Dear Kanye West,
You’ve recently demonstrated that you have some educational deficiencies when it comes to understanding American slavery. “400 years” of enslavement, you said, “that sounds like a choice.”
When you said it, you were quickly shot down by TMZ‘s Van Nathan, in a “mic drop” moment that seemed to warrant no additional comment.
Yet you wouldn’t let it go at that. “To make myself clear” you tried to clarify later on Twitter, “Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side (they weren’t) means that we were mentally enslaved.”
You also tweeted that people were attacking you for having original thoughts. Further, you claimed that had you lived during slavery, you would have been a “Harriet,” meaning a runaway, or a “Nat,” meaning a rebel that violently resisted and went down fighting. You’d never be “mentally enslaved!”
But these aren’t original and new thoughts that you’ve stumbled upon. Honestly, the first thing that came to my mind was Eddie Murphy’s 1987 “Raw” performance, when he comically and frankly confronted the idea that you just put forth as new.
“The first dude that got off the boat said that,” Murphy joked.
WARNING: VERY foul language:
Murphy’s comedy aside, I could spend my time trying to educate you about the extensive mechanisms that white Southerners put into place to subjugate and control the enslaved– from laws, to slave patrols, to militia companies, (all of which continued in various forms to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War and explain, in some part, the gun culture of the South). The failure of Nat Turner’s revolt, and especially the subsequent brutal retribution meted out to the mostly uninvolved black community afterwards, is evidence of just how well-prepared and equipped Southern whites were for dealing with large-scale violent slave resistance. John Brown’s Raid further makes the point. The enslaved understood this, because it was their reality.
Or, I could use this time to point out that the chances of escaping slavery by running away were just too great to expect very many to be successful.
Historians are now heavily involved in collecting, quantifying, and digitizing slave runaway ads from period newspapers, and the more they find, the more we see just how many enslaved peoples made the attempt, despite the odds against success. Yet the truth is that successful runaway attempts were relatively rare, which is why Tubman is justly famous. For most, the risks were too high, and the punishments and separation from families too great a deterrent. The enslaved also understood this.
So does this mean that the vast majority of the enslaved who were not Harriet or Nat were weak? Were they mentally enslaved, as you asserted? Were they so completely dominated and subjugated that we should consider them unworthy of honor and admiration?
Kanye, your recent words imply just that, and THAT is what pisses me off. So please let me address that here.
Listen, you are definitely not the first one that thinks this way. In fact, many white Americans during and after slavery pointed to the relative lack of Harriets and Nats as proof of the docility and inferiority of the race–and thus they viewed that fact itself as justification for black enslavement. Your words implied the same thing.
Is that really how you want to use your high profile voice–making the same argument as the defenders of slavery? That’s the point Van Nathan was making when he took you down.
But you’re also not the only person in our present time that seems to make the same point for which you have received so much backlash. Anyone that has read many of my blog postings knows that I am annoyed by much of our recent pop cultural depictions of slavery. Thankfully, Hollywood no longer peddles the image of happy and contented slaves like we used to get prior to the Civil Rights movement (à la Gone With the Wind). And that is definitely a good thing. But recent exceptional films and TV shows like 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, the Roots remake, and WGN’s Underground, have painted most of the enslaved as essentially subhuman, non-resistent drones, all the while casting violent rebels and runaways as the heroes.
In telling their stories that way, these films miss the same point you do, Kanye. The enslaved did not choose to be enslaved, but what the vast majority of them did choose was to not let enslavement define them, their culture, or their race.
They resisted the complete domination of their lives not by risking death or separation from family by becoming Nat or Harriet, but by constructing and living in a culture largely of their own making, much of it outside of white control.
As I have insisted before: “Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope.
Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slowdowns and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell.”
Unfortunately, there are few glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in our current pop cultural depictions of slavery. And yet this is how most of the enslaved resisted. They were resilient, powerful people, taking the worst of what man can do to man and surviving it. African Americans live and thrive today BECAUSE of THEM.
In surviving this way, they built and passed along lessons to their descendants about self esteem, self reliance, and hope. And the culture they built has shaped America’s pop culture to a remarkable degree, especially considering all the mechanisms long in place to fortify white supremacy. Such things as America’s religious practices, foods, fashions, entertainments, and music are largely constructed upon, or heavily influenced by, what the enslaved and their descendants built and shaped in order to resist domination. (The irony, Kanye, is that your own career is part of that story).
Thus the enslaved deserve our acknowledgement and appreciation for all of this, as well as our respect and admiration. They made choices that all of America, black and white, have benefitted from and have been shaped by.
What they certainly do not deserve is your derision because they could not all be Harriets, or Nats.
Glenn David Brasher