By Andrew Kishuni
Recently on a TMZ program, hip-hop artist Kanye West, in defense of his Trump campaign baseball cap, offered an interesting, yet historically flawed, reflection on the history of slavery: that 400 years of slavery in America was “a choice.”
Many have criticized his comments, including artists and radio stations who disagree. Yet, their disagreement only stretches so far without historical evidence. After all, West argued a historiographical point, which deserves a factual, historical counter.
Was 400 years of African-American slavery a choice? What were the options available to slaves? These are massive questions to tackle. Many historians, political scientists, economists, and legal scholars have dedicated their entire lives to answering them, and gargantuan bibliographies exist on the topic. However, here we will briefly highlight some key aspects that break down components of West’s position – and why it is historically distorted.
Four-hundred years of slavery, with an English-language historical record as our guide, was not a choice. The legal and social strictures imposed on slaves from the 1700s to the twentieth century were designed specifically to minimize choice, and the choices that did exist to slaves ended in varying methods of death: death by plantation, death by homicide, or death by suicide.
In “Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit,” Lawrence Langer coined the phrase “choiceless choices,” in describing the options available to concentration camp populations under the Nazis. He highlighted that the choices available to prisoners were a range of options that all ended in death, or worse, such as reprisal killings.
In many ways, the options available to African-American slaves were “choiceless choices,” in that they could choose to revolt and kill several of their slaveowners, but be put down by lethal force from local militias, police forces, and the U.S. Army, and potentially bring death to hundreds of uninvolved slaves.
For instance, Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia was crushed in two days by U.S. Army soldiers and local militias. Turner was sentenced to death and hanged later that year; historian Scot French, in “The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory,” noted that Turner’s body was skinned and beheaded, as a message to the slave community, and denied a burial, while members of the uprising were executed without trial.
However, scholar Patrick Breen highlighted in “The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt” that the violence did not end there: organized militias and local posses attacked other black populations uninvolved in the insurrection, killing an estimated 120, in a bloody racial hysteria.
Deborah Gray White noted in “Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans,” that legislature was emplaced after the rebellion through “police bills” to suspend free blacks trial by jury, and deny slaves religious gatherings unless accompanied by white slaveowners.
These were the kinds of “choiceless choices” open to slaves. Rebellions were an option, but always ended in complete death, sometimes even to the uninvolved – simply because they were black.
If death by violent means was insufficient, however, the legal culture intervened and amplified strictures previously imposed on slave communities, as highlighted throughout Thomas Morris’ “Southern Slavery and the Law 1619-1860.” Morris noted that the legal system characterized slaves as tools based on “inferiority,” “property,” and “powerlessness,” the last of which possesses an interesting definition:
Keep blacks – whether slave or free – as powerlessas possible so that they will be submissive and dependentin every respect, not only to the master, but to whites in general. To assure powerlessness, subject blacks to a secondary system of justicewith lesser rights and protections and greater punishments than for whites. [emphasis mine]
Social institutions adopted the “powerlessness” doctrine through such legal justifications. In “Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States,” Thomas Cobb remarked that “the negro race” was “peculiarly fitted for a laborious class,” whose “mental capacity” rendered them “incapable of successful self-development,” but rather, ripe “for the direction of a wiser race.”
The lack of choice to slaves was not singularly dictated by militias capable of outgunning or outnumbering slave insurrections: that is the mere physical reality. It was that the legal and political culture of an entire government facilitated slavery, and went as far as necessitating anti-miscegenation laws to guard racial purity. In such a climate, it is nearly impossible to possess any choice at all.