Editor’s Note: John Sims is a multimedia artist, writer and producer. He is the creator of Recoloration Proclamation, a 16-year multimedia project featuring a series of Confederate flag installations. See more of his work at johnsimsprojects.com and follow him on Twitter: @Johnsimsproject. David A. Love is a writer and commentator. He contributes to a number of publications, including Atlanta Black Star, theGrio.com, WHYY and Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
The black community was up in arms over Kanye West’s remarks about slavery – for 400 years – being a choice.
Whether the artist’s comments were coming from a space of enlightenment or insanity, his words “choice” and “slavery” in the same sentence were mixing like oil and water for black folk. But after we settle down, take a breath, we may ask ourselves, very gently: Did African slaves really have a choice? Or more critical as we pass through the Memorial Day holiday: Is liberation a choice?
These are two questions we two writers want to think about. But before we move along here, let us remind ourselves that American slavery or any kind of slavery for that matter, as a collective history and experience, is very difficult to think, talk and feel about. And since the whole discussion is a trigger subject, we recommend caution, reflection and an open mind.
Was slavery a choice?
David Love: Slavery was a choice that white supremacy made against black lives and freedom.
Consider the circumstances that allowed slavery to take place. African people were kidnaped at gunpoint, held in dungeons off the coast of West Africa before they were packed and stacked in floating dungeons known as slave ships. They were doomed to make the journey across the Atlantic, known as the dreaded Middle Passage, where millions died due to the horrific conditions on those ships.
Those who survived were traumatized, separated from their families and communities, their institutions, traditions and belief systems. They did not speak the language of their captors, who foisted a religion upon them – complete with a white god – and preached that black people were inferior and doomed to slavery in perpetuity.
Southern states enacted the “Slave Codes,” to monitor and codify oppression into law, deputizing white America as prison guards of the plantations. These laws reflected white racial paranoia and fear of servile insurrection and assumed black people would break their chains if given the chance.
Offenses such as insurrection – including publishing literature encouraging slaves to rebel – and assaulting a white person with the intent to kill were punishable by death, serving as a deterrent for black people. Slaves were property with no rights and no chance of justice. They were subject to curfews, could not assemble without a white person present and were unable to testify or defend themselves in court.
John Sims: When you put “choice” in the context of the singular artist’s mind, where creativity and freedom are untradable intangibles, we can see how someone like Kanye or a studied revolutionary or defiant poet can choose freedom in death over the servitude of bondage. And of course, they might be confused why everyone else is not following suit.
But in nature, the goal is to survive. So, if slavery is the alternative to the fear of death and mass extinction, then perhaps the “choice” of slavery was also the hope and anticipation of a future freedom – as smart-surviving as a palm tree bending in the wind of a Category 5 hurricane.
With that in mind, we descendants of African slaves are indebted to the slaves who chose slavery over death in hope of a better day. Their pain and endurance is why we – as a people – are even still here. We are also indebted to those who chose death and the many, many nameless folks who ran away, fought back and died in divine acts of resistance. Their sacrifices are gifts of light in a time of great darkness, because their resistance was a reminder on the deepest level that slavery was wrong. And as we continue this journey out of darkness, we might ask ourselves another question:
Is liberation a choice?
Love: Liberation is a choice. Some people chose to navigate the system of slavery and stay alive. Some, like the Quilombos in Brazil and Gaspar Yanga in Mexico ran away, while others such as Joseph Cinqué of the Amistad killed their captors. Others, such as 75 Nigerians at Igbo Landing off the Georgia coast took over their slave ship, drowning their kidnappers and ultimately themselves, choosing death over enslavement.
In that regard, Kanye spoke out of ignorance, as someone who is proud that he does not read books, and apparently does not know that black people fought and killed to be free.
History is replete with examples of just that. From Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey to the Haitian Revolution and the US Civil War, people of African descent have demonstrated their willingness to die in lieu of being kept alive to be violently oppressed.
Turner and his band of rebel slaves killed 51 white people in 1831. After being captured and hanged, he was reportedly skinned, and his body parts distributed as souvenirs to whites. States made it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write because Turner was literate.
The Civil War erupted only a few years after John Brown, a white man inspired by Nat Turner, raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an effort to arm a slave rebellion. Some 40,000 black soldiers died in that war – some massacred after surrendering, as in the case of Fort Pillow.
Liberation was also a choice for my great-great-great grandparents, Clarissa and Daniel Whaley, who fled from a plantation in Pineville, South Carolina, to Charleston during the Civil War. According to my family’s oral history, they escaped with a group of self-liberated black people across the river and through the swamps.
My great-great grandfather, Henry, was an infant wrapped in his mother Clarissa’s apron, tied to her back. Henry cried out as the slave catchers – the police, the ICE of their day – approached. Clarissa had to decide whether to kill her baby to avoid attracting the patrols. Instead, she decided to breastfeed Henry, saving his and everyone’s life. Clarissa chose liberation on her own terms, and I’m thankful for it.
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Sims: In honor of those who have sacrificed their physical and cultural freedom before us, it is important to continue the journey of liberation and creative resistance. However black liberation is a gigantic project in progress.
If we want more of it, we must choose to continue the fight against police brutality, mass incarceration, and support black businesses, education, history, and culture – not after we have been rejected and pounced upon, but before.
To do this, black people must critique the gravity of compliance and consumerism driven by capitalism, mind-altering marketing, corporate news, megachurches and generic mass education – all of the mechanisms that shape independent thought.
I have tried to push against the aftermath of colonial slavery by using the art process as a tool for transformation and healing. In 2015, for the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I organized Confederate flag funerals all across the South. But after the horrific Charleston church shootings, I started a national call to burn and bury the Confederate flag every Memorial Day, not only to confront the trauma of Confederate and American slavery iconography but also as a way to honor the veterans of social justice who chose to speak up and push for change, equal rights and self liberation.
Whatever you may think of Kanye’s comments, they got us talking about slavery, choices, freedom and resistance and how they relate. Now that the media dust has settled and the news have cycled elsewhere, we still must reckon with the continued rocky road to freedom and the intersecting matrices of collective and individual choices to move forward.