It’s been an odd few weeks for me. Odd in that my emotions have been pulled this way and that, being put through the heavy wash cycle of my washing machine.
From afar I watched as the Windrush debacle unfolded in England. My father was one of those young men who answered the ads to come to the UK to work after the war. You know the story of his wrongful arrest, the following lawsuit, his trip back to Trinidad, and how he came to meet my mother. But for that he may very well have remained in the UK for all his life. So I know the plights that were recently exploited and criminalized for right-wing political gain.
And then a few weeks ago I watched a 60-Minutes episode, with tears of disbelief, as famed TV host Oprah Winfrey toured the newly opened “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (https://eji.org/national-lynching-memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama. The curator, Bryan Stevenson, making the point that the 4000 or so memorial displays of lynchings are of only those that they could find documentation for, only representing the tip of the iceberg of the brutality that was everyday life for people of color. He made the point that lynchings were not just a brutal execution of perverted and racist justice system. The lynchings themselves were a festive event, attended and celebrated, oftentimes with kids standing in the front row. The corpses would often be then shot, burned, and dragged behind trucks through the streets of black neighborhoods to send a message. The thought alone is raw and disturbing.
And then Kanye West.
As the old cliche goes, there’s a thin line between genius and insanity. Kanye’s initial ramblings showed that he was quite willing to toe the line (I’m being as nice as I possibly can). His music, Ye vs The People, showed his musical genius. People were talking. Dialogue around the issues- race, this and the former Presidents, all the divisive political issues- is good and much needed.
But then he goes on TMZ and says that in his mind 400 years of slavery was a choice.
I cannot begin to express how disgusted I felt.
I can’t feel sympathy for Kanye. I trying to be empathetic to his mental struggles despite his and his family’s claims that he is doing just fine.But I just can’t shake the feeling of utter disgust.
I had a conversation with my eldest two daughters about Kanye, his MAGA hat, Ye vs The People, and the issues he raised in the song. My daughters point to the marked difference between free thought and critical thought. Free thought is a human right. Kanye is entitled to his every bit as much as any of the other 7 billion people on this planet. Free thought is often borne out of circumstance. A circumstance you may have been born in to, or one that you have found yourself in through talent, good fortune, or hard work. Free thought is a product of your own facts. Critical thinking is a product of ALL the facts. The two cannot be misconstrued, substituted for each other, or presented as equal. The result will be catastrophic.
I’ve spoken time and time again about empathy on these very pages. I listened and agreed with Barack Obama’s call for empathy for the Conservative movement during his commencement address to the graduating Howard University (my alma mater) class of 2016. Indeed Kanye calls for the same thing in his song. Where it has become empty is in the hijacking of empathy and making it a one-way street. The sitting President has shown more empathy for Nazis and his criminally convicted supporters than he has for the dismantling of law abiding non-white families. This President is vocal and combative about a person’s right to bear arms yet deathly quiet on a person’s right to worship, or to love as they choose. Barack Obama raised the bar of what is expected of a President. While everyone else was trying to hurdle it one man walked under it. And not enough people recognized it.
So here we are. While a President and a rapper tweet each other, while people gloat and gasp at the prospect of Brexit, families are being destroyed, people are being deported to countries they have never known or torn from their children and the homes they have called their own for decades.
I will again call for empathy because I believe in it. I believe it is needed just as much as the much trumpeted dialogue. But you can’t have meaningful dialogue without critical thought. You can’t have meaningful dialogue without empathy. And a firm appreciation, and display, that empathy goes both ways. It must.