This blog was first published on indy.education
By Andrew Pillow
If you are a consumer of social media, by now you have likely heard Kanye West is back on twitter. Kanye West is no stranger to controversy, but it has been a while since he’s gone on a sustained twitter rant. The rants seem to occur bi-annually or every time he plans to release new music. Kanye like his new buddy, President Trump, is an expert at using the media to relay his controversial opinions to the masses to build publicity. We have become accustomed to this, but this time Kanye has gone to far.
In a recent interview with TMZ, Kanye West went off the deep end and implied American slavery was somehow voluntary:
"When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” He went on to add, “You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.”
This is, needless to say, a spectacularly bad take on one of America’s greatest sins. Slavery, by definition is not a “choice,” nor did people stay in bondage solely because they were in some kind of mental prison. This sounds like something a person would post on Facebook to come across as a deep intellectual…which to be fair is not too far off from what Kanye West is doing, but this leads me to the bigger issue at play here: Kanye West has too big of an audience to be doing what he’s doing.
Kanye West does not exist in a vacuum and he is too important of a cultural figure to say things this ridiculous. It’s one thing for some random person on twitter or Instagram to make such comments, but it’s more problematic when the person who can instantly reach 28 million people with his words, a fact which wasn’t lost on TMZ staffer, Van Lathan:
You’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but there is fact and real world, real life consequence behind everything you just said. And while you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives. We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice.” Lathan ends with telling Kanye he has to be “responsible”.
Lathan’s words echo my sentiments. Kanye’s attention seeking rants have larger consequences than just extra twitter mentions for him. Consequences I see first hand every single day as a middle school teacher. My students listen and look up to Kanye West. They are not quite at the age where they can separate the musical talent of their idols from their nonsensical opinions. My students hear this nonsense and come straight to class with it.
My kids have enough silly ideas about slavery as it is:
“I couldn’t have been no slave Mr. Pillow.”
“They wouldn’t have me out there all day like that.”
“I would have been done took off.”
They say all of these things as if slavery was some kind of entry level job that you can just quit. You can’t blame kids that are 60 plus years removed from the civil rights movement for having these thoughts… but I can blame Kanye West for propagating them.
People who aren’t teachers, will probably question how much students really listen to celebrities or ramblings on the internet, but in my short seven years as a classroom teacher, I have had to:
Prove to my students that the world was not coming to an end in 2012.
Convince my students that Jay-Z and Beyoncé were in fact not members of the illuminati.
Reteach my middle schoolers that the Earth is round because Kyrie Irving told them it was flat.
In a perfect world, words from celebrities wouldn’t have a negative impact on the rest of the world, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, you don’t take a cultural competency test before you are imbued with musical or athletic talent. We can’t magically make easily influenced middle and high schoolers critical thinkers and historians, but we can demand that Kanye West hold himself to a higher standard of discourse about critical issues.