This story is adapted fromBlack Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future, by Brandi Collins-Dexter.
When it’s all said and done, remember the fearless, remember the dreamers, remember those who represent the ghetto .… the fairy tale of nothing to something. … I can hear you screaming “Color inside the lines!!!” Well fuck your coloring book, color by numbers approach to life. At the end of the day who are we hurting??? Oh “The new Black???” Since Barack is president Blacks don’t like fur coats, red leather, and fried chicken anymore?! When you truly understand cultural settings, boundaries, and our modern day caste systems, then you can feel the glory and pain from the days of kings in Africa to the new kings of the media. Let the ball players dance after they score! It’s life my niggas, it's life! Remember clothing is a choice. We were born naked!!! Fresh is an opinion, love is objective, taste is selective, and expression is my favorite elective. No more politics or apologies!!!
With Kanye, I am never really sure if I’m bearing witness to a public breakdown or a breakthrough. He is unpalatable to the mainstream, irresistible to the masses. He has a persona that is perfect for the age of internet celebrity. He gives an authentic, if imperfect, voice to trauma for our disaffected generation. But there is a cost to breaking decorum.
Ever have one of those agonizing moments when you feel like you’re watching a car wreck play out in front of you and you keep saying “Oh no, oh no” while the driver spins out of control? That’s how I felt watching the infamous clip of Kanye West on TMZ Live in 2018. Yes, this is the clip in which Kanye gives the sound bite that would break the internet: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years, and it is all of y’all? It is like we are mentally in prison.”
My first thought was that Kanye was not the same man he had once been. The man who, over a decade earlier, during Hurricane Katrina, had cut through the bullshit pretense of civility and spoken up, saying “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” That Kanye—2005 Kanye—was someone who spoke to me and for me. He spoke to many other people. But 2018 Kanye on TMZ saying slavery was a choice? Nah, he could keep that one. What had happened in the intervening years? What had changed?
For some, “slavery was a choice” translated to a statement on the inherent dumbness of Black people in America. The implication is we were willing participants in our own physical enslavement. For others, it showed the inherent dumbness of Kanye and his eagerness to be a tool of the Trump show. In hindsight, both of these conclusions are flawed.
Look, I can admit it’s a weird fucking sound bite and definitely the wrong venue and audience for that conversation. It’s one of those things you say when you’re the controversial cousin at the family Easter dinner. Not during a performative spectacle at the offices of a company that specializes in trashy gossip.
But there’s nuance to what Kanye’s saying, especially when taken in the context of his tweets the next day explaining that by “choice,” he was referring more to mental than physical enslavement.