STRANGE FRUIT HANGING FROM THE POP[lar] TREE:
On Kanye and What’s Really Significant About Race & Gender in 2018
by george white jr.
Thank God, I’m not on Twitter! Apparently, every time Kanye West farts, it stinks up all of social media. Now, I’m not here to defend Kanye’s embrace of Trumpism. A number of very smart people, whether trained scholars or “organic intellectuals,” have “read” Kanye for his foolishness. Some say that his MAGA-hat wearing/slavery-denying is a reflection of his fragile psychological state, which seems fair. It does kinda feel like he has been smoking his own “Crack [Music]” lately. Others suggest that this quest for attention bears a mercenary motive as if he’s just a “Gold Digger.” This argument, too, has merit. At least since the 1980s, people like Thomas Sowell, Armstrong Williams, and Dinesh D’Souza (not to mention Trump’s duo, Diamond and Silk)
have made a handsome living capeing for the racist/sexist/homophobic/nativist beliefs, destructive policies, and irrational fears of conservatives and their think tanks. Maybe he’s just trying to be a different kinda “Black Skinhead.” Still, more have suggested that, at root, he truly is just ignorant; after all, he is a “College Dropout.” Yet all this seems like picking at low-hanging fruit.
I would much rather watch TMZ take a celebrity down to Montgomery, Alabama to walk through the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”), which created the Museum and Memorial, is a non-profit institution that is part-law firm and part-advocacy group. The legal work, led by Bryan Stevenson (a friend from law school), focuses on fighting on behalf of death-row inmates, fighting for child prisoners, and fighting mass incarceration in other ways. The rest of the staff is a diverse collection of lawyers, social workers, fundraisers, and the formerly incarcerated. Together, they have birthed a Museum and Memorial to force a conversation about the history and legacy of slavery and racial fascism in America. My guess is that a leisurely walk through the 6-acre site, past its sculptures (one of which is dedicated to the women who sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and 800 6-feet-tall monuments (representing over 4,000 known female and male lynching victims), would reveal something more meaningful and moving about contemporary America than any self-obsessed rant by an increasingly erratic rapper.
I would love to hear an entire panel of talking heads on multiple channels (except, maybe, Fox) have an extended conversation about Siwatu-Salama Ra, the 26-year-old pregnant mother and community organizer in Detroit who was recently sentenced to 2 years in prison for acting in self-defense. According to a story published by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, in July 2017, Siwatu and her toddler were visiting “Grandma”, when a neighbor rammed her car into Siwatu’s car (the toddler was in Siwatu’s vehicle at the time). The neighbor then tried to use her car to ram Siwatu and Siwatu’s mother. Siwatu, who has a license to carry a concealed weapon, pulled out her gun and held it so that the angry neighbor could see it. The gun was unloaded and Siwatu had no intent to engage in deadly force; she just wanted the neighbor to stop trying to harm her and her family. Apparently, the angry neighbor got to the police station before Siwatu and filed a complaint. The police did not allow Siwatu to file a counter-complaint and she was charged with two counts of felony assault and a firearms violation. The Prosecutor in the case seems to have successfully convinced the jury that Siwatu had no legitimate fear of harm and, as such, could not invoke the Stand Your Ground defense that is available under Michigan law. So, a Black woman can’t invoke Stand Your Ground the way that George Zimmerman did, not even in an “open carry” state? And apparently, a Black woman can’t ask why an Alabama Waffle House charged her for plastic utensils that they give to everyone else for free without having the police show up and arrest her? Let’s fill the 24-hour news cycle with a critical analysis of why these NRA-backed laws don’t help Black folk. Let’s have an intense national conversation about Chikesia Clemons and why the arresting officers pulled her dress down exposing her breasts, just like the jailer who beat Fannie Lou Hamer pulled her dress up!
I’m not saying we should boycott Kanye, but we should support art and artists who affirm us and embolden us. One answer to this “Kanye panic” might be to do like I do when R. Kelly or Chris Brown comes on; turn the channel, turn off the device, or just cover your ears and hum “Love Supreme” [insert your favorite life-affirming instrumental song here]. My guess is that the last few years of Kanye’s life have been like the ending of that Childish Gambino video (more on that next time). He’s probably just tired and confused that he can’t out-run rabid White Privilege, so he figures he’ll try to join it. The Brotha did say “[You] Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” so don’t waste your breath or energy. Kanye is free to say all the dumb shit he wants and we are free to ignore him and talk about stuff that really matters.
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george white jr. is an associate professor of history at York College in Queens, NY.