Kanye West’s “freethinking” condemnation of generations of enslaved people’s failure to rebel is drawn—whether he knows it or not!—from a dangerous ideology that’s older than the United States. Twitter has spent the past few days dragging West for his willful ignorance, and #SlaveryWasAChoice has already made the absurdity of his comments abundantly clear. But West’s particular approach to history—projecting his own self-concept and psychology onto people long dead, without giving a thought to the complexity and pitfalls of such an enterprise—is a temptation we all indulge in, from time to time. Let’s use West’s outlier example to remember how harmful it can be.
First, there’s the long history behind the argument “slavery is a choice.” Before the American Revolution, Francois Furstenberg writes in In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, white Americans pushing for independence from Britain argued that people “proved their virtue by maintaining their freedom; they proved their lack of it by submitting to slavery.” There are constant invocations of the word slavery in slaveholding colonists’ assessments of their relationship to the Crown. This looks painfully ironic to the contemporary eye, but the colonists, Furstenberg argues, were thinking through the nature of freedom—deciding who was meant to be free, and who was not.
After the Revolution, the “conceptual opposites” of slavery and freedom were increasingly “moralized,” as Furstenberg puts it. This framework “helped promote the idea that a virtuous person would resist slavery, even at the cost of life itself.” As the 19th century began, Americans who might otherwise have been uneasy with the continuation of the institution of slavery in a proudly republican nation convinced themselves that the enslaved people had given what Furstenberg terms “tacit consent” to remain in their positions. This is what drove contemporary apologists to mention, over and over, enslaved people’s affection for their masters—to tell, again, the story that Washington’s whole household cried and grieved when he died. (You’ll still see this idea of the “happy slave” circulate among slavery apologists today.)
As the American economy developed, and slavery moved south and west, slaveholders expended great effort to remind these supposedly “docile” beings that their bodies and labor weren’t their own. Ed Baptist describes the violence of the “pushing system” in his book The Half Has Never Been Told, which we excerpted on Slate during our History of American Slavery podcast series (still available through Slate Plus). This system, which evolved after the invention of the cotton gin turned cotton picking into the “bottleneck” in production that cotton processing had once been, “extracted more work by using oppressively direct supervision combined with torture.” The overseers, Baptist writes, “were open with those whom they beat about the whip’s purpose,” even as they told the outside world that its effects weren’t so bad. “[The whip’s] point,” Baptist argues, “was the way it asserted dominance so ‘educationally’ that the enslaved would abandon hope of successful resistance to the pushing system’s demands.”
Slaveholders, when not deploying violence and family separation as tools, strove to keep those they enslaved illiterate and to teach them a particular kind of religion that would “shore up slavery and protect the Southern social order” (as Furstenberg writes). Slaveholders could find ways to explain away the existence of fugitives and rebels too without disrupting their dominant beliefs about black inferiority. Black people who wanted to run away, physician Samuel Cartwright wrote in 1851, had “drapetomania,” a “disease of the mind.” Drapetomania, Cartwright thought, disrupted the natural docility of African people and could be cured by a slaveholder’s kind and firm treatment.
Nor did the idea that black people weren’t “rebellious enough” die after the Civil War—despite the enlistment of almost 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, historians continued to blame enslaved people for their failure to rebel. “Consider how bizarre this was,” Gates writes. “It wasn’t enough that slaves had been subjugated under a harsh and brutal regime for two and a half centuries; following the collapse of Reconstruction, this school of historians … kicked the slaves again for not rising up more frequently to kill their oppressive masters.”
Since the middle of the 20th century, many academic historians have been busy finding all the ways enslaved people did fight back. Gates points to the classic 1943 Herbert Aptheker book American Negro Slave Revolts, which broke with professional tradition and tallied about 250 instances of violent rebellion. Much more recently, prize-winning works like Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet have made the point that enslaved people’s acts of resistance helped prompt the onset of the Civil War and then assisted the Union to victory. “The existence of slave resistance and the study of it,” Stephanie M.H. Camp wrote in Closer to Freedom in 2004, “helped move American scholarship on slavery” past plantation nostalgia and into a decadeslong debate over what it meant to accommodate slavery, and what it meant to resist.
In her brilliant revision, which will turn your understanding of this subject on its head, Camp looked at daily rebellions committed by people who never rose up in violence or ran away. Instead, these enslaved people—often women—vanished into the woods to have family time and time alone, stole food to supplement the meager diet they were allotted, celebrated at “secret parties” and “outlaw dances,” collaborated to slow down work, taught each other how to read, even kept abolitionist materials in their cabins.
As Camp’s book makes eminently clear, people who experienced slavery did so within a web of relationships, which influenced their actions in ways as varying as the people themselves. Some people felt far freer than others to take big risks. “Most fugitives,” Eric Foner writes in his book on the Underground Railroad, “were young men who escaped alone.” These runaways, many of whom lived in the upper South and so were closer to freedom, geographically speaking, often planned to come back and retrieve family members from slavery—an ambition sometimes realized, and sometimes not.
What would you do if you were an enslaved woman, with a small child or children in your care? Or a man, with a much-loved disabled parent? Would you leave them behind, to face possible retaliation, and run—or try to take them with you, on a dangerous trip through swamps and woods? Would you rise up, and risk seeing them die in front of you? Given these relationships, even the decision to commit suicide (which enslaved people did make, much to slaveholders’ consternation) starts to look very difficult indeed.
This historical contemplation demands a painful amount of humility and empathy. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi famously describes being asked by a fifth-grader why he didn’t escape Auschwitz. The boy asked Levi to sketch the camp on the blackboard, then:
studied the drawing for a few seconds, asked me for some additional details, and illustrated the plan he devised: over here, at night, slit the sentry’s throat; then put on his uniform; right afterward, run down to the power station and cut the electricity, so that the searchlights would go off and the electric fence be deactivated.
To this, the boy added: “If it should happen to you another time, do as I said: you’ll see, you’ll succeed.”
In an extremely generous and kind assessment, Levi wrote that this student’s inability to understand what it was like for people in the camps is a classic human problem, “pertaining to our difficulty or inability to perceive the experiences of others … We tend to liken them to ‘closer’ experiences, as if the hunger of Auschwitz could be compared to the hunger of someone who has skipped a meal.”
When Jamelle Bouie and I interviewed historian Kidada Williams for our podcast series on Reconstruction, she explained why she makes a point of writing about the full range of responses black Americans had to racial violence in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. She told us about the diverse reactions of freedpeople to the incursions of nightriders—members of the KKK and other terrorist white supremacist groups, who came to their cabins in the dark to kill and maim. “I push back against the idea that self-defense [was] always an option,” Williams said. “We know that it [was] not. There are people who testify to freezing—what we would call today paralytic fright—and how do you defend yourself against paralytic fright? There are people who [were] injured at the beginning of the raid; they are trapped in their bodies trying to deal with the pain. How do they defend themselves?”
“As a historian, what I know is, people are looking for the uplifting, triumphant stories,” Williams told us. “But the record is a record of devastation.” We should know our own faults, and we should seek out history that doesn’t simplify obstacles and doesn’t let us identify too easily with the winners, the heroes, and the strong. Let Kanye’s wrongness be a lesson to us all.