In the aftermath of Kanye West’s recent media blitz, there was considerable media attention paid to his parroting and amplifying of white supremacist thought. Anyone familiar with his more outlandish behavior in recent years, however, could have seen this tide turning. Certainly, his tirade at a concert in Sacramento, California, in November 2016, which precipitated his hospitalization, and his meeting with Donald Trump in 2017 should have been powerful signals that West was not who many assumed him to be. But what struck me as particularly reprehensible were the two statements West made about slavery. In the first comment, made during an interview with TMZ, West asserted, “When you hear about slavery for four hundred years…For four hundred years? That sounds like a choice…It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” And in an interview with radio personality Charlamagne Tha God, released the same day, West said “That was the moment I wanted to use Bitcoin, when I saw Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. It’s like when you see all the slave movies, it’s like why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery? Why don’t you put Michael Jordan on the $20 bill?” These statements demonstrate West’s infuriating, but not surprising, loathing of his own blackness and, in particular, the reality that some of his ancestors were enslaved. But West’s courting of white supremacists should be understood as both an expression of his own narcissistic and capitalist insecurities and the product of over a century of accumulated ignorance about Black history in the United States.
A central tenet of Kanye West’s public performance of his own pseudo-intellectualism seems to center on his need to separate himself from other Black people and blackness, outside of his own commodification of both. If it does not, and cannot, serve him in the quest of capital gain, then it is extraneous and shameful. Thus, his discomfort with slavery as a perceived constant in American culture only makes sense if one is, or believes him to be, wholly ignorant of history and present day reality. In Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries notes that
Our presence for nostalgia and for a history that never happened is not without consequence. We miseducate students because of it. Although we teach them that slavery happened, we fail to provide the detail or historical context they need to make sense of its origin, evolution, demise and legacy.”
While West was the son of an activist and educator, we can see the fruit of such miseducation in every word he uttered about slavery, which he views as a stain, not on the country, but on his own soul. He absolves the modern day peddlers of the same racist ideology that constructed, condoned and executed the enslavement of his ancestors because he has imbibed the most ubiquitous American fiction of hard work as a guarantor of freedom.
The idea that in America the individual can be free and prosperous, if only he works hard and long enough has always been used as a bludgeon against Black Americans post-emancipation and is the most powerful act of erasure of the country’s history. In such a formulation, of course, slavery would be embarrassing. Our ancestors worked “for four hundred years” and our freedom, prosperity and citizenship continue to be unfulfilled promises. Kanye West shows no indication that he sees the perseverance of our enslaved ancestors as a thing to be respected and cherished. There is no understanding of or empathy for their great sacrifices in bondage and freedom. He does not demonstrate any desire to elevate blackness as an important part of his own identity or his fans’ identity, except in his pursuit of profit, which he believes will erase the stain of his race.
West is a perfect example of what happens when the shame white America supposes Black people should feel at our own blackness blooms unchecked. But by no means is this miseducation of American history isolated to slavery. As Jeanne Theoharis and Pero G. Dagbovie have pointed out, there are many myths surrounding, and misuses of, the Black American past. One should not be surprised that after the shock subsided, a number of Kanye West’s fans—Black, white supremacist and others—took to social media to suggest that he had a point.
And there is an important point to West’s social media ravings, although it’s not the one that he intended, assuming there was any forethought. If West’s ignorance is not new (not even in his own oeuvre) why, besides the force of his own narcissistic thirst for attention, did the internet respond so forcefully to his statements? I would argue that the surprise emerged from our relentless desire to elevate every instance of Black male artistry to the status of genius over and to the exclusion of everything and everyone else–especially Black women.
In the same week that Kanye West disparaged our enslaved ancestors’ ability to endure, survive and love one another and their people in the midst of one of the world’s most heinous atrocities, Janelle Monáe released her new album Dirty Computer, which was centered in her own joy, sexual liberation and (Black) LGBTQIA inclusion. Her interview with Vice exhibited just the kind of free thinking West attempted to claim while peddling anti-blackness to the world. And during the two weekends of the Coachella music festival, Beyoncé’s headlining performance put her blackness at the center of a venue that often caters to young white cultural appropriators used to imbibing Black music without any consideration of Black people. In her beautiful and entertaining set, Beyoncé managed to put her music in conversation with a broad and diverse range of Black music at the local, national and diasporic levels, while paying homage to the culture of HBCUs, thereby positioning Black youth/student cultures as central to her own work and American culture.
Monáe and Beyoncé are important comparisons to West. The energy expended on discussing, considering, and critiquing the latter always hinges, even if unacknowledged, on the belief that Black genius must be, except in rare and exceptional instances, centered in the body of a Black man. We engage with West’s work or debate the importance of Bill Cosby because we believe that what they give to the culture outweighs the harm they do. Even in our critiques of Black male art, the presumption of genius persists.
On the other hand, when Black female artists offer up nuanced and respectful presentations of blackness and Black history their work is picked apart to prove that genius is not the appropriate label. For years, people have argued that one can separate West’s personal life from his art, similar to arguments made about Cosby, Donald Glover and R. Kelly, even when these men’s personal lives have included, if not centered on, the denigration and abuse of Black girls and women. On the other hand, people still find the time to criticize Black women’s physical appearance, aesthetic presentation and sexuality, as if the merit of their art can only be assessed once their attractiveness to men has been established. The lesson I learned after West’s latest stunts was not to listen to Kanye West. Instead, I will turn, as I always have, to the words and wisdom of Black women, so that our Black female genius does not go unacknowledged as is so often the case.