In the two-act play, an Ambien-addled Miranda is visited by the historical figures from which Hamiltondraws, as well as the ones that it excludes: Ben, the enslaved man owned by Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, and Ben’s unnamed mother; “Native American Man” and “Native American Woman”; an anonymous white indentured servant; a runaway from the plantation of Hamilton’s in-laws; and even Harriet Tubman.

A relentlessly cheery juggernaut, Hamiltonpromised to liven up the familiar textbook history, injecting song, dance, mild sexual intrigue, and—above all—color into the life of its subject. The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, by contrast, takes the play, its creator, the biography it’s sourced from, and the founding father himself to task; by the end of Reed’s play, we’re supposed to believe the ghosts have convinced Miranda of the error of his project.

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Darius James’s Antic Satire of American Racism

Darius James. (Photo by Graham Hains)

Darius James. (Photo by Graham Hains)

This month, the NYRB Classics series has released a new edition of Negrophobia. In most other years, this would have been a provocation: inserting the perverted and the grotesque into the four weeks of the year reserved for solemn quotations of Langston Hughes and committed misreadings of Martin Luther King Jr. But this year, the release seems more like an echo. February began with a famous actor confessing that he’d once walked the streets hoping to kill a black stranger (believing all black men to be implicated in his friend’s rape); a few weeks later, we had to imagine how and why a different actor might have staged his own lynching; and then there was Gucci, and Green Book, and… Virginia. The shadow of Sambo behind Bubbles on the cover isn’t a faded image from the past; it’s a projection in the back of her mind. Darius James asks: Is that funny?

The controversy around the 1992 cover became part of the book’s promotional strategy, with the Times and The Village Voice weighing in, all highlighting Washington’s complaint after being tipped off by the publisher’s PR department. It was also a kind of induction ceremony for James into the institutional irreverence of the Lower East Side writers and artists whose company he kept, writing screenplays for their movies and short stories for their magazines. As he hopped between the bohemian scenes in New York City, his native New Haven, and Berlin, his fellow provocateurs included Kathy Acker, who read the first few pages of the book and insisted that he finish it, and Paul Beatty, who fell into a now-familiar fracas over the cover of his humor collection Hokum(in which selections from Negrophobia appeared).

Later that decade, another of James’s friends, the artist Kara Walker, won the MacArthur “genius” grant for her graphic silhouettes of plantation scenes. Almost immediately, Walker became the object of fierce criticism and more than one letter-writing campaign by a group of older black feminist artists who, like Florence Washington, believed in the principles of black uplift. Walker’s output was “revolting and negative,” these critics proclaimed; in her works, they saw “African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art.”

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