“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years, and it’s all of y’all? It's like we're mentally in prison.”
West had been tweeting his ruminations on slavery in the week before the interview.
The enslavement of black people in America for 400 years was not mental. It was literal and physical. The United States government, including multiple presidents, supported and encouraged the ownership of slaves brought against their will from Africa.
Some attempts to escape were successful — such as those led by abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a former slave who led more than 300 blacks to freedom. Others who were caught endured harsh punishments, including death, as was the case with Nat Turner, who was executed after leading a slave rebellion.
West, whose mother was a professor and whose father was a journalist, got immediate criticism for his comments by historians.
Author Leah Wright Rigueur, who often speaks about race and politics, tweeted:
Educator and activist Clint Smith, who writes about the relationship between slavery and mass incarceration, tweeted:
“The millions of enslaved Africans brought to this country under chain & whip & fear were worth more than every bank, factory & railroad combined. There’s nothing about their bondage that was a ‘choice’ other than the choice by white ppl to make black bodies the national currency.”
West appears to either lack or be ignoring foundational knowledge about race and politics taught in entry-level American government and history classes.
Unfortunately, he is not alone.
A 2015 McClatchy-Marist poll asked, “Was slavery the main reason for the Civil War, or not?” More than four in 10 Americans said it was not. Only 55 percent said they believed students should be taught slavery was the reason for the Civil War. In the South, less than half thought that should be taught.
There are implications for how this influences people’s understanding of American history and politics.
So many of the issues black Americans face, like gaps in education, employment and wealth, are directly connected to the fact that for hundreds of years, blacks did not have the same opportunities white Americans had. Even when legislation changed their status, black Americans were not given the same resources and opportunities to close those gaps.
One of the challenges West’s comment resurfaced is just how differently many Americans view slavery, including some inside the White House.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly expressed his admiration for Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who led thousands into battle against the United States to fight for the continued enslavement of black people. He told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in November:
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.”
Former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore told an African American at a rally the last time America was “great” was during the enslavement of black people, a time when black people were regularly beaten, raped and murdered.
“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another. … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
West attracted attention last week for implying that being mindful of slavery is one of the things black Americans need to leave in the past. It is difficult to move forward when so many people in positions of power repeatedly display a poor grasp of basic American history.