Kanye West — the irrepressible rapper, nascent fashion mogul and ostensible cultural critic — has recently garnered much attention (aka publicity). How? As of five minutes ago, he’s in the news for intimating that slavery — America’s original sin — was “a choice” that African-Americans made. Not surprisingly, the responses to this claim (pro and con) are voluminous and impassioned. Immediately, scores of people opined that Yeezy must still be suffering from mental illness. (West was hospitalized in 2016 after having an emotional breakdown — which he now refers to as his “breakthrough”.) Given the nature of his slavery proclamation, Ye’s earlier medical challenges made it all but inevitable that people would question his mental stability. Yet, due to his history of controversial words and actions, scores of other people have accused West of seeking publicity, albeit in an especially odious manner.
So, is West mentally ill — or is he simply “crazy like a fox”? Before addressing the content of Ye’s remarks, I will state affirmatively that I support his right to free speech. There are those who would abrogate that right (including the Crips); I am not among them. Further, as regards West’s emotional and mental well-being, I’ll defer to psychological professionals; I am not among them, either.
Sticking with the substance of West’s argument — or at least what I have surmised to be its substance — I’m still not certain what he intended to express. After facing a torrent of criticism, Yeezy attempted to clarify himself. Specifically, he not only issued a barrage of additional tweets; he also engaged in a long-form interview with radio personality Lenard McKelvey (aka “Charlamagne tha God”), the latter of which has garnered roughly 5 million views on YouTube. West complains that he is being attacked for “presenting new ideas.” He has also said, “We need to have open discussions and ideas on unsettled pain … to make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will.”
My view is that, irrespective of one’s interpretation of West’s original tweet, absolutely nothing about it was “new.” For example, if he is suggesting that enslaved people rarely rebelled, he is sadly mistaken. There were at least 250 North American uprisings in which 10 or more enslaved people participated. This history does not comport with the once-popular narrative of the “happy darkie” who was more than quite content to be legal property. The rebellions also drive a stake through the heart of the notion that enslaved people were too ignorant to be anything other than involuntary servants. Finally, unlike the inference that we can draw from another of Ye’s tweets, we weren’t always “in the majority” when we rebelled. (It would be wise of Yeezy to study the research of, say, Thomas Wentworth Higginson or Herbert Aptheker.)
Another problem is that Ye’s statement about being “put on a boat” against our free will is that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade essentially ended in the early 1800s — long before the U.S. Civil War and the subsequent constitutional amendments that banned slavery (except in prisons). In other words, African-Americans remained enslaved long after “the boat” stopped docking on our shores. Enslaved peoples became “home grown” rather than “imported” (to use language that is appropriate to how our ancestors were viewed). Finally, a major problem with West is his self-admitted love of engaging in “stream of consciousness” thinking. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to grasp that “free thinking” is not necessarily coherent thinking. Ye worries more about his tongue being “cut out” (rhetorically) than he does offering cogent political statements.
Perhaps the most interesting — and hardest to swallow — statement is West’s bold claim that, “If this was 148 years ago I would have been more like Harriet (Tubman) or Nat (Turner).” Let’s forget, for the moment, that Nat Turner was dead by that time, and the Civil War had ended. More importantly, referring to her initial escape from slavery, Tubman said, “When I found I had crossed that line (into the North), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Given his current political views and allegiances, it is virtually impossible to imagine West as a latter-day Tubman or Turner.
However, in partial defense of Ye, I agree with his notion that African-Americans should continuously be on guard against what he refers to as “mental slavery” — assuming that he is referencing our speaking and acting in ways that advance our empowerment. I also agree with the notion that we, as a community, need to (continue to) have the “open discussions … on unsettled pain” to which Ye refers.
If Jesus is still “walking” with Kanye, I pray that He is whispering in his ears.