Friday, May 4, 2018

Letter to Kanye

Dear Brother Kanye,

I want to talk to you about some of your recent comments. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. The ones where you said that 400 years of slavery were a choice for African Americans. Naturally, I disagree. I don’t believe that being violently seized by armed men, locked up in chains, thrown into a cargo hold, and hauled off to a faraway continent to live in eternal subjugation was a choice.

Now you may say, “Why should I listen to some small-town Florida cracker spouting off about the African-American experience?” Okay, I'll give you that. But I don’t want to talk about race so much as about education, and that’s something I can talk about. In fact, it’s something I hardly ever shut up about. Just ask my students.

Just to keep things light for a moment, let me quote The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who said that slavery is not a choice, but “going blond is a choice. Both are terrible, but one is easier to undo.” Word.

What I’ve learned about you over the past couple of days, Kanye, is that your mother was an English professor but that you gave up on your college education for the sake of your music. Now that is not a sin, especially if you happen to have musical talent and I do hear good things about your music.

But here’s the sin: making dangerously provocative statements about American history when you don’t know a damn thing about it. Which you apparently don’t.

Now, if you insist on talking about our history and the enslavement experience, I won’t say it’s necessary for you to go back to Chicago State University to finish your bachelor’s degree. But what I would recommend is that if you don’t get an education at the hands of professionals, you at least learn to distinguish good sources from bad. I say this because your comment about slavery being a choice makes me think you formed your opinion about slave society by watching Gone with the Wind.

But Gone with the Wind was bullshit. In nineteenth-century Georgia, you weren’t likely to find lots of warm-hearted bondswomen treating their white overlords with affectionate devotion while helping them into their plantation finery. What you found was a society fraught with tension and fear.

Let me recommend a more reliable and realistic source than Margaret Mitchell’s fiction, namely, Sally E. Hadden’s Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Professor Hadden describes a society full of fear and tension on both sides of the color line, with white society organizing armed militias to patrol the streets and highways of the old South to round up, intimidate and keep at bay any African Americans who might be found away from their work duties. In addition to the well-known tactics of terrorism and torture regularly used to control the enslaved, another key element was control of information. Enslaved southerners were generally prohibited from getting an education (!), and abolitionist tracts, like David Walker’s 1829 essay, An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, were ruthlessly suppressed.

An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World 

               Abolitionist David Walker

I’m guessing the plantation owners labeled Mr. Walker’s Appeal a kind of “fake news” as they suppressed it.

My point is that southern society was tense and explosive, as it had to be, as one people used its power, knowledge and access to weaponry to suppress another. Of course, there were those occasions when enslaved citizens made a different choice and rose up in rebellion, slaughtering their white enemies wherever they found them. But given the power advantage of the whites, these never completely succeeded. Success, as you probably know, required a massive, violent, four-year military campaign spearheaded by hundreds of thousands of disciplined and well-armed Yankee soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and their countrymen had the wherewithal to “choose” the anti-slavery option. But such a choice was beyond the reach of the average plantation worker.

Now, my Dear Brother, I know you meant no harm. But, as others have pointed out, your words are bound to be used by hidebound bigots for the next decade or so to justify racist stereotyping and discrimination in every corner of our troubled society. So, my recommendation to you, Sir, is to take a look at some solid historical sources and rethink your views about America in the days of the old South. Then, use your celebrity to get the word out – as long as your word is well-informed by reliable sources.

I’ll will bring my thoughts to a close here with a quote I saw on a protester’s sign at last year’s March for Science demonstration:
“Ignorance is Dumb.”

Robert L. Moore

Culture World

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