Kanye West made headlines last month when he said that he believed slavery was a choice. Though West was widely criticized for the ignorant comments, Slate staff writer Rebecca Onion pointed out that this argument actually has roots in a dangerous ideology that reaches back to before the United States was formed.
In this Slate Plus members–only podcast, Chau Tu talks to Onion—also a co-host of Slate’s History of American Slavery and Reconstruction podcasts—about West’s remarks, the history of controversial student activism, and why she thinks political views like anti-immigration can’t be changed with just facts. Plus, she offers suggestions on reading and listening materials on history that might be helpful in assessing today’s news.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: So you are one of the hosts of Slate’s History of American Slavery podcast and one of the episodes from that actually became kind of newsworthy material recently because Kanye West made some remarks about free thinking and the idea that slavery was a choice. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of that argument?
Rebecca Onion: Well, first I want to say that the History of American Slavery podcast, which was super interesting to produce and to make, the research for that comes back into my writing all the time, which is maybe depressing commentary on the state of the world but also sort of validating in a lot of ways. While I was making that podcast, I kept thinking man, I’m spending so much time doing this reading, this is a lot of research to put into this. But I’m really grateful that Slate is a place that lets me do stuff like that because it’s become a knowledge base for me in producing so many other pieces I’ve written.
But anyway, so with the Kanye remarks about slavery being a “choice,” I thought of some stuff that we had read when we were producing the episode about discussions about slavery during the colonial period when nascent Americans, colonists who were thinking about breaking away from Britain would write things like, “We are enslaved to Britain. We are enslaved to the King.” Jamelle Bouie was my co-host for that series and we just kind of looked at that and thought, my god, how hypocritical is this? How can you be saying something about how you’re enslaved to the king when you’re enslaving other people? But historians, which we discovered as we were doing the reading for it, would say that that is sort of an early indicator of the way that white people in the nascent United States were separating themselves from the people that they were enslaving by saying, “Slavery is OK for some people but not for others.”
And there’s a historian named François Furstenberg who’s the one that I mostly drew upon when I was writing the piece about Kanye, who has articulated this whole argument that coming up with a theory about the difference between white people and black people—and also the Native Americans, other people of color, but mostly white and black—coming up with the theory that black people were somehow suited to slavery either physically or psychologically, that that theory was really instrumental in the persistence of slavery in the United States.
He’s saying that really this sort of—I don’t know if dehumanization is the right word because there’s a lot of different aspects to it over the years, it’s a 250-year argument or whatever—but that this idea that if enslaved people really wanted to break free, they could, and that to some degree there had to be some part of them that was choosing it, whether that be because they were inherently less intelligent or they’re inherently dependent; they’re child-like is another aspect of the argument. But this became something that slaveholders would say a lot and argue among themselves as an intellectual debate that evolved over the years.
You were talking about how history kind of plays into your writing a lot. Are you surprised that this sort of thinking still persists now?
No, because I think it’s always been convenient, and the word “convenient” is almost too light of a word for what I mean. It’s always been profitable for people who are in power to believe that their oppression is not actually oppression or that in some way that their oppression is justifiable because people that they’re oppressing are different in some way.
I have a pretty dark view of human nature, that I think maybe a lot of people might share at this point in time. I have positive feelings about humans in a lot of ways, but I do think that the drive for dominance and profit messes with people’s minds a lot.
You also looked back at the history of student activism in light of the uprising of the Parkland students. So what’s the story there? What did you learn?
I was thinking about that because in my previous life as an academic, I had written about student anti-nuclear activism in the ’80s, and not even just activism, but also just the way that people in the press dealt with this news that children were really afraid of nuclear war. Probably the thing that people remember the most about that is when the movie The Day After played—I believe it was ABC that ran it—and there was a big national debate in 1983 over whether it was wrong for children to be exposed to this very realistic vision of what might happen if there was a nuclear war. And then people on the left were saying, oh my God, our kids are terrified, we need to do something. And all the right people were saying who cares if kids are terrified or not, they’re kids, they don’t know what the ins and outs of this are.
And so you can see how when the debate over Parkland activism was starting. I was kind of thinking oh man, this reminds me—especially the way that conservatives were reacting to the Parkland activists. Like children don’t have a political leg to stand on, basically. Like they don’t know so why are they speaking on this matter? And so the piece that I wrote was sort of a history of student activism in a bunch of different arenas but also a history of the discrediting of kids.
It’s a difference of opinion between left and right in a lot of ways. It doesn’t always break down that evenly, but it’s been a difference of opinion whether children should have a political voice and on what issues. If it relates to their lives the way that guns coming to schools or guns in schools relates to their lives, then some people are willing to give them more latitude. Another example is desegregation, so some of the prime examples of student activists in the more recent past are black students who have fought for desegregation in schools and more resources at their schools. I was interested in looking that the way that the argument that they’re just kids, and they’re not rational yet, had evolved over the years.
There was kind of another issue between the left and the right on Twitter and on social media that showed up through this hashtag, #ResistanceGenealogy. What was going on with this? Can you explain that?
Oh, sure. Man, there’s been a lot of historically related news stories this year. I guess they always sort of are, which is why my job is interesting, but for some reason this has been more of a year for it.
So #ResistanceGenealogy, which people have probably seen on Twitter, is a project by a journalist who actually has written for Slate before and it’s a very goodhearted project. The idea is to find instances of people in the Trump administration who are, I guess you could call immigration hawks or sort of anti-immigration people—whose ancestors came to the United States under certain circumstances. So they came really poor, or came without resources, or remained unable to speak English for a bunch of years—whatever it is that the Trump administration people are saying is wrong with today’s immigration, the resistance genealogists will find someone in their background who came illegally or didn’t have money, whatever it is that they’re saying is wrong.
So the idea is that you’re exposing hypocrisy, and I’ve found this really hard in the Trump administration. It was hard before too, but I think that the contrast has been pointed up to me that there’s an impulse on the left and among academics to say the problem is not that we don’t share values, the problem is that you don’t have the facts. And so they want to provide the receipts for whatever it is.
This happens time and time again when someone says something horrible about the Civil War. Like oh, the Civil War wasn’t just fought over slavery, or, I can’t remember who it was who most recently said slavery wasn’t that bad. Or Trump saying things about how he admires Andrew Jackson. And whenever something like that happens, a million people pop up on the left saying you just don’t know the truth about Andrew Jackson. He orchestrated this expansion of the American empire but he also did really horrible things for Native Americans and blah, blah, blah.
We’ll sort of issue forth a stream of facts and I really feel like this misses the point. With #ResistanceGenealogy, my argument in the piece was really about the way that people on the right, when they’re arguing against immigration, the history of immigration in the United States is not something they’re ignorant of. They just don’t share the same values that we have about what it means and it’s hard on Twitter and the hashtag, the person who started the hashtag says that it’s supposed to promote compassion and empathy and it seems to be working only among people who already believe what she believes. I just feel like it’s not going to get us anywhere to talk about that.
It’s kind of ironic for a historian to say I don’t think we should talk as much about history as we’re talking but that’s not even really what I mean. I don’t mean don’t talk about immigration history. I mean we have to understand that people draw different lessons from immigration history depending on their political views, so to continue to say the same things over and over again about it is not really helpful.
Yeah. It’s more about context.
Yes. It’s more about context and it’s about ethics or values. Beliefs about, do we believe that people, by virtue of being people, deserve to have a certain level of food, that kind of thing. Do they deserve physical safety? It’s also about do we believe that our resources are limited or do we believe that we could expand to fit people. It seems like by invoking the Emma Lazarus poem about the huddled masses, people on the left are saying we can expand to fit people. “Look, we did it before.” People on the right are like that was a different time and we can’t. But I feel like we need to have the conversation, can we? Without being unnecessarily worshipful of the past in a way that doesn’t really provide a direction forward.
Yeah, so speaking about the past, National Geographic just released this issue on race and they had a historian, John Edwin Mason, assess the magazine’s past coverage of race. You did an interview with him, which I really, really liked. What did you learn from his results from his assessment and from speaking with him?
The most interesting thing about their choice of him, which I really liked, is that he has also written a bunch about other sort of mass media magazines, broad middle-brow magazines from the 20th century. He has written a bunch about Life magazine because he writes about Gordon Parks, the photographer, who did apparently a series of photo essays in Life about black life in the ’50s, which is kind of surprising to me, something that I learned during the interview which I didn’t know.
I’m not sure they necessarily chose him for this purpose. He has a broader view of how magazines and how middle brow culture and mass culture in the 20th century was dealing with race beyond just National Geographic. So he was able to say this is how National Geographic compared to these other magazines and although it wasn’t like Life was some utopian situation where there was a really true, clear picture of black life, Mason was making the point that Life did allow Gordon Parks a certain amount of latitude and there were stories in there as early as the ’50s or ’60s about life in Harlem and what it was like there.
So it’s not like National Geographic had a very narrow view of black life because that was just what everyone was doing. It’s the case that National Geographic had this narrow view of black life both inside the United States and outside in part because it was profiting from that, that that was part of its mystique and part of the way that it perceived that the people who are reading it wanted to think about how people that were different from them were living. I think that was a really valuable bit of perspective for them.
So a lot of your writing obviously stems from knowing a lot about history. This is a very broad question, but do you have any recommendations for reading materials or other media for people who might want to similarly assess today’s views through the lens of history like you do?
I often have felt like I’m cheating a little bit reading so much history during this period because it’s very relaxing to me in a way. Well, so there’s a podcast that’s got three historians on it. It’s called Past Present and these three academic historians, they’ll look at three historical topics, like three history-related topics from the news that week and assess it. So that’s one direct recommendation.
Jamelle Bouie and I did a Reconstruction podcast and there’s a couple books that we read in there that really sort of helped me see or understand contemporary politics better. One of them is Carole Emberton’s book, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South After the Civil War, which is really stirringly written but also extremely revealing to me. Then also another one was Richard White, who’s a very respected historian at Stanford, he wrote an installment in Oxford’s series of American history, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, just this book that’s about the transition between the hopeful period of Reconstruction which was pretty brief and the age of capital that, for obvious reasons, is pretty significant for what’s happening with us in terms of inequality today. So those two books from the Reconstruction series I’d really recommend.
I also read for a Q&A that I did with her for the site recently, there’s a book by Kathleen Belew called Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America and it’s got a fair amount of coverage. Some people might have heard of it but it was just really helpful to me in trying to sketch connections between more of an old-school–style white power movement and what’s going on today. Her theory is that it all goes back to feelings about Vietnam, which is interesting. I’ve sort of seen a lot of Vietnam resonances that I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed before.