(The Root)—The Confederate flag has been getting a lot of press recently.
You’ve probably read stories of students wearing the flag to school, the flag being waved at the gates of the White House and the “that’s not what it means” debate. Is it Southern pride or the symbol of American oppression’s past? Most Americans have the common sense or at least the common decency not to parade the flag around, even if they agree with its supposedly controversial meaning.
Enter Kanye West.
Mr. West, troublemaker supreme, in a move that must have had record-label executives and #TeamYeezy’s branding crew on edge, has branded his Yeezus tour with the Confederate flag. No, Mr. West hasn’t found slave owners in his family tree and decided to show family pride. His explanation?
React how you want. Any energy is good energy. You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that's my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag. Now what are you going to do?
Jelani Cobb, associate director of history and director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, didn’t mince words when asked what he thought of West’s logic. “That’s ridiculous,” said Cobb. “If you want to repurpose the Confederacy, you're gonna have to do a lot more than a musical tour.” Cobb pointed out that the reason we’re even familiar with the Confederate flag is the Southern rebellion against Brown vs. Board of Education in the 1950s.
“Why do you want the symbol of terrorism of your ancestors as your symbol?” Blair Kelley, a professor at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride, an award-winning book about the early history of the civil rights movement, responded when I asked her to weigh in. “People were assaulted, taken off their land, beaten when they tried to vote under the banner of this flag so that you would walk free in the world, and now you want to adopt the symbol of the terrorist because you’re so special that you can turn it into something else.”
The conversation around West’s attempt to repurpose the Confederate flag isn’t completely one-sided. When I broached the subject on Twitter, there were some who thought this was an interesting move and that it was no different from the black community repurposing the word “nigger.” If blacks can take back “nigger,” then why not the Confederate flag? I’d argue that historically speaking, black folks have used the word among themselves, for better or worse, since the word was used at all. With hate or with affection, the word has long been a part of our vernacular. But white folks still can’t use the word. With all of our “taking it back,” it still hasn’t been declawed. Why would a rapper’s tour be able to do that with the Confederate flag?
“Kanye West thinks his fetishized brand of awesome is enough to change the Confederate flag,” said Dacia Mitchell, doctoral candidate at New York University and managing editor of This Week in Blackness, “but a flash in the pan will not rewrite the long history of racism in the 20th and 21st centuries. Slapping the Confederate flag on leather jogging pants does not make it Kanye's flag now; it just makes Kanye another agent of racial oppression, and he’s too ignorant to know the difference.”
All of the words from all the smart people in the world aren’t going to change Kanye West’s mind. Yes, he’s donning a symbol of terrorism and claiming artistic integrity. Yes, by his own words he doesn’t quite understand what the symbol even means and has instituted a crude and simplistic repurposing that will do little more than give permission to the masses to drape themselves in the symbol of a dark history that many who are still alive had to deal with. But the really sad part?
He’s not even being original.
Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz were photographed with Confederate flags as far back as 2001. In the video “Ms. Jackson,” Andre 3000 sported a Confederate-flag belt buckle. It’s not “Kanye’s Flag” in hip-hop, let alone in American history; it fails as an artistic endeavor and as a style leader. In the end, West has added a weird layer to his brand that shows him more ignorant than many already thought he was.
“Maybe Kanye should go see 12 Years a Slave so he can learn he is not a new slave,” Kelley added. “If you want to see an artist at work describing our history and reshaping our perception, don’t go a concert or buy a T-shirt.”
Elon James White is a writer and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 3 p.m. EST on TWIB.FM. Subscribe to the TWIB.FM Network on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.