"The Scourged Back"
1. All week long I've been stewing in my own anger juices about Kanye West's recently expressed views.
How does an African-American man, with all kinds of access to every educational resource imaginable come to have a historically ignorant view as "slavery was a choice?" And why does it matter what any one person thinks? And what does this have to do with Character?
I can answer the second question first: every person matters, but they matter more when they have a public platform that's followed by 30 million people. Those kinds of numbers can swing elections, and alter the course of human history, for better or for a tragic worse. Ignorance begets ignorance like a virus, especially in our days of Twitter and YouTube and digital megaphones. So the stakes are vertigo-inducingly high and despair-invokingly real. Let's not fall into despair, brothers and sisters.
The "how" does this kind of thing happen conundrum is partially explained in this essay, "The Historian Behind Slavery Apologists Like Kanye West":
"Mr. West seemed to suggest that enslaved African-Americans were so content that they did not actively resist their bondage, and, as a result, they bear some responsibility for centuries of persecution.
He’s not alone in his thinking. In 2016, the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asserted that slaves were “well fed and had decent lodgings.” Last September, the Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore deemed the antebellum era the last great period in American history. “I think it was great at the time when families were united,” he declared. “Even though we had slavery, they cared for one another.”
Modern scholarship has debunked such whitewashing, accurately depicting slavery as an inhumane institution rooted in greed and the violent subjugation of millions of African-Americans.
Yet countless Americans have not learned these lessons. They cling, instead, to a romanticized interpretation of slavery, one indebted to a book published 100 years ago. In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, “American Negro Slavery,” which framed the institution as a benevolent labor agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie — save, perhaps, for “Gone With the Wind,” itself beholden to Phillips’s work — has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.
Phillips’s use of the passive voice — “in March the corn fields were commonly planted” — further distanced the reader from slaves’ coerced labor. Enslaved African-Americans, in turn, displayed gratitude and loyalty to their masters. Phillips concluded that, while slavery may have been economically inefficient, “the relations on both sides were felt to be based on pleasurable responsibility.”
Last year, a Charlotte, N.C., teacher asked her middle-school students to list “four reasons why Africans made good slaves.” An eighth-grade teacher in San Antonio recently sent students home with a work sheet titled “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View.” It prompted students to list the “positive” aspects of slavery along with the “negative.”
We must confront mischaracterizations of the nature of slavery, whether nurtured in the classroom or broadcast on Twitter. After all, historical accuracy on this topic is not just about getting the past right; it is also about understanding the challenges of the present.
After seeing the reaction he invoked, Kanye further tweeted:
to make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved
Not much better, Kanye––when your life is at stake, and your children's lives are at stake, you'll do what's necessary to survive and being a Superman is not a viable option when things like lynching were a probable outcome for rebellion. I don't think you're doing the work of truly understanding what the historical reality was like.
Moreover, Kanye is still falling into the same language trap as this hypothetical (but all too non-hypotherical) conversation:
"Does this dress make me look fat?"
"What I meant by "Yes" was 'No."
The words we actually use, the ones we uttered in real-time, matter. And often they are accurate indictors of what we really think no matter the revisions afterwards, because they come from an unfiltered, often subconscious and "shadowy" place. In one sense, then, it's good that we have Kanye in the same way Jay-Z said it's good to have Trump as president: because you can't address something that's not revealed. People of character recognize shadow––those parts in ourselves that we'd rather not see––and interpret them as an invitation towards integrity––which is the end result after all our parts have been seen and welcomed and can no co-exist as a whole.
But now what? My first thought was one of gratitude for Van Lathan, an African American man who spoke up immediately, after Kanye turned to other employees in the room and asked, “Do you feel like I’m thinking free and feeling free?”
“I actually don’t think you’re thinking anything.” Lathan continued:
I think what you’re doing right now is actually the absence of thought, and the reason why I feel like that is because Kanye, you’re entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to believe whatever you want. There’s fact and real life consequence behind everything that you just said. While you are making music and being an artist and living a life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives. We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice. Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled, and brother, I’m unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something, to me, that’s not real.
Ok, fine, but, still, now what? Chastisement itself does not open minds and immediately I hoped Kanye would find his way to reading this:
When we read a real person's actual lived experience, rather than a third-person report on an experience, especially one that's been filtered through a selective historical filter, we can begin to deeply empathize and understand what actually happened and how that history was genuinely felt and truly experienced on the inside. My claim: Understanding and Compassion would have precluded Kanye's knuckle-headed statement.
Anyway, turns out other folks had the same idea and compiled a further and more thorough education for Kanye:
Hey, Kanye, Here's a List of Books You Should Read To Strengthen Your "Free Thinking"
"We know that wealth grants access to educational resources and spaces, but wealth also isolates and re-conditions people to think and function within the social constraints of tight, top-percentile communities while disregarding the realities of the masses. We know that wealth dictates and disrupts American politics — the very processes that bear influence on marginalized lives, and we know that your re-positioning in these wealthy spaces may have re-conditioned you, too."
So Character does involve cultivating the courage to speak freely, but speaking however you want from a position of an incomplete understanding and cultural amnesia is not the same thing. That's called reactivity and is not free at all. Had Kanye had a deeper understanding of the complexities and insidious whitewashing of slavery's history in our country, he would not have said what he did, or, had he still wanted to raise the issue of victimhood and identity politics, he would have been much more accurate with his words and would have acknowledged the problems of speaking from the position of individual exceptionalism––what Trump did when he said he would have immediately run into the Parkland, FL high school where the mass shooting was taking place and stopped the gunman himself.
If we are to cultivate morality, a pillar of character, we must speak freely, yes. But we must not speak from ignorance. And when we're not sure, it is best to stay silent until we know what's what.
2. Susan Sontag was asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10% of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10% is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80% could be moved in either direction.
There's no such thing as not having Character. The only question becomes what kind of character you're going to have.
The gentle spirit of Carl Rogers
3. Working and thinking about these cultural issues for this edition of CxD has given me a serious emotionally exhausting wedgie. There's a psychological and emotional trap in thinking the correct answer is to find people's mistakes and to let 'em know all about it. So here's the best antidote I could find, something that will probably work best printed out and fixed on my mirror in which I admire myself and can every morning, until the impulse to fix and be right relaxes, and the need to stay connected and in relationship takes priority:
"I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself. I know very well that this must seem like a strange, almost an [Eastern] point of view.... What is life for if we are not going to teach people the things /we/ think they should learn? Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more .... I am willing to understand and accept the realities... in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.... At least this is a very vivid part of my experience and one of the deepest things I have learned in my personal and professional life.”