“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years?” Kanye West queried in his TMZ interview Tuesday, “that sound like a choice, like, you was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all?”
His underlying hypothesis is a galling indictment of his forebears based on off-the-cuff speculation that the duration of their enslavement was an index of their acquiescence, if not complicity, in their own bondage.
But even if you leave aside his ahistoricism; even if you take West’s premise at face value — that four centuries of enslavement suggest a form of mental imprisonment — or worse, a sign of a weak mindset on the part of enslaved African Americans — his analysis fails. Because his mistake isn’t merely a failure to recognize that slavery was a condition enforced with torture, murder and rape. His mistake is also a thorough misrepresentation of the fortitude — the mental toughness and will to survive — required to survive slavery, individually and collectively, for centuries.
Whatever political viewpoint he’s chosen to adopt — it appears to lie somewhere between naked self-aggrandizement and a personal interpolation of President Trump’s mantra, “Make America great again” — it’s clear West hasn’t done enough research. And he’s not alone.
As a professor of African American history, I have frequently heard the milder version of the “that sound like a choice” argument, offered by cocksure undergrads, who assert some version of: Not me. They never would have enslaved me. They’re usually unaware of the alienation experienced by Africans ripped from their homes; chained at gunpoint by other Africans in cooked-up wars driven by the demands of European slave traders; abused and tortured, and forced to march hundreds of miles across the African continent to embarkation points that would take them to Europe and the Americas.
Students new to the history of the slave trade often don’t know about the brutality of the slave castles where millions of the enslaved were held on the African coasts, branded with the emblem of whichever slaving company purchased them, still holding out hope for escape or to somehow relocate family members. The “not me” chorus often hasn’t considered how they would have fared on the middle passage, packed like animals below the decks of ships, in darkness, breathing stale air, chained to people who were sick and dying, sometimes starving. And, if they did make it to shore, could they have navigated being sold in an open-air market by people in a foreign land speaking a foreign language? Or survive a life, from birth to death, of torturous work, wearing rags and fed with scraps?
West implied that the enslaved were primarily suffering from “mental imprisonment,” contrasting them, in effect, with the philosophy that he has been road-testing in recent days:
To him, it seems, their minds, rather than brute force, were holding them captive. Such an assumption ignores that chattel slavery in America was enforced over hundreds of years by the courts, an ever-growing code of law and the violent enforcement of the American state. The first sentence of lifetime slavery was issued by the court against John Punch, a resistant enslaved man, in 1640. Long before the American Revolution, courts made slavery a legal, heritable condition and gave the absolute power of life and death to their masters. Patrols of armed men monitored the countryside in slave states, asking each black person for passes or their freedom papers, searching for escaped slaves. Those who had escaped and were subsequently caught were subject to punitive mutilation or, in some cases, execution.
In spite of this, we have tremendous evidence that freedom was always the first choice of the enslaved and that resistance was their choice when they couldn’t escape. In a tweet apparently now deleted, West cited Nat Turner as the type of person he would have been if he’d lived in the same era, as if Turner were the only, or the rare, example of a rebellious enslaved man. But historians have traced numerous small-scale American slave rebellions and several large-scale rebellions, including the Stono rebellion in 1739 and Gabriel’s rebellion in Virginia in 1800. Thousands of the enslaved fled plantations to try to escape bondage, but for the majority escape was difficult if they were far from border states where greater numbers of black people were free or far from distant ports where they could hide out on cargo ships. With all these obstacles, the enslaved endured unthinkable horrors, in instance after instance, in an effort to obtain their freedom.
Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman from the port of Edenton, N.C., lived for years in an attic crawl space as she plotted her escape by ship. She later chronicled her experiences and recounted the high price of escape or rebellion on the enslaved, writing that the enslaved were “put on a par with animals.” A slave master “shot a woman through the head, who had run away and been brought back to him,” Jacobs wrote. “No one called him to account for it. If a slave resisted being whipped, the bloodhounds were unpacked, and set upon him, to tear his flesh from his bones.”
No one simply chooses their way out of that.
But enslaved African Americans did choose survival. Not only did my ancestors and West’s eventually overcome slavery, they managed to make lives for themselves in the face of it. Despite the constant threat of being sold away from loved ones, they loved one another, marrying and remaking their families. Out of their critique of the Christianity of their masters, they made a Christianity all their own, centering their own resistance as a parallel to the resistance of the Jews of the Bible. They made new kinds of art blending African styles with the materials they found on this side of the Atlantic. And, perhaps most directly relevant to West, they made new forms of music: work songs, spirituals, songs of resistance that would one day give birth to the blues, and jazz, which later became rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll and hip-hop.
It would not be a stretch to say that West is the direct product of the ingenuity, freewill and steadfastness of his enslaved forebears. His frequently self-proclaimed genius is grounded in this past. Intended or not, it’s a betrayal to denigrate this legacy as part of some kind of personal awakening or, worst case, promotional campaign. The ancestors — our ancestors — deserve better.