Photoshop of a painting from the French Revolution called “Liberte ou La Mort” provided by Francois Thermitus.
Photoshop of a painting from the French Revolution called “Liberte ou La Mort” provided by Francois Thermitus.

By Francois Thermitus

Earlier this month, rapper and fashion designer Kanye West sparked discussions about slavery and oppression after an appearance on TMZ, where he said “slavery is a choice.”

Similar to his inspirational figure, Yeezus was publicly shamed and crucified for expressing his truth.

Without anyone in the black community giving credence to the artist’s seemingly wild theory, he has been automatically cast out from the proverbial “cookout.” Admittedly, such statements during the rise of the white supremacy movement and heated racial tension in the United States are dangerous. Although Kanye’s view was poorly articulated — it is irrational to expect a well-thought-out or politically correct explanation from an enigmatic and polarizing artist like himself — I can see some “truth” in his point of view.

West’s recent statement represents a clear insult or a threat to most black people who are descendants of slaves, and who are still dealing with the negative residues of this atrocity. At the same time, his views on slavery in America expresses some version of truth that most of us in the black community are unwilling to consider because it dishonors the legacy of our forefathers who have suffered and died on our behalf.

If we view West’s comments through the context of Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia or the Haitian Revolution in the island of Hispañola, his point becomes more valid and it puts into perspective the concept of whether some slaves collectively ignored extreme alternative options for their freedom.

Liberté ou la mort (freedom or death), was the cry of the slaves of Haiti in the 1790s to get rid of the yoke of slavery. To live free or to die, ironically inspired by the French Revolution itself, was the motto. A multilateral decision was made between the Haitian slaves, which gave them the strength and the determination to fight against the French in order to break the chains of exploitation. The barefooted slaves, headed by General-in-Chief Jean Jacques Dessalines, had imposed a fierce resistance to their oppressors in a long revolutionary battle and finally proclaimed the independence of Haiti on January 1, 1804, roughly 100 years after the French began colonizing that part of the island.

By analyzing the victory of the Haitian slaves over the French, one can deduct that some slaves in other parts of the world may have collectively accepted their fate, therefore, unwittingly elected bondage over fighting to the death, but why? That was precisely the question West seemed to pose, but unfortunately answered inarticulately with the notion that is was a choice.

Once again, highlighting his genius as an artist. An artist should not try to replicate what we perceive. Artists use words, pens, paint brushes, etc. to express a deeper sense of reality. They use different outlets to convey their truth and such “truths” do not necessarily need to depend on representing facts or reality accurately. It is not fair for society to only embrace artists when they present their sense of creativity in artforms that we accept, but punish them once they do not deliver their thoughts in a manner that suits us.  

As reckless as West’s statement appeared to be at this current racially tense juncture in the U.S., it is even more dangerous and irresponsible for us as a society to criticize the artist for expressing his ideas or message – no matter how much we disagree or how factually inaccurate the message could be. There are many ways to view the message of an artist. It could be inspiring or offensive. Should we, in the black community, quickly take offense to West’s words like Van Lathan did? Or, should we use his words to inspire us to change our present situation?

Francois Thermitus studied International Business and Economics and founded the Urban International Exchange (Urbix)-a nonprofit organization that works to promote networking and connection among the African Diaspora.

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