In the wake of Kanye West’s statement of slavery being a choice, it was surprising to find many Africans and African-Americans agreeing with that controversial statement. The support of Kanye is undoubtedly an evidence of high ignorance and lack of thorough knowledge into the activities of slave trade. Kanye was quoted on TMZ saying: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years, and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison.” I asked most of those who defended and agreed with Kanye’s statement if they would also consider colonialism a choice. Most replied no. So if colonialism could never be regarded as a choice, how could slavery ever be deemed a choice? Kanye has always had something to say about slavery, whether ignorant or knowledgeable. He once Tweeted, “there was a time when slavery was the trend and apparently that time is still upon us. But now it’s a mentality,” (the statement was heavily criticised by many as self-victimisation).
It seems Africans are the only people who use their history against themselves. They dispose their history, contort it and to some extent ignore it. In this classification of Africans, I also make reference to African-Americans, who are very much part of this continent, because of their historical connection to the continent.
When the oppressed no longer recognises subjugation, that form of exploitation is even greater. To recognize and understand that you are oppressed is part of a journey towards freedom. In all the arguments supporting free thinking, Kanye conveniently forgets that free thinking must first take place within a conducive and equal space.
Slavery was no doubt in existence on the continent before the arrival of the Europeans. But the understanding of the kind of slavery Africans had within themselves was totally different. The greatest palm oil merchant of his time, Jaja of Opobo in what is now Nigeria was sold as a slave when he was 12 years old. He earned his way out of slavery and became the head of the house that he was bought into. He would later go on to tax British merchants and export oil. However in 1887, after the Berlin Conference, he was arrested under the pretext of negotiations.
Unfortunately, for those taken out of Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, their fate was different. The conversation between African-Americans and Africans on the continent should be one of recognition of each other’s pain and trauma. If there are conversations Kanye should encourage, it should be dialogue on the effects of colonialism on the African continent, the victims of slave trade in America, effects on generations of descendants who still suffer from remnants of slavery. The choice here is rather to have these uncomfortable conversations or to ignore them, not to misrepresent and misconstrue facts as Kanye is now doing.
The constant mistake many make is to think that the present isn’t affected by the past. To think that 400 years of slavery should just be forgotten and does not affect the everyday systematic oppression of black people is wrong. The ignorance of the structure of racism, that’s predicated on the institution of slavery, is a high cost for free thinking. If there’s a wake-up call that African-Americans must heed to, it was the voting of Donald Trump as president. A staggering reminder that their very existence in America is still seen through the lens of slavery. Who then isn’t making the choice of moving past 400 years of slavery?
The past few years, Africans have been constantly reminded that colonialism came with benefits we must appreciate. The rewriting of the history of the oppression black people have gone through in this world in the hands of white people is a threat to the collective experience and memory Africans have gone through. As James Baldwin put it, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
400 years of slavery was never a choice and colonialism was never a choice. Kanye’s emphasis on the now shows a failure to understand history, that everything in the past has led to the present.