It is more than tempting to observe Kanye West’s behavior and dismiss him as a man disturbed, he who is “off his meds,” or occupying Jordan Peele’s “The Sunken Place.” To this, I would strongly advise those of African descent to eschew the common route, for it’ll lead you straight to the gallows.
As a collective, we must not forget that when West displayed similar disturbing behavior at the 2009 VMAs, the media labeled him an “asshole” and a “jerk.” Specifically, the 2009 VMAs took place on the heels of Donda West’s sudden and tragic death, yet the media inundated a grieving son with public ridicule. At that moment, we saw what we see now, a black man reduced to a spectacle, employed to humanize the African-adjacent who surround him.
The “spectacle” component to this analysis occurs with a slight redundancy as West’s occupation subjects him to a similar status. West’s treatment, however, illuminates the understated violence that accompanies blacks overtly employed as spectacles on the larger stage of white supremacy.
As a spectacle, the black being occupies a sub-human status veiled by labels typically engendered from the sciences. In West’s instance, his medical and public diagnosis of mental instability becomes a means for the world to not see him.
This diagnosis also becomes a way for the world to render West inaudible. Though the media has a field day with taking West’s words out of context, documenting his episodes, and gaining views and selling papers, West’s medical and social diagnosis silences him and discredits his ability to articulate his own experiences. As a result, the white voice captions black conflict. The black spectacle, functions similarly to the sensationalized black corpse that dominated the twentieth century and continues to dominate the twenty-first century reactionary fervor. Delineated most recently with George Floyd, but also seen with Trayvon Martin, the sensationalized black corpse simultaneously symbolizes black abjection and white power. The sensationalized black corpse imbues pain to the African-descended and accomplishment to the African adjacent. These images embody a reason for black rage and the reason African adjacent feel safe in this unsafe world. Moreover, as a spectacle, the body endures a living or social death performed, as West evidences, in a series of highly publized actions that commodify black trauma and cast blacks as immateral to their own plight. Futhermore, the black spectacle illuminates that the senseationalized black corpse need not have physically transitioned to play this role in an racist society.
Considering the role the sensationalized black body continues to play globally, it is imperative to realize that West’s actions embody a similar duality. Specifically, while West’s actions encompass distress, they simultaneously function to symbolically profit the African-adjacent people who surround him. West as a presidential candidate deflects from the reality that despite the contentions that continue to plague black people and communities of color, the candidates for the two major parties, remain color-less. Yet West’s candidacy functions similarly to the holiday season Frederick Douglass recalls in his narrative. In his narrative, Douglass recalls the holidays as a time that temporarily “relieved” the enslaved from their duties, but the behavior of the enslaved in their “freedom” posited white presence as a necessity. West’s speeches, his late arrival into the race, and his fractured image, operate with an identical function.
Under the Trump administration, West posits blacks as ignorant to blackness and racism as the commander in chief. This imaging gifts white nationalists a faulty comparison that festers racial ignorance.
The most profitable comparison West engenders as spectacle is the one between West and his wife, Kim Kardashian West. West’s behavior in juxtaposition to Kim’s superficial engagement with criminal justice and race in America, elevates the woman who propelled her way to fame as a one-dimensional cultural appropriator to a three dimensional cultural icon and philanthropist. Though Kim got to the top laying on her back, Kanye West is the now the ground on which she stands. His social and medical diagnosis becomes a means for Kardashian to renegotiate her own and emerge from the woman married for seventy-two days to white female savior.
My perspective does not discount the role that Kanye West played and continues to play in his own demise. As Fanon stated in The Wretched of the Earth, the colonized man is an envious man. It is in coveting tools of white nationalism that steered and continues to steer Kanye West into the dragon’s lair, or the KKK realm of Calabasas.
While some will argue that Mr. West, a mind nurtured by a black female humanities scholar, a man who employed the mainstream to vocalize issues commonly relegated to the underground scene, is long gone, Kanye’s contemporary role as societal spectacle delineates the loudness medical diagnosis and rants seem to afford the “silent” constituency of the mentally ill, as silencing the black whose pain is a performance that entertains the masses but silences his struggle. As black doctors like Dr. Francis Cress Wesling, Dr. Bobby Wright, and Dr. Amos Wilson convey in their discourses, race plays a central role in one’s cognitive state. Their work gives a voice to blacks misdiagnosed by universal scientific labels that fail to encompass and resolve the part of iceberg white America refuses to acknowledge.
So while it is certainly true that that white supremacy is killing Kanye West, or even that the Kardashians have pulled themselves up from the same rope that lowered his body onto the spectacle stage, or auction block, it is imperative for the black collective to see the scene beyond the celebrity names involved. Instead, we must see this scenario as what happens when they define and speak for us. When they prescribe our pain, it’ll always be in their image. Instead, we must see this scenario as what happens when we, as fingers of a mighty fist, become lost in the racial labyrinth and fail to acknowledge the cognitive consequences of being an African on earth. This acknowledgment, if omitted, ensures the fatal conflation between black success and white nationalism.
Conflating black success with white nationalism often figuratively casts black bodies as puppets. A puppet, a spectacle, who shucks and jives on cue, whose cries for help becomes misconstrued as achievement, entertainment, matrimony, advocacy, or a run for president.
Furthermore, while it is certainly tempting to regard West as an anomaly, relegating black people to spectacle status occurs on countless present-day plantations across the globe. West as spectacle actualizes the reality that the white world exercises diversity in rendering black death. Whether social or medical, the diagnosis issued to the black individual exists to render the invisible and inaudible object’s death an affect of the spectacle’s mania, granting anti-blackness an underserving asylum.