I recently published an essay in The American Reader, “Yeezy Rising,” which related mainstream media’s persistent mockery of Kanye West to historical discourses around lynching, a public media spectacle which celebrated the dehumanization and murder of outspoken, upwardly mobile black men. The piece was generally well-received, especially, I noticed, by other white academics. Despite my promotion of the piece and my social media connections with scholars of color, however, I also noted that writers and thinkers of color generally didn’t seem interested in my article. I found myself wondering if I had mishandled my subject or if it was somehow offensive or distasteful to a more sensitive and discerning crowd.
One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Jackie4242 wrote,
Kanye “is the man America wants to lynch.” Okay. I’m not sure whether to be offended by this sentiment or simply attribute it to yet another (White and privileged, I’m leaning towards assuming) fan who I believe is merely “fascinated” with the so-called plight of a famous Black individual. “Privileged guilt” is what my friends and I call it. Chicago native, whistling at White women, getting away with it… Man, if Emmett Till were only so lucky.
Of course I know not to take every internet commenter seriously, but in many respects this person was correct. (And anyway, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about using criticism as a welcome opportunity to reflect.) Jackie was right; I am white and privileged. I suppose from the tone of the writing, that much was clear. What gave me more pause was this person’s suggestion that I was a “fan…merely ‘fascinated’ by the so-called plight of a famous Black individual. ‘Privileged guilt.’ I am a fan, and I am “fascinated,” though not “merely.” If anything, the whole point of my piece is that West’s “plight” is not “so-called.” Perhaps Jackie thinks, as many people of all races do, that West doth protest too much. Of course, my allusions to Emmett Till were purposeful. So however deep her reading of my piece, Jackie’s comment made me wonder whether I’d done a poor job of clarifying my deep love and respect for Kanye West, and suggested I hadn’t treated the subject of lynching with enough empathy or clarity.
When writing about lynching, I see now, the ubiquitous internet tenor of punchiness has no place. What’s needed is clarity, compassion, sensitivity. A colleague, a black man, invited me into his class to discuss the piece, confessing himself that he’d found it distasteful. As he quizzed me on my exigence in front of his students, I realized I was offering them a more thorough lesson on lynching than I’d offered readers in my article. I clarified for his students that while lynching was often defended as the rightful punishment of a rapist, in fact lynching was an act of terror against an individual and a community, sanctioned terrorism in the interest of white supremacy and political, economic control. I pointed them to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which argues that lynchings were a major impetus behind the upheavals if the Great Migration. While scholars of anti-lynching work have pointed to the crucial written advocacy of those like Ida B Wells, millions of African Americans spoke out against lynching with their feet before writers like Wells raised up their voices and their pens.
Too much punchiness. Discussions of West are loaded with sarcasm and deprecation, but I mean “deep love and respect” when I say it. West’s music has been central to my own tastes for a decade now, and in more recent years has entered my classroom, my scholarship, and my popular writing. In high school, The College Dropout was the epicenter of my burgeoning taste in rap. From West I discovered Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Malik Yusef, an core that spiraled out to include Dave Chappelle, The Roots, Eryka Badu, Def Poetry Jam, Lauryn Hill, and eventually A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Biggie, Eric B. and Rakim. I remember as a young white woman in the early 2000s feeling as though a kind of Harlem Renaissance was happening in rap, in a period I now think of as post 9/11 conscious rap, a constellation of artists who appeared on the Dave Chappelle show and on each other’s records, in Chappelle’s Block Party, on Russel Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, all making melodic, poetic music about the same daily joys and social ills rap and hiphop had been chronicling since their inception: state violence and surveillance, the drug economy, love and lust, sex and pregnancy, friendship, addiction, and death, family, beauty, language, the grit and excitement of the urban landscape. These men and women spoke to each other and to us, to listeners black and white, painted landscapes familiar to the initiated and lush enough to lure even the unfamiliar.
My first piece of academic writing on hiphop was a paper for my own Freshman Writing Seminar, which had focused on the gothic with assigned texts like Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Using lyrics from my new teachers, I wrote American hiphop into the gothic tradition. Introduced by editor Chris Baldick, our Oxford Book of Gothic tales had defined the gothic sensibility like so:
For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing each other to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.
Quoting this, I drew in Mos Def’s portrait of the urban landscape and Kanye West’s appeals to slavery; what more claustrophobic walls, more harrowing sense of history than those? Yet I qualified my conclusions, suggesting that hiphop’s stubborn hopefulness contrasted sharply with Baldick’s definition of the Gothic as offering only portraits of destruction and decay. As a confused, angry freshman, feeling trapped myself, I think writing hiphop studies was a way to enter into rap’s discourse of creativity and pain before I knew how to claim that affect–okay, those feelings–for myself.
Of course, my teacher found my thesis unconvincing and rewarded the paper with a B. Seven years later, as a creative writing MFA student, I was tasked myself with teaching a required freshman writing class at the University of Michigan, a course I remembered only with loathing. I built the class around West’s album The College Dropout, hoping that perhaps if I yoked the practice of writing to a text as fun and meaningful as a rap album, my students could learn to love writing as much as I did, to see it as an act as powerful and important as I did–a lesson I learned everywhere except in my own freshman writing course. And I’ve been teaching with Kanye ever since.
Of course, not all of this personal hoo-hawing belongs in “Yeezy Rising.” As far as I was and mostly am still concerned, extended talking about myself belongs on my personal blog, not in a publication so loftily named as The American Reader. And yet I sense that essay suffered from a failure of ethos: a failure to convince my readers to trust me, to believe I had not come to malign their man but to celebrate him. Importantly, this failure of ethos stemmed not just from not talking about myself enough but–perhaps more so–from a lack of compassion in dredging up a difficult, traumatic subject. Lynching is not a trauma to which members of my community have been subject; my body is not the body on which this crime’s story has been written, even though, as a white woman, my body also has a part to play in lynching’s lore. In “Yeezy Rising,” my failure of ethos was not that I didn’t declare myself a teacher but that I didn’t act like one, persuading my audience with patience and gentleness to take Kanye seriously, to approach him with respect, to see him with the wide lens of history, to imagine a possible world where a joke’s teller is made as sinister as its punch line.
Ethos: that element of rhetoric by which a writer or speaker convinces an audience to believe in her, to trust her enough to risk listening to her arguments, to feel welcome enough in her worldview to release that tight grasp on the ways of seeing we carry around with us all the time, blankets clutched so tightly about us they sometimes even cover our eyes.