The greater the rage being expressed over Kanye West’s comments upon slavery and 400 years of it – even about choice – the more I’m warming to what he said. For the more people keep repeating what he did say the more I understand the point that he was making. Plus, to see quite so many people who really should be mercilessly annoyed by us being annoyed has its pleasures.
As we know there wasn’t in fact 400 years of African American chattel slavery. Next year will mark the 400 th anniversary of the start of it and as we all know it did stop in 1865. Thus we have two options for what the 400 years refers to.
1) The more general slavery of peoples in the New World by people from the Old. We can just about say that’s 400 years, from about Columbus’ arrival and Amerind enslavement through to 1888 when Brazil finally ended chattel slavery. But to do that means that there’s nothing really specific about the African American experience. Slavery of this or these types existed all through recorded history, way back into Old Testament times in fact. The democracy of Athens was built upon it, as was the Roman Empire, the Arab slave trade persisted at least into the 1920s and some say the 1960s. Slav and slave are similar words for a reason, the Ottoman Sultans were the produce of a long line of slave concubines, Barbary was capturing slaves from Ireland and England into the 1800s, most Mediterranean warfare depended upon slave rowed galleys. The serfdom of Russia was only different to a degree, not in concept.
2) We can though think of it as being 400 years since that chattel slavery of African Americans started. And that the influence of it still persists. That’s certainly a claim that many African Americans themselves would make. That slavery’s existence still hangs as a monster over American society. Which is rather more what Kanye was referring to:
It has not been a good week for the “Kanye West is a genius” theory. It may well be the case that the rap artist is being judged more harshly than a similarly ill-informed white musician would be, and there’s no doubting his creative talents, but in a single sentence of breathtaking ignorance he has surely placed himself permanently out the running for the position of genius.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years… for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” he told the entertainment news website TMZ. “You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.”
This is of course the reparations argument, isn’t it? That the experience of slavery in earlier generations has left today’s people so impoverished that they are due a great big fat payout? And what we’re getting from West is that perhaps this isn’t quite the right way to be thinking about it. Possibly the past is the past and nursing grievances might not be quite the way to get on with life today.
The more the outrage over what he said the clearer it is becoming what he actually did say. Which is that that existence of slavery hangs much too heavy as an excuse over African Americans today.
Just to pose the same question in a different manner. Do we all think that Russia’s problems stem from the late abolition of serfdom? If not then why the difference?