Kanye, You're on the Wrong Side of History | Opinion

Earlier this week, Kanye West told TMZ that four hundred years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” He was referring to the two hundred and fifty years of racialized chattel slavery in the United States, going back to Jamestown, VA, in 1619, whose quadricentennial anniversary is next year.

It is hard to believe that West doesn’t know that enslaved Africans did not have a “choice” in coming to America. And that African Americans did not have a choice in being legally defined as property; bought and sold like cattle.

He is after all the son of the late Donda West, a celebrated professor and former chair of the English department at Chicago State University. His mother taught him better, I’m sure.

But that misses the point.

Kanye weaponized slavery to define himself as a free thinker. “People were taught how to think.” he said. “We don’t know how to think for ourselves.”

“I felt a freedom in doing something everybody tells you not to do.”

Translation: only “slaves” think alike. Real American freedom means not thinking like the vast majority of black people, whose ancestors were once enslaved, but oddly today share a deeply-rooted aversion to racism, including when it lives in the White House. Apparently anti-racist groupthink is a kind of slavery of the mind and a terrible burden for a people who still think their skin color might cost them their lives or their livelihood.

I don’t know if West is being contrarian, ginning up publicity for his new album, or paving the way for a presidential run. Or all three. What is clear is that he is on the wrong side of history and perpetuating very old falsehoods.

Slavery has always been weaponized in defense of white American freedom. Colonists weaponized it to turn their subjugation to the British Crown on its head in defense of white male liberty. Confederates and libertarians weaponized it to uphold state’s rights and property rights. White supremacists of the Jim Crow period weaponized it to convince the highest court of the land that all whites had the freedom to live free of black neighbors and schoolmates.

RTX2UU69 U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and musician Kanye West pose for media at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

In every instance, slavery has stood as a metaphor for something un-American, as the opposite of freedom. But there is no America without it. Slavery birthed nearly every aspect of what Trump’s red cap wants to reclaim with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

“Slavery is not an aberration in American history; it is at the heart of our history, a main event, a central foundational story,” wrote David Blight, a Yale historian and slavery scholar, in a recent survey on the lack of teaching of slavery in America’s schools by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The national study, Teaching Hard History, found that only 8 percent of high school seniors know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, a result the report calls “shocking.” 42 percent gave unfair taxes as the cause. That’s unsurprising given how often political figures today rail against government taxation as a form of slavery. “Such ignorance of American history is hardly confined to students and American classrooms,” wrote Blight, “it is vividly on display in high offices today in our government.”

By these standards, if you want to be a free thinker in America in 2018, here’s a thought: African Americans fought for their humanity, gained their citizenship and remade a ‘Whites Only’ slave republic into a multi-racial democracy. The labor and creativity of black folks fueled the wealth of this nation and gave America her cultural swagger—from blues to jazz to hip hop. 

Whether he is as uninformed as most Americans or not, West walks in the footsteps of people who did, in fact, choose to make America better.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Suzanne Young Murray professor of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​

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