Analysis

Kanye’s ‘Slavery Is a Choice’ Remarks Recall Slurs About Jews in the Holocaust

Rap star’s interview and tweets, including misquote of slave-rescuing abolitionist Harriet Tubman, cause outrage; leading black-Jewish writer tweets ‘This is like when white people say they would have fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’

Kanye West performing in Toronto, Canada, July 2015.
USA Today Sports/ REUTERS

The outrage and hurt among the African-American community following controversial remarks by Kanye West on Tuesday regarding the role of blacks in their own enslavement rang disturbingly familiar for many Jews, who are used to hearing similar assertions about the Holocaust.

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In his live interview with TMZ, in the midst of a rather convoluted ramble explaining his escape from “mental imprisonment,” the rap star stated that in some way slavery was a “choice” for those brought to America from Africa and treated brutally as chattel for hundreds of years.

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years – for 400 years? That sound like a choice!” exclaimed West. “Like, you was there for 400 years, and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison. I like the word prison, because slavery goes too direct to the idea of blacks. It’s like slavery, Holocaust, Holocaust, Jews. Slavery is blacks. So prison is something that unites us as one race, the human race.”

West’s comments were part of a discussion about his support for U.S. President Donald Trump, and what appears to be his often unhinged attempt at a personal transformation as a “free thinker” who has escaped his “mental prison” and thrown off the chains of politically correct orthodoxy.

The analogy he appeared to be making – between the relationship of the scars of slavery to the black community and the Holocaust to Jews – invoked the inability of both groups to move past these traumas and forge a positive identity.

But he also clearly implied that both groups had somehow been trapped in victimhood and passivity, unable and unwilling to fight back at the time they were being oppressed.

Later Tuesday, West took to Twitter to defend his “free thought” regarding slavery. “For us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved,” he wrote.

He tweeted what he said was a quote by Harriet Tubman, the slave-rescuing abolitionist: “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” It is widely accepted that Tubman never actually said those words, and that she would never have suggested slaves tacitly consented to their own exploitation.

West also asserted that “If this was 148 years ago I would have been more like Harriet or Nat,” referring to Tubman and Nat Turner – who famously led a Virginia slave insurrection in 1831.

West’s ideas are similar to characterizations of the Holocaust portraying Jews as going “like sheep to the slaughter.” Jews themselves have not been immune from painting such a picture: Many Jews who survived the genocide in Europe and arrived in the newly established State of Israel recalled an atmosphere in which they were made to feel ashamed of what had happened to them.

As in the case of West and slavery, such assertions ignored the historical facts that partisan fighting, death camp revolts and ghetto uprisings were all attempted and brutally suppressed – and that the numerous individual acts of resistance ended in widespread death.

That point was duly noted by Jews on Twitter. The Atlantic writer Adam Serwer, a Jew of color, called out West for his arrogance and ignorance of history.

“‘Why didn’t the Jews fight back and stop the Holocaust’ and ‘Slavery was a choice’ are related arguments that conveniently elide responsibility on behalf of the people who are actually, you know, responsible,” Serwer wrote.

He added, “This is like when white people say they would have fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”

West was also schooled on the history of resistance to slavery – and the fact that his Tubman quote had indeed been debunked by a number of commentators.

Professor Marc Lamont Hill tweeted, “There has NEVER been a moment in history when Black people didn’t resist slavery. Some did it by jumping off ships. Some killed masters. Some ran away. Some did it through everyday forms of resistance. Slave masters didn’t retire. Our resistance led to our freedom.”Like many Jews fight Holocaust revisionism, activists and leaders in the black community viewed West’s position as dangerous fuel for the fire of racist white supremacists, seeing it as a form of admission that blacks themselves were somehow responsible for their fates as slaves – and for the racial prejudice they suffer today."

Film and theater producer Wendell Pierce called him out, noting: “It is clear that @kanyewest is being sensational for the sake of publicity. I could care less about that. But for you to use the murder and holocaust of slavery for your own self-aggrandizement is at the core of your vile appeasement of white supremacists.”