“I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”, about Kanye West “lending his imprimatur…to the racist rhetoric of the conservative movement,” is yet another tour-de-force essay by America’s premier public intellectual. I deeply appreciate how Ta-Nehisi Coates offers so much more than he really needs to, how he opens windows and doors that shine profound light on seemingly ancillary subjects. In this case, those subjects include the pre-internet era of having to see something to believe it and Coates’ current, oddly alienating stardom that began in 2015. But does Coates want to reach anyone besides people (like me) who are in his pre-existing fan base?
Coates writes that Kanye West wants freedom – defined as white freedom. In his most quoted condemnation:
West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory…
Sorry, but Coates’ full jeremiad leaves out a lot of “hard memory” about hip-hop history and the more recent, Coates-influenced past. If Coates were just another rapper dropping rhymes about West, I’d be fine with him cutting a few corners, but Coates is a little too long-winded, and influential, to leave out as much as he did. The freedom West seeks is only nominally or usually or typically white freedom. In fact, West valorizes the same freedom that other black figureheads have historically had, as well as a newer freedom from the more recent monolithic dictates of political correctness. Coates’ history leaves out those earlier black icons as well as Coates’ role in the new PC. A more honest essay would have not only revealed Coates’ current and third-grade insecurities (kudos, though, because that was brilliantly done), but also moved beyond preaching to Coates’ choir. We need that if we – Trump haters and Trump voters – are ever going to take things like this West-Trump episode and move forward together as Americans.
So here’s my supplementary corrective to Coates’ piece. Obviously you’ll have read “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” before reading this, but it will also help if you are familiar with more of Coates’ work, if not his masterful book Between the World and Me then at least essays like “My President Was Black”and “The First White President” and/or many of the others collected in his book We Were Eight Years in Power.
In his latest essay, Coates takes us on a journey from 1982, when Michael Jackson was “God” (six times Coates calls him God with a capital G), through he and Kanye West’s childhood seeing the space shuttle Challenger explode between original airings of The Cosby Show, to…well, he sort of fast-forwards to September 2001, “mere days before the Twin Towers fell,” when Coates finally saw the clip of Jackson’s most famous moonwalk, culminating in the fateful day, 9/11, that the Towers and The Blueprint(Jay-Z’s album produced partly by West) simultaneously dropped. Well, he writes that in September 2001 his “theme music” included four somewhat conscious hip-hop songs from the mid-1990s; he writes of his gratitude that Twitter wasn’t around then, “because Lord knows how many times I would have told you hip-hop was dead, and Lord knows how many times I would have said ‘Incarcerated Scarfaces’  was the peak of civilization.” But when he heard Kanye with Jay-Z, he felt “back in communion with something that I felt had been lost,” namely a sense of slave ancestry in hip-hop.
I find Coates’ religious language – “Lord knows,” capital-G God, “in communion” – highly significant. Coates would hardly be the only American to have turned to faith in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Coates has admitted his atheism, but he treats Jackson and West as some kind of deities – he writes here of West’s “parishioners.” In an interview with Michael Eric Dyson, Coates says, “I don’t know how you grow up black in this country and not have tremendous respect for the church, even though I was raised outside of it. So even as I articulate my beliefs, I try to be really respectful.”
And yet…this West-Trump episode is all about perceived disrespect, and it’s hard not to feel that Coates’ words, in his latest essay and in other places, have exacerbated disrespect between the black community and conservatives. Coates offers lip service to respecting black churches, but he doesn’t even try to offer the same to predominantly white churches. If we’re choosing to talk about gods and Gods, let’s recognize that everyone is genuflecting toward a higher power.
Back in September 2001, both before and after the 11th, the black community and conservatives shared many of the same values. A lot of this related to religion, which was often Christian, but sometimes even Muslim. Obviously, we can’t pretend that black people and Christian conservatives were ever as close as, let’s say, feminists and Ms. Magazine. There were plenty of nodes of disagreement, but it was not as polarized as it is now. When black people and Christian conservatives did agree, the emphasis was on the one and only God, family, tradition, and independence from a suspicious federal government.
Many black leaders then extolled a sort of religious freedom from the state that Coates is now labeling as “white.” Louis Farrakhan was arguably one of them. I get that a lot of that freedom was cishet-male-coded, and tied to women and Jews and gay people being routinely disparaged or at least made to feel inferior. Coates has been one of the leaders of a movement toward greater inclusiveness, which is laudable, but he can’t keep saying “there’s nothing new here” without acknowledging that he seems to forgive black churches’, but still condemns white churches’, misogyny and anti-Semitism and homophobia.
Coates could have written about West’s wife and the long history of black men mating with women lighter than “manila folders” (Coates’ words); perhaps Coates didn’t want to fuel certain corners of the internet by going down the rabbit hole of Kim Kardashian’s ethnicity. Instead, Coates’ thesis is that West (is a God who) wants to be white, as Michael Jackson did. But a child molester like Jackson is a little too easy a target; we all understand that he disgraced himself. Coates wouldn’t dare extend that thesis a few years forward to the best artist of the Cosby Show years, Prince, because confronting all the ways in which Prince was “a black god dying to be white” would have lost Coates most of his pre-existing base. Was Prince’s freedom really “white freedom”? No; Prince was simply declaring himself free of anything but his own muse.
And Coates certainly can’t mention the band, N.W.A., that came along to redefine hardcore blackness, and along the way, make Kanye’s career possible. You know, the band that sang “We all said fuck you bitch and kept going”? I could write a piece as long as Coates’ piece consisting of only misogynistic/homophobic/anti-Asian/anti-Semitic quotes from N.W.A., and Coates well knows it. Public Enemy had its own issues as seen in “She Watch Channel Zero,” the embrace of Farrakhan, and Professor Griff’s anti-Semitism (Griff was ejected from the group for it; however, in 2013, Chuck D made sure Griff was part of the group induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Were Ice Cube and Chuck D championing white freedom? I thought they were just declaring themselves free thinkers.
Isn’t Raekwon, the narrator of Coates’ favorite song ever, “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” calling himself the black Trump, or at least enjoying the idea of it? Is it possible that Kanye is allying himself with Trump as part of trying to re-establish, or at least connect to, pre-politically correct hip-hop? By writing about West as the best of old-school and new-school, and by invoking yet denuding Golden Age hip-hop, Coates loses track of West’s real motivations in his alliance with Trump.
I know highly paid people on TV who would look at the black church’s, and hip-hop’s, former traditionalism (read: misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism) and say that black people have wisely moved on and grown up. That may be, but if so, that has also had the consequence of growing black people apart from a large section of America. Because nobody, least of all Coates, recognizes this breakup for what it was, the hurt feelings continue to fester. Basically, Christian conservatives look at black churchgoers and hip-hop lovers and say, “We thought you were with us on some things. What happened?” Instead of reacting like Coates and responding that the change in black consciousness was some kind of natural or inevitable evolution, we might try actually answering the question. Ask any doctor: you can’t solve the problem if you can’t name the problem.
No doubt, President Obama changed the game, but as with Trump, the feelings that made his presidency possible preceded him. The real history of political correctness is waiting to be written (by some scholar braver than I), but when it is, it will be clear that the movement blazed bright in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then, around the time of the first O.J. Simpson trial and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and the ascent of the all-white, gay-bashing Friends to America’s #1 show, America had backlashed, and would remain backlashed for about another decade. Almost everyone, including black people, opposed same-sex marriage; if women’s sexuality was expressed as Britney Spears or Monica Lewinsky did it, this was celebrated as freedom; and almost everyone looked the other way on disproportionate incarceration of, and police brutalism toward, black people.
I believe this to-be-written history will show that the new political correctness and minority inclusion (they’re related, but not the same thing) began around the time Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a telethon to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s autobiography would cite this as the low point of his presidency – not the hurricane, not his failed response, not the 1200-plus mostly brown dead people, but West’s hurtful remarks. Hadn’t Bush appointed Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to historic positions? I know what you’re thinking: if West was angry about how the GOP treated black people, how does that jibe with his current bromance with Trump? Well, it’s complicated! Trump was angry at the Bush administration, too.
(After years in which the GOP had slavishly followed Grover Norquist’s idea that he wanted to shrink government to the size where he could drown it in the bathtub…the GOP left a city full of black people to drown as though in a bathtub. Any other country would have had armed forces ready to help…but our military, the world’s largest, was bogged down in an unwinnable, ill-advised war in Iraq. And Hurricane Katrina forced an African-American diaspora all over the South, warping that region’s politics.)
More than anything, the takeaway from Katrina was this isn’t working. However complacent you may have been about politics, whatever instincts 9/11 may have reinforced, you didn’t see hundreds of dead black bodies floating past rooftops, left to rot in the sun, and think: nope, no changes needed here.
The year following Hurricane Katrina brought Ice Cube and his trade-the-races show “Black.White.,”Survivor and its four tribes sorted by race, Tyra Banks’ show sending black people out in whiteface, Dr. Phil putting a white person in a black family for two days to “cure” his racism, Jon Stewart hiring his first non-white correspondents, introduced as “Senior Black Correspondent” (Larry Wilmore) and “Senior Muslim Correspondent” (Aasif Mandvi), as well as Oprah Winfrey showing her audience how she’d look as a white person. Were all these people “championing white freedom” in Coates’ language? None of these would occur without griping from Coates or his fans today. But I’d say we wouldn’t have arrived in this PC era without these and many other such experiments from 2006 – Katrina showed that something about race relations and justice wasn’t working.
Social media was another key driver of the change. If George W. Bush had had a marvelous presidency, with no lies, no secrets, no covert torture – who knows? Maybe we’d all still be on MySpace. But Bush gave opacity such a bad name, it’s no wonder people flocked from the pseudonymous-ish MySpace to the all-transparent-all-the-time Facebook and Twitter (and eventually Instagram). It turns out that when people know that their grandmother or mother or sister is going to read their public comments, they say things like “shut up fag” a little less. (This is the secret reason, despite 2018 revelations, that we’re not leaving Facebook; it makes people more grandma-friendly versions of themselves.) And when people know that their tweet will last in cyberspace forever, most of them, though not Donald Trump, do some healthy self-policing. And as they do, they carp on others who don’t, and virtue-signaling becomes a never-ending spiral…well before Obama became President, we got through several months of celebrity-shaming people like Mel Gibson, Paula Deen, Don Imus, Michael Richards, Brett Ratner, and various athletes who used the sort of homophobic/sexist/racist/ableist language that none of them would dare use now.
I linger on Katrina and social media because I think it’s a little too easy for Coates and many of his supporters to think: Obama got elected, a bunch of racists freaked out, they vocally blame political correctness but they’re really racist, and because of that we’re stuck with Trump, and further stuck with a few anti-anti-Trumpers like Kanye who wind up betraying their race. More people on the so-called “left” and “right” need to know that’s not exactly what happened. Obama, not unlike Trump eight years later, was a symptom of the zeitgeist as much as a cause. That said, yes, Obama’s presence may have accelerated some of the PC era in a way that a John McCain presidency would not have. And that’s a good thing: it led to Black Lives Matter, legal same-sex marriage, and strides that every feminist conference had acknowledged well before #metoo. But it also led to overreach.
Before I explain what I mean by overreach, let’s summarize: Coates’ history, as magnificently as it portrays the pre-internet era, could be a little less selective. But to really put Kanye West’s latest apostasy in full context, we would do well to address Coates’ gloss on more recent events. I’m grateful to Coates for lingering on the stardom that, he says, began for him in the summer of 2015 with the release of Between the World and Me. That summer turned out to be quite the pivot point in American history. Same-sex marriage finally became the official law of the land…long overdue. But like Andrew Sullivan, I question that being followed with the strident agitation for every kind of transgender rights – including the immediate labeling as racist Obama’s 2011-era statements on the LGBTQ community. Summer 2015 is when #gamergate reached a sort of détente, but disenfranchised males got angrier about using their, uh, “free speech.” Also in summer 2015, Jon Stewart retired, which meant that liberals lost a trusted voice that could (and did) call out liberal excesses of politically correctness. Donald Trump descended an escalator to start a campaign for the presidency…and went off script by disparaging unnamed Mexicans as criminals and rapists. Straight Outta Compton was released in theaters, presenting the denuded version of N.W.A.’s story with barely any misogyny or homophobia or anti-Semitism…and the movie was a huge hit. The PC version of N.W.A.’s story was told as though it was just the right thing to do – we could no longer afford to see Cube and Dre and Eazy-E as the iconoclasts they were. Meanwhile in 2015, liberals continued disinviting speakers to campuses, stigmatizing the phrase “you guys,” excoriating people for posting photos of themselves petting dolphins, and declaring a list of microaggressions to be a microaggression.
The day after Trump’s escalator descent, an idiot named Dylaan Roof opened fire on nine parishioners in Charleston, killing nine black people. Absolutely nothing can excuse that terrible crime and I personally hope Roof and anyone who supports him rots in hell. But then, the day after the day after Trump’s descent, something almost unprecedented happened. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now” for the Atlantic. It began “Last night, Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston church, sat for an hour, and then killed nine people. Roof’s crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated his state nor from its potent symbol—the Confederate flag.” Never say public intellectuals have no effect on the real world; with this article, Coates inspired liberals to adopt a brand-new cause. It’s not like Black Lives Matter had been calling for the removal of Confederate Flags; it’s not like people have reacted to that van-massacring misogynist in Toronto by calling for the Equal Rights Amendment.
I think we should consider the possibility that PC may have jumped the shark a little bit in that summer. More equal treatment for marginalized groups, yes. But the proud overreaches of disinvitations, stigmatizations and microaggressions? Saying that a horrible massacre’s outcome should be symbol removal? Leading to the agitating of the removal of Confederate-hero statues? I personally agree with removing Confederate flags and statues, but I don’t call people who disagree racists. Especially since prior to 2015, almost no one had an opinion on them one way or another. In 2013, when Kanye West decided to wear a Confederate flag, everyone rolled their eyes and moved on.
Most of my liberal friends don’t roll eyes anymore; they declare everyone either #woke or racist. The PC environment has become over-stifling and even counter-productive to liberal interests, as noted this week in the New York Times here and here and here, and the Washington Post here. What those articles don’t quite say, but should, is that our discourse needs more middle ground, if only to label some people “ignorant” or “needs work” instead of maintaining this woke/racist binary. Living in PC America is now comparable to you playing a video game that you thought you could master (like every other game), where the goalposts keep moving even as the game gaslights you into thinking the game was always meant to be never-ending. What do I mean by that? Let’s imagine that some PC person objects to Bari Weiss’s phrase in the New York Times “Intellectual Dark Web” (linked) by saying that the un-PC intellectuals she discusses are adopting “dark” in an Other-ized, forbidden sense that serves to maintain white-black asymmetrical power relations. (Is that a crazy hypothetical? Did anyone object to “you guys” ten years ago?) Would anyone on the left object? It’s unlikely. So now the goalposts have moved again: you’re nownot allowed to say “dark” the way you did growing up. If this happened, I’d note that Ta-Nehisi Coates, of all people, uses “dark” in precisely that unenlightened way twice during “I’m Not Kanye, I’m Black.” (F5 it yourself.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been one of the main people leading all black people to Team Woke; his little spat with a different West, Cornel West (who called him out for lionizing Obama while ignoring Obama’s imperialism), only proved that most black persons in the media are on Coates’ side. In academia, Between the World and Mehas to be the most-added-to-a-syllabus text of the decade. Yet I would fight for his right to use “dark,” and any other word, without running afoul of the shame police.
This is a very long way of saying that freedom from societal expectations and political correctness is not, or should not be, the same as “white freedom.” It may simply be iconoclasm or what some call “free thinking.” Kanye West has the right to be an iconoclast without the monolithic left, led by Coates, slamming him. We have to somehow work our way out of several binaries, including woke/racist, and anti-Trump/pro-Trump. We have to stop giving right-wingers excuses to believe this cartoon is right.
All that very much said, I agree that it’s concerning that West has vaunted his own failure to read books and specifically lent his credibility (such as it is) to the Trump Administration. Coates is not wrong when he writes that West’s statements have become part of“the propaganda that justifies voter suppression, and feeds police brutality, and minimizes the murder of Heather Heyer.” However, he knew that all of his allies would have agreed with that. I’d like him to expand his pulpit past his usual parishioners. I’d like him to say something less incendiary about white freedom, acknowledging that non-Michael Jackson artists like Ice Cube and Chuck D have sometimes had a freedom that transcended racial binaries. I’d prefer he condemn West in language that leaves open the possibility that West could do something outside helping or hurting black people. In a way, Coates is the latest Cosby, in the sense of shaming the black community for bringing down black standards. Well before we all learned what a monster Cosby is, Dyson and Coates (in the interview cited above) were agreeing with each other that Cosby and Obama have spent too much time policing the behavior of black people. Et tu, Ta-Nehisi?