Kanye West’s presidential campaign rally in South Carolina on July 19 drew our attention with his appalling misinterpretation of Harriet Tubman’s legacy when he said Tubman “never actually freed the slaves.” Although his comments received much backlash, followed by an intense tweetstorm about his personal life and family, it was too easy for people to dismiss the comments as just a trivial viral sensation.
But it’s imperative that we pause and think about how his commentary on Black history gives us a great deal to process about celebrity culture and social media, especially during a time of heightened awareness of systemic racism.
Some are probably wondering, “Why should we listen to Kanye to begin with?” The short answer is that it’s less about “why we should” and more about “who will listen.” Most have some familiarity with West’s creative work. As a talented producer, musician and designer, he has a social media platform that rivals other entertainers and world leaders, so he naturally draws eyes and ears. It is not inconceivable to think that people who are unaware of African-American history and are seeking answers may take what West said as a fact or, at the very least, that his rhetoric planted a seed of doubt about Tubman’s legacy.
In the past, West has recounted his battle with bipolar disorder, so many of us felt we were witnessing a mental health crisis, with someone who needed the intervention and support of loved ones.
It seems that the right reaction was one captured on social media when Toni Fulton, who attended and filmed the rally, said, “Yo, we leavin’ right now,” in response to West’s false claim about Tubman.
Maybe as a viewing public, we too should leave right now and hope that West gets the support he needs.
On July 22, Kim Kardashian West issued a statement on Instagram about her husband. She wrote, “As many of you know, Kanye has bi-polar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. ... Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.” She didn’t mention any of his comments specifically.
While I and many others hope that West gets the help he needs during this time, it’s important that we don’t overlook his damaging and inaccurate claims about Harriet Tubman. His words have power during a time when many people are trying to learn more about Black history while systemic racism is at the forefront of international discussion. Accuracy, truth and humility will bring us all to a common understanding of Tubman’s — and other historical contributors’ — work toward social justice and racial equality.
West’s mashup of celebrity culture, politics and popular music seems far afield from the zeitgeist 30 years ago. In 1990, hip-hop pioneers Boogie Down Productions released the album “Edutainment.” The group posited that hip-hop can merge education and entertainment to inform listeners of issues impacting the Black community — paralleling the hip-hop group Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who said, “Rap music is the invisible TV station that Black America never had.”
Implicit in these ideas and comments are the responsibilities inherent in that role.
I would categorize the responsibilities of the socially and politically engaged edutainer/artist/celebrity into three categories: amplification, clarification and magnification. Amplification boosts the voices of knowledge producers — academics, scholars, journalists and artists — who do not have access to the same platform as celebrities. Clarification works in concert with humility — the ability to acknowledge new information and note when you’re wrong (and bring voices with knowledge to prominence). Magnification brings attention to issues overlooked by media, such as the focus on Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky.
In many ways social media has significantly bridged the gap between celebrities and the public; information can be shared in an instant with millions of followers. However, no Instagram post or Twitter thread can substitute for the in-depth analysis and research that comes from engaging with texts and other media — especially considering the limited average attention span of human beings.
A more hopeful view would be that celebrities leverage social media as a starting point for followers to learn more about a topic. Indeed, social media can elevate traditionally marginalized scholarly voices. For example, movements like #CiteASista are providing ways to ensure that the scholarly contributions of Black women are not on the periphery but are instead centered.
West’s inaccurate commentary on Tubman’s contributions evidence a gap in not only his, but also many Americans’ knowledge of Black history, which tends to be piecemeal and incorrect because many details of Black history are not integrated into school curricula — for white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students alike.
For instance, many are aware of the Tuskegee study conducted from 1932 to 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service, but mistakenly believe that Black men were injected with syphilis by the government, rather than having treatment withheld. Many are familiar with the iconography of the Black Panthers, but know little about their contributions to food justice, establishment of health clinics, and educational programs in collaboration with other marginalized communities.
I urge people who are seeking knowledge to read history books and engage in curricula that meaningfully address the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction and other aspects of history that BIPOC individuals and communities have contributed. We also have access to public intellectuals. Celebrities can show respect to knowledge generators — educators, scholars, journalists and artists — by accessing them, engaging critically with their work and encouraging others to do the same.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman” is 176 pages of carefully researched information about one of America’s most heroic women; surely her contribution to history is worth taking the time to read and interpret.
Most importantly, we can use this moment to model to our peers and the next generation: Let’s move from soundbites and posts to deep engagement with the questions of our history and sociopolitical reality, use social media to share what we’ve learned, and inform others of how we filled our knowledge gaps.