In Perspective, Kanye West’s ‘Slavery is a Choice’ Comment and the Haitian Revolution

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.

Haitian Times

Haitian Times

The Haitian Times was founded in 1999 as a weekly English language newspaper based in Brooklyn, NY.The newspaper is widely regarded as the most authoritative voice for Haitian Diaspora.
Haitian Times
May. 30, 2018

7 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “In Perspective, Kanye West’s ‘Slavery is a Choice’ Comment and the Haitian Revolution”

  1. Manes Pierre says:

    Well conveyed!

  2. Fred S. Millan says:

    Kanye West is a superb ignorant of history and the suffering of slaves, made slaves despite themselves. He plays right in the hand of the eternal racists who have tried for centuries to justify slavery. They were not made slave by choice, but against their will.
    The white supremacists have always enjoyed a renegade like West trading his ignorance and treason of a race for a few dollars.
    Most black people should, by choice ignore this cretin, and encourage other artists more lucid, and who do not compromise the integrity and valor of their race for a few crumbs, that’s his choice, a poor one.

  3. Serge Joseph says:

    Dear Editor: The article can only be described as an incredible piece of confusing rubbish. It posits three major points and all three are flawed and demonstrably false. It is a clean strike out. First, Mr. West was not engaged in anything resembling art when he offered his opinion on slavery. He was not making music; rapping; designing clothes; reciting or composing a poem; etc. Simply because an artist opens his or her month does not mean that he or she is engaged in artistic endeavors. It may well be true that a free society should embrace artists even when they are outside of socially accepted norms. But this rule should be limited only when the artist is engaged in his or her craft, and therefore not applicable in the instant matter. Frankly, the author’s reliance on “artistic license” is a red herring.
    Second, the author’s contention that enslaved persons willingly “elected bondage” because they did not rally as the enslaved people of Haiti did beginning from the 1790’s to 1803, or Nat Turner did is simplistic; fails to account the myriad ways enslaved people rebelled; fails to consider how systems operate to oppress; and lacks intellectual rigor to know that the Haitian Revolution was multi-layered and had multi-causes (it was not a bunch of enslaved people “cutting heads, and burning houses” – though they did so); conflates a successful revolution with fighting (when you fight, sometimes you lose).
    Third, contrary to the author’s call, we should never use ignorance, such as Mr. West’s words and ideas, to “inspire us to change our present situation”. There is nothing inspiring about flawed analysis, half-baked nonsense, and racist trope about slavery,and Black people. Nonsense will make our present situation worse.

    • Rose Borden says:

      You make a good point, in that Kanye West is not a type of artist known as a Conceptual Artist – and that therefore, everything that he says or does or displays or wears, should not automatically be considered as possibly being art.
      I bet that if someone were to tell Kanye what a Conceptual Artist is, that he would respond with a boast of being one… and doesn’t that sound familiar to one of the routine superficial approaches also taken by a certain, small-handed, orange-skinned, consistent liar?

  4. Patrick Sylvain says:

    I totally agree with Serge Joseph’s response. In addition, the author of the “opinion” failed to take into consideration different historical conditions as well as various laws that governed different institutions of slavery. This unfortunate opinion piece also reveals the author’s lack of knowledge of North American based slavery. Please read: 1) “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture”, 2) “Inhuman Bondage” by David Brion Davis; 3) “Slavery and Social Death” by Orlando Patterson.

  5. Carolle Charles says:

    Well said Mr Joseph. There were myriads ways that slaves resisted or rebelled. That included poisoning infanticides, multiple forms of marooning. We could go on. Second between the 1791 to 1804 a full indigenous army was create with a lot of experieces. I wish the Haitian times makes an effort to read the pieces they are publishing.

  6. Rose Borden says:

    Dear editor,
    This principles which are examined and explained in this opinion piece are well-presented and worded. There are some excellent, and necessary, points and counterpoints presented.
    However, for the sake of credibility and clarity, I would like to gently note that there are some spelling and punctuation errors; and I would like to cordially recommend that in the future the editor “clean up” any spelling and/or punctuation errors in all opinion pieces that are chosen for publication. It would only serve to benefit of all parties: the writer, the readers and the editor. It would also mean that the piece could be taken more seriously by some particular audiences.
    Thank you

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