White cream like me...
White cream like me... PeopleImages/gettyimages.com

Not long after I turned 12, the world finally began to make some sense. One of the big revelations of that age occurred during my family's trip from the US to Zimbabwe. Between the capital of the US, D.C., and the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, we had stops in two other capitals: London and Lusaka. We spent three days in London. There was lots of rain, thick clouds, and a sun that never appeared. I also noticed the white people in that city were really pale. When we arrived in Lusaka, Zambia, I was immediately struck by how black the black people were. I also saw a huge sun roasting the sky. It was unrelenting. And as my black skin cooked, I connected the color of the Lusakans with the very hot climate. Black skin had something to do with the brightness of the sun. It made perfect sense. (I had no problems understanding Darwin's theory, when it was introduced in a Form 2 science class.)


Not long after my family settled in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, I read in the state-owned newspaper, The Herald, a story about the Ambi monsters. These were black women who had applied on their faces a cream that claimed to lighten black skin. The product did indeed do this but not in a uniform manner. It instead produced pale blotches that looked like bleach spots on colored clothes. The natural appearance of these women was permanently ruined. They would walk around town with their faces wrapped in cloth. They looked like spirit-broken Tusken Raiders.

The story of these Ambi monsters completely removed the idea of becoming white from my boy mind, which had entertained the idea. (White people do not understand the scale of the black catastrophe, the impact of being born in a world where blackness—be it in Africa, Europe, Brazil, the US—is mostly in a state of mental and material emergency. How did this happen? Why is it universal? Why us? These are the questions that awaken in a black child and are either overcome or are your undoing.) But after the story of the Ambi monsters and their shocking, self-inflicted misery, I decided to live with my blackness and to worry about other things. (The Ambi nightmare apparently is still not dead in Zimbabwe.)

I bring all of this up because the most prominent black intellectual of our times, Ta-Nehisi Coates, posted a piece on Kayne West today. For those who missed last week, West expressed, among other things, support for racist Donald Trump. Some thought this was nothing more than a publicity stunt for a new album, others saw it as hard evidence of a disintegrating mind or one that had totally lost contact with reality. Coates's examination of the matter begins with an exploration of the causes and consequences of Michael Jackson's destruction of his blackness. It was witnessed by all, and it, according to Coates, sent this message to his black fans:

He knew that we were tied to him, that his physical destruction was our physical destruction, because if the black God, who made the zombies dance, who brokered great wars, who transformed stone to light, if he could not be beautiful in his own eyes, then what hope did we have—mortals, children....

For Coates, Jackson died to be white in much the same way that Kanye West (more spiritually than physically) is now dying to be white. And dying to be white never ends well.

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Coates's piece is not perfect. It spends a little too much space on his own fame and how it has changed his life. But Coates does make an excellent point about the content of the freedom Kanye West wants to claim as his own. It's a negative American freedom that is, in essence, nothing but the freedom of the master, the white master. Because this freedom dominates American ideology, it is seen by many as the authentic freedom. The freedom that allows you to really be you. You can fully express yourself however you like. But the price of this freedom is real freedom, the freedom that comes from being authentically with others, which is nothing other than being dependent on others. Dependency, not autonomy, is the actual source of our power. And it only takes a little thought to see why. Dependency strengthens the need for cooperative behavior.

Coates writes that...

...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...

Millions of white Americans have fallen for this negative freedom, which is why they voted for Trump. Indeed, Ijeoma Oluo was correct to describe this negative freedom as nothing but a pyramid scheme for whiteness in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race. This is a freedom you must wait forever and fool others for. And all the time you spend waiting and scheming for a freedom that's unlikely to materialize—and if it does, it will only make you an oppressor—there always was the concrete freedom, the freedom not of independence but its compete opposite. This freedom only comes from the wider distribution of the ups and downs, the good times and, to use Kurtis Blow's words, "the breaks."