By now you have most likely heard that Kanye West has lost his mind. If you haven’t, I’ll break it down for you, he walked into the offices of TMZ and said on camera that slavery was a choice, and that after 400 years, and all the slaves that were here, it really sounded like a choice to him. I’m not kidding, he really said this, the entire video is posted here, but the comment comes at about [3:26] into the video.
I posted the entire video so people could get the full context of where West is coming from. He wants to position himself as a free thinker, he wants to try new approaches to solving old problems, he wants to use his art and skill to usher in a new era of thought. All great and good, but along the way Kanye forget to pick up an actual book and read it.
We know that Kanye hates education, multiple lines throughout his music reference the short comings of education between the cost and what the schools are not teaching. I won’t necessarily argue with the fact that Americans, especially Black Americans for one reason or another (which means self inflicted and external factors) are getting the short end of the stick in the way of education. What I will argue is that if Kanye wants to be a revolutionary he needs to educate himself on the history of this country and the history of people that look like him in this country.
To say that slavery is a choice sounds clever, and a black person who puts this statement out for public consumption with no reference to the consequences of said choice to be a slave or not to be a slave, is less a profound free thinker, and more a provocateur of controversy, someone who likes to “stir the pot”, fire up people on social media, or just talk shit in general. It’s lazy to say slavery was a choice and put a period at the end of the sentence. It’s essentially like covering a man in shark infested waters covered in raw meat while standing at the top of the ladder of the boat with a shotgun, yeah meat covered guy has a choice, but they both end in a way you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The idea of slaverybeing a choice is so absurd because of what your actual choices were at the time. In simple terms, yes you had a choice, but there is nothing simple about slavery, in fact it was so complex we fought a war over it and nearly destroyed the Union. Back to the slaves’ choices, revolt and and you were facing trained militias armed with guns, mounted on horses, with whips, and vicious dogs. You probably didn’t have shoes, you were exhausted, you didn’t know the land, and you had no resources even if you did escape. Oh and by the way there were very few places you could go, where the people there wouldn’t return you back to where you came from, keep you as a slave, throw you in jail, sell you to someone else to be a slave, or just kill you on site. Friendly reminder folks all that was if you managed to actually escape. If you rebelled and didn’t escape, the best you could hope for was to maimed but able to still work, the worst was death. You have no value as a trading commodity because you’re uppity and tried to escape, so if they did try to sell you, chances are you were going to a place where they treated slaves much harsher than the place you just tried to escape.
That’s the light version of if you tried to rebel or run away, choice one. Choice two is if you stay. If you stay, as a man, you’re beaten with a whip, you’re forced to work no matter the weather conditions, you live and sleep in unsanitary conditions, you’re separated from your family, and at anytime someone could kill you for looking at them the wrong way. If you’re a woman, you will be raped, if you become pregnant there is no guarantee you can keep and raise your child, and if you don’t get to keep the child, you will most likely never know where that child will end up. You work the same hours as the men, and you have to cook and clean with what little resources are given to you to do so. And like the men you can be murdered at anytime for any reason with no repercussions.
So Kanye, those are the choices you so eloquently spoke about, but in case your rebuttal is “what about Harriett Tubman” or “Nat Turner”. Regarding Harriett Tubman, I have no rebuttal, she made a choice to escape and take upon herself the responsibility of going back and freeing her family and hundreds of other slaves prior to the end of the Civil War, so she made the right choice. Again, its not simple, and Tubman’s life after her escape personifies the complexity of the situation. Harriett Tubman was an extraordinary human being and had every slave had her mentality, then sure, things may have been different in black people’s favor, or plantation owners and local authorities in the South would have started a war with the slaves that ends in the eradication of Blacks in the United States, we’ll never know.
Nat Turner also made a choice, he chose to revolt against his owners, hoping to lead a mass rebellion and free slaves from bondage. In 1831 Turner and roughly 50 other slaves tried to take over an armory in a nearby county in Virginia, but the plan was defeated by a local militia. Turner and his followers were all hanged, and an additional 100-200 Black Americans were murdered after the revolt to scare other slaves away from the idea of revolting. During the revolt nearly 100 white people were killed as well, which also lead to the brutal aftermath for the innocent slaves that were murdered for revenge. Again, those were the consequences of Turner’s choice. If we’re going to talk about choices, we have to acknowledge the consequences, good, bad or other.
What scares me about Kanye’s statement is not so much his lack of knowledge, or his lack of a willingness to acknowledge history (willful ignorance or conscientious stupidity both equally dangerous), but instead it’s how he doesn’t see the broader picture as it relates to the here and now, and the future. Because he did, in my opinion, a poor job of articulating the consequence of choice, he allowed white supremacists and those that want to minimize the impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade, to use his words to further their message. Across social media white supremacists extremists (and not so extreme) are quoting Kanye West to try to soften or even explain away slavery. Texas history books were as recently as 2015 describing slaves as workers, and describing the era of slavery in the context of immigration. If you add that slavery was a choice, you’ve now conveniently explained away slavery and made it into this annoying hiccup that gets black folks all worked up over “working, after immigrating here, and choosing to continue that work until the late 1800’s after the Civil War”. That’s the danger here, and while some will say, no one listens to white supremacists, and they’re the fringe, my response to you is that their voice is growing, their impact is increasing, and their reach is expanding. While Steve Bannon was at Breitbart he announced the media outlet as a platform for the Alt Right which is a white supremacist organization. While Alex Marlow and company now back pedal away from that pronouncement and try to convince us that their beloved former leader some how didn’t know what he was saying when he said it, he did say it, and the Alt Right heard it, as did everyone else. The Alt Right and Breitbart (whose base is undoubtedly growing with the emergence of Donald Trump) hear Kanye West say slavery is a choice, and its a dog whistle for them, it ignites their base, and fuels their fire to keep pushing the limits on “racial conservatism” or racism for short.
A few other things I want to clear up about Kanye and his new found righteousness. We’re not giving him a pass. What I mean by that is we’re not going to blame this on his mom dying, we’re not blaming this on the fact that he married a Kardashian, we’re not blaming it on album promotion, and we’re not blaming it on his alleged opioid addiction. I do believe that Kanye believes what he’s saying and he’s doing what he feels is right. The problem is that its all based off of emotion and feeling and it’s not rooted in anything other than tweets that he read on twitter and YouTube clips. Twitter and YouTube are helpful tools, but you need more, you need context, you need to understand the timeline, you need to understand all the moving pieces and parts before you make a statement like that, because if you did, you would never actually make that statement, or you wouldn’t make it with referencing the consequences.
I will say that Kanye, isn’t completely wrong. We do need more love in the world, we do need to look at ways to communicate better with people we don’t agree with, we do need to try new strategies to get our message heard, because the anger and hate isn’t working. I will 100% cosign that thought. I will also say that Kanye is not wrong when he says Black people don’t have to be Democrats, but there is a caveat. There are and always have been Black Republicans and typically previous generations of black people have been very conservative, but for reasons of self interests and preservation they tended to vote more democratic, whether it be because of unions and labor with so many blacks employed in manufacturing during the 80’s and 90’s, or voting against Republicans because they waged a war on drugs that was wiping out an entire generation of blacks with no end in sight (yes we are all aware of Bill Clinton’s role here, but people had to balance him bringing jobs back against the war on drugs and the crime issue so #choices). Black people are not a monolith and we don’t all think and act the same, and we don’t need Kanye West to confirm this for us.
If Kanye West wants to support Donald Trump so be it, he’s not the only famous Black person to do so, If he wants to solve all the world’s problems with his music and love, please do, when he’s focused, he’s one of the best. If Kanye West wants to tell the world about slavery and what it was or wasn’t, he needs to educate himself, he needs to learn his history, he needs to understand his platform and the impact of his words, and he needs to get it right.