Social media has been abuzz of late with responses to comments that rapper Kanye West made during a radio interview in which he opined that slavery was a “choice” for slaves. The vast majority of social media users, who weighed in on this topic, including a host of celebrities, came out strongly against West and either sought to dismiss these comments by attributing them to his allegedly unbalanced mental state or to educate him on how horrible the system of slavery was. Ergo, it was not a choice.
Ordinarily, it would probably be wisest to ignore this furore as just another outburst by a celebrity who is seeking to garner publicity for himself. After all, West is currently working on an album that is due to be released later this year and, if we have learnt anything from the cult of celebrity in the digital age, it is that controversy sells. As his arguments are likely to have serious implications for a range of global debates, however, it behoves us to reflect on the nature and potential ramifications of his comments rather than to dismiss them as a celebrity stunt. This applies more especially in South Africa, a country with a deep yet frequently overlooked slave history, which set the tone for race relations and provided the blueprint for future systems of racial oppression.
To see how his views could affect some topical current debates, consider that, if slavery was a choice and slaves had become inured to the depredations of their social station, on what grounds could slave descendants make legitimate demands for justice, reparations or restitution? On the other hand, implying that slaves had no choice as those who have rushed to remind us of how brutal the system of slavery really was, risks infantilising slaves and detracting from their agency. What effect does characterising them thus, as terrified spectators to their fate who patiently waited upon their white masters to free them from their bondage, have on the psyche of slave descendants, who by and large remain rooted at the bottom of the societal hierarchy? Speculatively, subscribing to this view risks mentally enslaving slave descendants further, no matter how well-meaning these posts are.
Perhaps a better way to contribute to the online debate generated by West’s comments would be to allow slaves to speak for themselves instead of looking to the latest memes that are trending on social media. We could do so by looking at the choices, which they made. If we did, we would see that, time and again, slaves chose freedom. Far from being victims resigned to their fate who placidly bore their circumstances with dignity and large doses of faith, a stereotype so beloved in the blockbusters which many of the entertainers who took offence to West’s remarks star in, slaves never lost their desire to be free and proved themselves willing to fight for their freedom no matter the cost.
South Africa itself has a history of slave rebellion and resistance, from the relatively peaceable Jij Rebellion of 1808 to the more violent 1825 uprising led by Abel, Thyssen and Galant. All these took place in addition to the myriad undocumented daily acts of resistance in which slaves engaged; from running away, to arson or to aiding members of runaway communities. Though these rebellions, as with other slave uprisings internationally, were largely unsuccessful; Haiti being the most well-known exception; these episodes show that slaves never lost the capacity to hope.
Sadly this history of resistance has been all but overlooked worldwide in favour of the prevailing narrative according to which slavery was ended only after former slaveholders became enlightened and decided to emancipate their slaves through an act of benevolence or were forced to do so after being militarily defeated by their “woke” brethren as in the case of the American Civil War. For perpetuating this narrative that ultimately reinforces the notion of white dominance and black subservience we members of former slave societies are all culpable. So, if you would like to drop the mic on Kanye West, refrain from re-posting your favourite celebrity’s latest tweet on this topic; demand a more accurate representation of our slave history instead.
* Gerard Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College). He writes in his personal capacity.