Kanye Ain’t the Only Black Person Believing and Spreading Anti-Black Nonsense About Slavery

Illustration for article titled Kanye Ain’t the Only Black Person Believing and Spreading Anti-Black Nonsense About Slavery
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Kanye West is a cornball with low information and high-fructose corn syrup, but what he’s saying about slavery being a choice soaks in the same implicit anti-blackness as “They wouldn’t have been able to keep me in chains.” Or “I wasn’t built to be a slave.” Or “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”

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Of course, people who say things like that (mostly) don’t intend to disrespect their ancestors. That intent, however, doesn’t matter and doesn’t negate the recklessness and danger of those sorts of statements. Also, if you are a person who says things like this, know that you are categorically wrong. Because if you had been born a slave in America when black people were born slaves, you would have done what the overwhelmingly vast majority of black people born then did, and that’s die a slave.

Dying a slave is not a mark against you or your ancestors if you happen to descend from slaves. It also does not minimize or ignore the myriad ways they attempted to challenge the institution of slavery (and if you are not aware of those histories and those stories, do something Kanye obviously doesn’t do and read a fucking book). Instead, it is proof of their strength and resilience and faith and fight.

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That proof, also, is you.

If you are alive today, and if your life is the eventual product of people who, hundreds of years ago, were born in and died in chains, your very existence is a fucking miracle. That they were able to live long enough, through all of that fucking horror, to still produce and continue life, is a fucking miracle. That they went through all of that and are still able to, half a millennium later, have a legacy through you is a fucking miracle, even if you don’t recognize their fight and your existence as miraculous.

Anti-blackness—the lesson plan for white supremacy’s multidisciplinary base curriculum—is so relentless and pervasive and nimble and tricky that it has attempted to convince us to regard the men and women who came before us as something other than the fucking miracles that they were. We ain’t all come from kings and queens, and that’s fine. We mostly came from people who fought and clawed and scratched to etch space to be human when the economy of the entire fucking country was predicated on preventing that from happening—who combated a centuries-long lack of humanity with humanity’s peak.

And that’s enough. That will always be enough.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

I went to undergrad at Xavier in New Orleans, and while Hurricane Katrina may have temporarily sank my school beneath the waters, something in me knew that I was supposed to be there. One of the first things I did when it was possible to return in the aftermath was to help gut houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. Most were in a dank, moldy state, and just breathing in them was dangerous. But there was one that was different from all the rest.

From the outside, it did not look that much different from all the others, but on the inside it was apparent that something was vastly different about this particular house. Sure, the plaster walls were in need of some love, but miraculously, all the woodwork throughout the house, including the furniture was completely intact. The dark wood gleamed. I asked the woman who owned the house how this was possible, given the house sat underwater for weeks, and she smiled. She told me that her slave ancestors built the house from boat wood, and that they were master shipwrights.

I stood there for a long while letting all that sink in, and the woman produced an intricately carved box made out of the same wood the house was made of. Flowers, leaves, stars, that box had everything carved into it. She lamented that whatever had been in the box, prior to the storm, was now gone. I told her that box, and the house itself, did not need anything but her around to tell people their history, because I was so moved from the whole experience.

When I finished up work for the day, I leaned up against the doorway to soak in the house one more time. I don’t know how I had missed it earlier, but the doorway was covered in the same flowers, leaves, and stars as the box the woman had shown me earlier. That impossibly beautiful house stood there unbothered by the chaos around it, and seeing that changed me forever. To me, it was not a matter of that woman’s ancestors simply using what they had available to build that house, it was that they knew their house would outlast all others because of the unusual material used throughout.

We must not let men and women like Kanye West distort, demean, or diminish our shared histories. While we can debate why things happened ad infinitum, there is no escaping what actually happened. In these very dark times, we must never stop looking for the signs our ancestors left for us to draw upon, and in turn, we must leave our own for the next generation. With each new foul breath and tweet, Kanye does nothing but diminish the power of his otherwise powerful gifts of the past. If he read, he would know the Egyptians nearly succeeded in wiping Akhenaten from the historical record for perceived heresies, so he would know he could suffer the same, or worse fate for his revisionism and general support of He Who Shall Not Be Named.