The Illusion of Black Patriotism

Header image description: Olivia Pope, the main protagonist of the ABC television show Scandal, stands in the Oval Office. She wears a red and black shawl and black pants and has her arms crossed over her chest. To her right there is a navy blue flag bearing the seal of the United States, and in front of that flag is the Resolute Desk. She stands in front of a window with gold curtains.

After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many people — Black and white alike — believed that the United States had finally become a postracial society. To them, his election to the highest office in the nation proved that Black people really could do anything we put our minds to. Thomas Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” had finally come true.

Except Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist and Black people were still being murdered simply for being Black while Obama was in office — showing that America was founded on racism and continues to operate based on racism. The idea of America as a postracial society is and has always been nothing more than an illusion.

Postracialism is the myth that Black people have achieved social equality with whites, meaning that race is no longer a salient factor in social relations and we no longer have to worry about racism. The disproportionate violence faced by Black people in this country has shown that postracialism is a total fabrication; however, this hasn’t stopped writers, showrunners, filmmakers, and others from peddling this fairy tale to the American public.

Over the last decade, über-patriotic Black political characters have become a staple in American media. This makes sense when you remember that Obama’s meteoric rise to political fame hinged on him proving to “Middle America” (AKA, right-wing white people) that he’s just as proud to be American as they are. Emblematic of this trend is Hamilton: An American Musical, which casts nonwhite people to play the founding fathers onstage. This musical has led to problems — more specifically, white people thinking they can’t be racist because they like a musical with a mostly nonwhite cast — but I’ve already talked about this quite a bit. There were also David Estes, a CIA higher-up on Homeland, and David Palmer, a Senator and later the president on the series 24.

Even more popular was the ABC show Scandal (2012-2018), which featured Olivia Pope, a Black woman who worked as a “fixer” for the rich and powerful of Washington, D.C., no matter their political leanings. Less mainstream but very well-known in its own right is a Hamilton fanfiction entitled Quid Pro Quo (known by fans as simply “QPQ”), which presents the characters from the musical as prominent political figures in present-day D.C. Both Scandal and QPQ include Black people as protagonists who love their country and fall squarely within the seemingly dichotomous two-party system. But, as I’ll explain, these characters just…don’t make sense.

Image description: A promotional photo for Scandal which shows many of the main characters lined up, apparently at the Lincoln Memorial. They wear all black, except for Olivia, who is front and center. She wears a black and white coat, black pants, and carries a black purse. Credit: ABC

I’m sure y’all know about Scandal, but here’s an overview just in case: Olivia Pope is a Black woman who, through PR expertise, makes problems disappear for influential clients. Before the start of the series, she was the Communications Director for President Fitz Grant III, who is white, male, and a Republican. She’s also having an affair with Fitz, which is the titular scandal. Olivia is self-assured to the maximum and gets what she wants from everyone she asks something of, from her employees to powerful white men. Her race is rarely brought up onscreen. Cheryl Ann Lambert said that “Scandal presents an environment with no discernible sociocultural identity…The minimization of race in Scandal tends to normalize the idea that post-racialism is realistic and desired.” 

Before I get into QPQ, I have to explain how Hamilton fanfictions work. (Also, I’ll refer to fanfictions as “fics” because, TBH, nobody ever says the whole word.) The difference between a Hamilton fic and a regular American Revolution fic (which, yes, those do exist) is that in the former, you’re supposed to imagine the historical figures as how the actors in the original Broadway cast of the musical look. So, instead of imagining George Washington as some old white dude with dentures, he’s supposed to look like Chris Jackson, who originated the role in the musical. Make sense? Cool.

The very short version of this fic is that George Washington (who, again, is Black) is a preeminent U.S. Senator and Alexander Hamilton is one of his staffers and also his sugar baby. Political shenanigans ensue. That’s basically the entire plot. Now, QPQ isn’t just any Hamilton fic — it is the Hamilton fic. It is the most popular work in the “Hamilton — Miranda” fandom on Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction site, if you sort by “bookmarks” (the function by which users save works to their personal library). If you sort by “kudos,” or likes, it’s the fifth most popular work in the fandom. It has over 100,000 hits and counting — basically, if you are or ever were a Hamilton fan, it’s virtually impossible to have never heard of QPQ.

What Olivia Pope and QPQ’s George Washington have in common is that they’re highly successful political figures in twenty-first century D.C. who happen to be multiply marginalized Black people (a Black woman, in the case of Olivia, and a Black queer man, for Washington). They live in high-end areas of D.C. that have very few Black residents — Olivia lives in Georgetown, which is only about 6% Black, while Washington lives in Cleveland Park, which is about 9% Black. Both characters seem to be unconsciously isolated from their Blackness, even if other people around them recognize that they are Black. I have a running note on my phone of the times Scandal actually brings up race; in the 47 episodes of the first three seasons, Olivia is explicitly mentioned to be Black four times. In 34 chapters and 123,027 words of QPQ, Washington’s Blackness is mentioned only once.

Image description: A photograph of some of the core members of the original Hamilton cast; namely, Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Leslie Odom Jr. All of them are Black except for Miranda, who is Latino. When reading Hamilton fics about the founding fathers, this is what they are supposed to look like. This photograph actually inspired part of QPQ. Credit: The New York Times

In “Divas, Evil Black Bitches, and Bitter Black Women: African American Women in Postfeminist and Post-Civil-Rights Popular Culture,” Kimberly Springer wrote that professional success for Black women is often to the detriment of not only their self-esteem, but also their racial identity and affiliation. In other words, Black people who climb the professional ladder seem to forget they’re Black. Due to respectability politics, desire for white validation, and the general lack of Black people in fields such as medicine, tech, and national politics, the Black people who do “make it” either sacrifice or are forced to give up connections with the larger Black community for their career.

In Scandal, Olivia has a few Black people around her, but no Black community. There’s her father, Eli; her on-again off-again boyfriend, Senator Edison Davis; two of her employees, Harrison and Marcus; and a recurring white house security guard, Morris. The most Black people she’s ever been around was in a 2015 episode called “The Lawn Chair,” where a cop shoots and kills a Black kid in a Black neighbourhood. Olivia goes to the neighbourhood just to try to ease tensions on behalf of the White House; she has zero connection to any of the Black people or the neighbourhood itself and shows no interest in forging connections with them. Her Blackness is secondary to her relationship with Fitz and the White House. In QPQ, the only Black people in Washington’s life are his wife, Martha, and two of his employees, Aaron Burr and Lafayette. (There’s also Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of Congress, but they’re political and personal rivals, not friends or supporters.)

D.C. has historically been known as “Chocolate City” due its high concentration of Black people and culture. I go to a PWI in D.C. and Black students here still manage to connect with the Black culture of the city, including attending Howard’s homecoming every year. I mean, shit, even Frank Underwood, a white Congressman in House of Cards, manages to go to a BBQ restaurant regularly and is ostensibly good friends with the shop’s Black owner, Freddy. How do Olivia and Washington somehow have no connection to any Black community in one of the Blackest cities in the country?

Image description: The signpost of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, a fictional Black restaurant in D.C. in House of Cards. Frank Underwood, a white Congressman and House Majority Whip on the show, regularly visits the restaurant and has a personal connection to Freddy, the Black owner of the shop. Credit: Netflix

Despite rampant gentrification, Black people remain the largest racial group in the District at 47% of the population; we face disproportionately high violence from law enforcement. According to The Guardian, in 2016 — the year QPQ was written and Scandal was in its fifth season — D.C. law enforcement killed five people, all of them Black. Black people are at even higher risk for violence from law enforcement in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area because it is under the purview of multiple local, state, and federal agencies such as the FBI, Capitol Police, and Secret Service. In QPQ and Scandal, however, Washington and Olivia fully trust these agencies and are unconditionally protected by them; their Blackness is never an issue with cops.

In his paper about the pitfalls of a white liberal approach to racism, Nicholas Oviedo-Torres writes: “White liberalism requires some form of denial of the reality of one’s full role within the racial hierarchy, which includes a denial of one’s full role as an oppressed member within the hierarchy.” When Black characters such as Olivia and Washington deny their reality, they “view other Black people as ‘the other,’ despite never being accepted by white people.” In Season 2, episode 11 of Scandal, Cyrus, the white male chief of staff, says to Fitz — while Olivia isn’t around, mind you — that she “is not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.” Basically, Olivia’s race is relevant to others, even if it’s not relevant to her.

It’s clear that both Olivia and Washington comply with a neoliberal approach to life and politics for the sake of their careers. In the singular mention of Washington’s race in QPQ, he says: “I’m a black Democrat from Virginia…I can’t be a radical if I want to stay in office.” The blurb for the fic describes him as “a war hero”; he is very proud of his military service and it’s even mentioned in Chapter 2 that he voted for the PATRIOT Act. In Scandal, Olivia will do anything for “the good of the republic,” from rigging presidential elections in favor of a Republican candidate to literally killing people. Her one guiding moral is to ensure that the American experiment lasts as long as possible. Both of these characters are unequivocally patriotic, and, like Obama, proud to be Americans, despite the racially unjust foundations of the United States.

Image description: The first inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. He wears a red tie and black suit; his right hand is raised and his left hand rests on a bible held by his wife, Michelle, while he takes the oath of the office of the President. Credit: Los Angeles Times

The history and present of this country show that being both Black and patriotic is more than a bit contradictory. When he wrote about his concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois posits Blackness and Americanness as diametrically opposed. He calls these identities “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” In sum, to embrace Blackness is to be un-American, and to be truly American is to be anti-Black. Sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Du Bois wrote this in 1903; I’m sure he never imagined a Black person becoming president a mere century later. However, I believe his words remain true, despite the social and political progress that has been made. In a 2017 article called “The Paradox of Black Patriotism,” Micah E. Johnson wrote about “potential tensions and nuances between allegiance to race and allegiance to nation”; I agree with this sentiment.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a bit of #BlackExcellence here and there. However, I often wonder what the costs of success are for Black people who are making waves in their respective fields. Black faces in high places seem great at first, but, as many people have written, mere representation won’t save us. Trying to prove that we’re just as American as white people won’t save us either, as the advent of the Movement for Black Lives under Obama’s presidency demonstrated.

It’s not surprising to me that both Scandal’s Olivia Pope and Quid Pro Quo’s George Washington were incredibly popular Black characters who were incredibly patriotic and lived in a seemingly postracial society. Nevertheless, I think postracialism and Black patriotism are not only inefficient, but unnecessary. I’m real tired of this trope; Black people shouldn’t need to love an imperial nation to attain success. Thanks, Obama.

“Cringeworthy” Is the Least of It: White Hamilton Fans Are Racist as F*ck

[Header Image description: the original Broadway cast of Hamilton: an American Musical getting ready to take their bow at the end of a performance. Source: Tampa Bay Times]

This piece contains a CW/TW for a discussions of racist violence, structural anti-Blackness, cyberbullying, and brief mentions of sexual assault (particularly against Black women).

Last Friday, the filmed performance of Hamilton: An American Musical was released on Disney+. Over the last week or so, criticisms of the musical’s historical inaccuracies, problematic casting, and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda have resurfaced. Other critics focus on the fact that Hamilton and everything surrounding it is “cringe.” One thing that few people discuss, though, is how incredibly racist the musical’s white fans are. As a Black person and a former member of the “Hamilfandom,” I can’t let that go unmentioned.

I spent most of the summer of 2016 on Tumblr, where I had a relatively sizable platform for a seventeen-year-old: at my peak, I had well over two thousand followers. However, as is often the case for Black people online, plenty of followers bring plenty of vitriol — and in mid-2016, I was dealing with plenty of anti-Blackness from white fans of Hamilton.

As a teenager, I spent most of my time in online “fandoms,” or communities of superfans. At the time, Tumblr was the prime host for fandom culture. There are fandoms for anything you can think of, from BBC’s Sherlock to classic rock to manga. I was in many fandoms, including the one for Hamilton.

A major problem with fandom culture is that it’s incredibly and often violently racist. In “bandom” — the megafandom for pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy — I was threatened and even told to kill myself on more than one occasion for pointing out anti-Blackness from fans and the musicians we idolized. In late 2015, I left bandom specifically due to rampant anti-Blackness.

However, Hamilton was a whole different beast. As soon as I listened to the musical’s two-and-a-half hour long soundtrack in early 2016, I was hooked. I immediately followed Hamilton-themed blogs and started reblogging gifs of the musical. After a week or so, I thought to myself: “Wow, the Hamilton fandom is great! It’s not racist at all like bandom.” Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

The first racist thing I learned about was the slavery fanfictions.

[Image description: A screenshot of a Hamilton fanfiction entitled “A Slave (Thomas Jefferson x Reader).” The description is as follows: “You’re a slave, you’ve been a slave for almost your whole life, but only now life has started to get worse for you. Your owner has started to abuse you and beat you, yet one day a man in a magenta suit walked into your life and changed it. Can love be an option for a slave?” Above the description, the author notes that this fanfiction “might get deleted.” Source: Wattpad]

Yep, you read that right. If you don’t know, fanfictions are pieces of literary fiction written by fans for whatever piece of pop culture they’re fans of. Whatever there’s a fandom for, there’s fanfiction for. Fanfictions are often explicitly sexual — including these. White Hamilton fans were out here writing actual fanfictions about actual slavery. Like, literal, actual, forreal fanfictions about chattel slavery. Those are just what I found on the first couple pages of Google. On Archive of Our Own (AO3), a popular fanfiction host site, there are 71 fanfictions tagged as both Hamilton and slavery at the time of this writing. There’s far more on other websites like Wattpad, Tumblr, and I stopped searching for more after this because I almost started crying.

According to one Black former member of the fandom, white authors would create enslaved original characters for their fanfictions or even write “self-insert” second-person works where readers would interact with the fanfiction as if they were an enslaved person hooking up with their owner.

It should be common fucking sense not to write romanticized literature about slavery and the sexual abuse of enslaved people. But even if these white fans somehow didn’t realize that, they were informed of such by Black fans; however, more often than not, they defended the stories. While some of these fanfictions were taken down due to backlash, many are still online.

Another Black former fan said that they were “bullied out of” the Hamilton fandom in 2017 because they told other fans to stop romanticizing the sexually abusive relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They reported the following incident to me:

“I told them how sally hemmings was a child and Jefferson raped her so its not something to romanticize. 3 different people came at me talking about ‘its just a story’ ‘respect people’s ships’ ‘youre whats wrong in the fandom’ [sic].”

This fan received a death threat for daring to criticize the romanticization of sexual abuse.

Hamilton fans also wrote fanfictions about the cast members themselves in addition to ones about the historical figures they portrayed. Both heavily fetishized nonwhite cast members and the characters they played onstage. White authors played into many racist tropes, including: the “black brute/big scary Black man” when talking about Okieriete Onaodowan and his character Hercules Mulligan; the stereotype of Black men having oversized genitals with Chris Jackson and his character George Washington; and the general hyper-sexualization of Latinx cast members and the figures they portrayed. White fans would often call Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, “papi” in both fanfictions and conversations online.

There are even more problems with Hamilton fanfictions in addition to racism. At the time of this writing, 36% of Hamilton stories on AO3, or nearly five hundred fanfictions, were tagged with the warning rape/non-con. (“Non-con” is short for “non-consensual.”) Even more fanfictions do not put this warning because authors downplay the lack of consent and claim that their stories only portray “mild dub-con,” or “dubious consent.”

This meme sums up how I’m feeling. [Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “I just wanna say from the bottom of my heart yikes” overlaid on a picture of actor Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. Source: Tumblr]

The fandom has a problem of denigrating Black fans’ perspectives on anti-Blackness. When Miranda — who is not Black — was recorded saying “nigga” in 2016, many fans jumped to defend him, even after Black fans expressed discomfort and explained why he shouldn’t say it. White fans assert their right to cosplay Hamilton characters even when Black fans explain why it’s problematic. (Miranda specifically intended for all of the musical’s major characters to be portrayed by people of color.) White fans also justify all-white productions of the musical and rationalize whitewashed fanart of Hamilton characters; there was even an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to calling out such fanart.

A Black fan had this to say about racism and anti-Blackness in Hamilton fanworks:

“art, fanfiction…and other types of transformative works included, do not exist in a vacuum. they’re part of the real world. a world where antiblackness, American history, glorification of the Founding Fathers, the downplaying of slavery, the erasure of historical black figures…are real things that hurt real people. [sic]”

source: Tumblr

When Black fans called out this bullshit, we — including and especially minors — were harassed and had our blogs reported en masse by white fans who were usually in their twenties and thirties. One Black former fan, who was in the fandom from ages twelve to thirteen, experienced microaggressions and said that they were “too scared to put [their] race out there” due to the fandom’s reputation for anti-Blackness.

[Image description: screenshot of a tweet that reads “who are your top 3 rappers? normal people: tupac, biggie, jayz. me: george washington, alexander hamilton, thomas jefferson” overlaid on a picture of Hamilton cast members onstage in costume. Source: Twitter]

Hamilton fans disparage rap and hip-hop culture, as seen in the meme above. Though this tweet was posted by a Black person, similar rhetoric is employed by white fans. They say “other rap music” is too violent and/or misogynistic for their tastes, but Hamilton is more palatable. After Black fans explained why this is racist, white fans got overly defensive.

They ignore or erase the roots of the musical styles in Hamilton, particularly that hip-hop was borne out of the struggles of Black people in the United States and that Miranda was specifically influenced by this music. The musical number “Ten Duel Commandments” is a play on The Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Ten Crack Commandments,” and there are many references to classic hip-hop and R&B songs throughout Hamilton.

A non-Black person of color reported that when Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said “if you don’t know, now you know” on the House floor earlier this year, she mentioned that it was a Biggie quote; however, a white person jumped in to note that “it’s also from Hamilton.” Miranda utilizes that line in the musical, but it is a clear reference to Biggie. The person of color went on to say:

“the fact that there wasn’t really an appreciation of the fact that the lyrics in Hamilton [were] often borrowed from big hip hop influences felt…wrong to me. Lin[-Manuel Miranda] borrowed that lyric from Biggie and I guess the fandom not appreciating the influences shows that there’s not really an appreciation for the genre…it feels like they don’t wish to actually take time to learn about what the art consists of.”

In addition to these trends, there is a ton of general racism in the Hamilton fandom. In 2017, there was a now-notorious incident of race-faking in which a white American fan pretended to be Asian and defrauded dozens of people out of money. Fans mixed up Black members of the cast who look nothing alike. Fans would infantilize Phillipa Soo — the only Asian-American actor in the original main cast — and lighter-skinned male cast members such as Miranda and Anthony Ramos and the characters they played. At the same time, they hypersexualized Black women and darker-skinned members of the cast — such as Jasmine Cephas Jones and Daveed Diggs — and their characters.

One white fan showed their ass by saying this:

“if you had told me last April that in a year’s time I would be finding a thirty six year old Puerto Rican with a beard [Miranda] adorable and a black rapper with an afro [Diggs] attractive, I would have never believed it”

Source: Tumblr

Racism was so prevalent and accepted that Black fans made a bingo card for it.

The “white hamilton fandom bingo.” The tiles are actual trends and incidents in the Hamilton fandom, including tone-policing of Black fans, sexual fetishism, and cyberbullying attacks on Black minors. Source: Tumblr

The thing is, this stuff isn’t just “crazy fans”; this racism is buttressed by the fact that the musical makes idols out of the founding fathers, who in addition to being racists, were slaveowners/slave traders (yes, including Alexander Hamilton himself) and rapists. This romanticization is not “just a musical” and therefore inconsequential; it allows for (white) fans to do the same not just in the fandom, but in the world. The musical allowed white people to fall in love with and literally stan the founding fathers — no different from what happens in your typical revisionist high school U.S. history classroom. Daveed Diggs, who originated the role of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, had this to say on Charlie Rose in 2016:

“When we meet Jefferson, his house is being prepped by all of his slaves. People don’t talk about that at all…the audience still falls in love with [Jefferson]. And that’s very telling.” [emphasis not mine]

Daveed Diggs (Source: Charlie Rose)

A Black former fan reported that they were told the following by a white fan:

“they [enslaved people] were LUCKY TO BE SLAVES OF SUCH GREAT PEOPLE [the founding fathers].” [emphasis not mine]

Because the musical casts nonwhite people as fundamental figures in American history, white fans have convinced themselves that they can’t be racist because they’re fans of a piece of art made by and for people of color. However, as we very well know, being in relationship with nonwhite people — or being a fan of a nonwhite celebrity, or thirsting over nonwhite people — does not automatically make a white person antiracist.

[Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “me: *is bitter but also right* overlaid on a picture of the Hamilton cast onstage. Source: Tumblr]

I actively used Tumblr from eighth grade through my first year of college; it was then, in 2017, that I left Tumblr, the Hamilton fandom, and fandom culture (mostly) for good. Tumblr and fandom life saw me through my most developmental years. The Hamilton fandom was, no cap, the most racist space I have ever been in. (I went to a private school in the South that didn’t fully integrate until 1976 and I now attend a university that only exists today because of a massive slave sale, so that’s saying something.)

This isn’t just fandom drama. This isn’t just kids being mean or cringeworthy. This is real, violent racism that many people, including and especially children, are forced to deal with mostly on their own. In case you don’t know what it does to Black kids to spend their formative years surrounded by unchecked racism, I’ll tell you: it causes deep-seated insecurity, self-doubt, and self-hatred, just to name a few harmful things. It’s not that I don’t want kids to be in fandoms anymore; I don’t want their niche interests and friends ripped away from them. What I do want is for fandoms to stop deluding themselves about their racial progressivism and undertake and employ antiracist principles.

When people bring up questionable or problematic aspects of fandom life, the prevailing response is “well, fandoms are bad anyway.” While there’s definitely a lot that needs to be unpacked about fandoms and wider stan culture, the response to “I am experiencing violent racism” is never “well, just stop interacting with those people! Boom, racism solved.”

So long as there are nerdy kids, there will be fandoms. So long as people are made fun of for their niche interests, there will be fandoms. It doesn’t matter what you think about the legitimacy of fandom life; the fact of the matter is that Black kids are literally being threatened and told to commit suicide simply because they are Black and demanding respect. Are you telling those kids that you don’t care that they’re facing violence because you think the thing they spend all their time on is stupid?

Racism anywhere is a symptom of the fact that racism is literally everywhere; we can’t just ignore it in fandoms because we may think they’re frivolous. Telling an individual to leave a racist institution will not make that institution or racism itself crumble. It takes a lot of work to tear down racist structures, and if we want an anti-racist society, we’re all going to have to put in that work.

There are many, many things wrong with Hamilton: An American Musical that have been discussed already. However, we can’t ignore the fact that one of those problems is the fact that thousands of white fans are utilizing the musical as yet another excuse to go out into the world and be racist. We can’t critique Hamilton without also talking about the fact that its fans are not simply cringeworthy, but actively and violently racist. I hope we can finally have that conversation.