Kanye West’s songs generally explore the tension of wanting to acquire the American ideal via material signifiers and the price of that image (consider “Diamonds from Sierra Lyone”) to celebrating his ability to be successful. Even after he gets the goods required to “succeed,” he’s still at odds with a history that haunts “what’s inside.” In “All Falls Down,” Kanye West raps:
“We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That’s why shortys hollering “where the ballas’ at?”
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain’t even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it”
Except he’s not the first to explore the myth of the black male and how it operates and the reality of coming from nothing, wanting something, but not knowing just what. James Baldwin calls the myth a myth and talks about the myth as a separate entity in his essay, “Many Thousands Gone”:
“One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.
This is why his history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease–cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis–which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured. In this areana the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has a life. We do not know what to do with him in life; if he breaks our sociological and sentimental image of him we are panic-stricken and we feel ourselves betrayed. When he violates this image, therefore, he stands in the greatest danger … we are then in some danger ourselves–hence our retreat or our blind and immediate retaliation.”
Why am I even concerned with the myth of the black man? I suppose to even consider the myth and how it works is to risk exposure of my own ignorance of our society’s mechanisms as well as the retaliations at the hands of those mechanisims for even trying to identify them. But I do so, primarily, because I am a product of the south: I grew up on the Bible Belt in Stone Mountain, GA, and was constantly conditioned to the notorious black man and all the ills he supposedly brought to my world. Baldwin could not have stated it better; I learned that the black man would always be there, but he was to be avoided and blamed as the lurker in the dark — always. Imagine my surprise at the age of 15 to find myself in a primarily black Baltimore City high school– and imagine the undoings that necessarily had to take place within my psyche.
I found that people from all walks of life were capable of bad as well as kind deeds and that no book could be judged by its cover. I also found out that I know very little. Much of the knowledge I’d inherited that was supposed to help me navigate through and understand the world was wrong. I found that segregation still exists along class lines to this day, and for that reason, the black male myth survives and is adjusted to maintain the status quo (see excerpt from entry on Baldwin below). He is offered up as a warning by the media daily (watch the news with a critical eye tonight) and is still a threat. You think you know him when he walks into your classroom or down your street; you think he lurks in dark corners or waits for your car to break down…but you only know a myth, a communal myth, that relies on the evil acts that all people commit. We don’t want to take a closer look and question how the myth sustains our fear and complacency. In fact, we are cautioned against such considerations and encouraged to “stick with our own,” so we stay in our separate corners with fingers crossed hoping that things are getting better. Any day now …
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.