The Question of Political Blackness and Identity in Us


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Black people have always been active in asserting their being or humanity in the face of oppression. Whether it be art or rebellion, black people always seek to express and assert their conceptions of blackness within society. This expression has also taken form in mindsets used to deal with being at the margins of a white supremacist society. Frequently, these modes of expression are extensions of black counter-discourse to white racist discourse. As Cornel West identified, there are four Black traditions of response to white supremacy’s presence throughout America’s history—the exceptionalist tradition, the assimilationist tradition, the marginalist tradition, and the humanist tradition. As stated before, African Americans do not just use these traditions to cope but to also navigate white America. Booker T. Washington is a prime example of a successfully “commercially” accepted Black person who embraced, and believed in, the assimilationist tradition.

Washington’s call for Black Americans to “cast down their buckets” and be subservient to their white counterparts is the foundation of his assimilationist approach to the black experience. The assimilationist tradition is still present, today, within the black community. However, over the last few years, it appears that this tradition has produced another branch. Kanye West has spearheaded this modern approach to assimilationism. His assimilationist viewpoint is based on being contrary to “traditional” blackness and presenting himself as being “anti-black.” By analyzing Booker T. Washington’s “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” I intend to argue that we have entered a new age where a reconstructed assimilationist tradition has arisen by way of Kanye West.

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In chapter 14 of Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington recounts his “Atlanta Exposition Address.” Washington begins his address by telling a parable of a ship lost at sea. The sailors, dying of thirst, were desperate for a drink of fresh water. They spotted another friendly ship and began desperately calling out for the ship to send them fresh water. The ship called back, “‘Cast down your bucket where you are’” (Washington, 152). After some back and forth, the captain eventually lowered a bucket into the waters below them and was shocked that the water below them was drinkable. The sailors accidentally sailed right into the mouth of the Amazon River. According to Washington, this parable represents the status of race relations in America. Rather than striving toward progress in legal, medical, and political professions, Black Americans should “‘Cast down [their] bucket where [they] are’…Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions” (Washington, 152-153) to prove their worth. Washington claims that as much dignity can be found in these professions as can be found in non-vocational ones, and that black Americans can only find progress once they engage in labor. Washington’s parable reveals his educational philosophy and his belief in the subservience of other Black Americans for the achievement of racial harmony. According to Washington, through labor and finding contentment where they are, Black people will improve race relations and their economic concerns. Washington’s promotion of black people to “stay where they are” is eerily reminiscent of the racist belief that calls for Black people to “stay in their place.” This philosophy is clearly an assimilationist one as it suggests that Black Americans should only hold subservient roles in economics, politics, and society.

It is important to note that, Washington also directs this same advice to the white audience members, urging them to “cast down their bucket” with black Americans by expressing fidelity and love as their neighbors. Washington urges his white audience to accept their black neighbors and to work alongside them toward racial harmony and industrial progress. Washington tries to show that his philosophy also calls for whites to “cast down their bucket” and treat Black people as neighbors after all they had done for whites during slavery.

Within his speech and later in the chapter, Washington expresses his views on politics and Black people’s place within it. Towards the end of his speech, Washington states that “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly…” (Washington, 155). This political agitation is not only idiotic but also counterproductive, as it will accomplish no progress for Black Americans. To Washington, political agitation is also alienating and will only continue exclusion and racial conflict. Another tenet of assimilationism is respectability politics. Which is exemplified by Washington’s above views. Later in the chapter, he proposes that it is the duty of Black citizens to not pursue political power or high positions in society until they demonstrate their worth and merit through labor. He believes that political equality will not occur immediately, it will “be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an overnight, gourd-vine affair” (Washington, 163). However, Washington insisted that Black Americans should continue to vote, but they should do so only based on their judgment and intelligence, not based on their race. Washington believes that race relations will not be fixed in a swift manner, like how God provided Jonah shade overnight in the form of a fast-growing gourd vine, and rather racial compromise will come from slow and deliberate progress through the labor and merit of Black people.

At the basis of Booker T. Washington’s assimilationist ideology lied the belief that there is dignity in labor and that black people should: be subservient to whites, should “cast down their bucket” and stay in their place, and remain politically active but not agitative. Although Washington’s ideology is problematic for several reasons, it was his conception of situating blackness within a white supremacist society for survival. His push for black assimilation was flawed, but for a worthy cause—economic and gradual racial progress. Washington’s version of the assimilation tradition while harmful, dwarfs in comparison to the modernized West-ian assimilationist tradition. Unlike Washington, Kanye is not focused on the black collective, he is focused on differentiating Kanye from the “masses.” His sole purpose is to separate himself from what he sees as “conventional” blackness and to do so he will go to any lengths and aligns himself with anyone who is contrary, so long as it separates him.

Over the last decade, we have witnessed Kanye West’s dramatic persona shift as his desire to differentiate himself from “traditional” blackness consumes him. While it is important to acknowledge he does suffer from mental health issue, it does not take away from the impact his speech and platform has on the black community. West’s personality has shifted from simply controversial to something more troubling; Kanye has become a self-proclaimed “free-thinker” set on spreading self-hatred.

To Kanye, assimilation is more than adopting white values and customs for survival, it is the complete adoption of an anti-black mindset as well. In recent interviews, West’s infatuation with white approval and whiteness has been revealed. West’s view on race and culture has become even more skewed and infested with his belief in his own persecution—due to his open support for Trump and the backlash he’s received—and the resentment and stereotypical lens that he seems to have developed for his own people. As he criticizes liberals, it is apparent that that what he despises about liberals is related to what he believes about black people—that we sheep and the Democratic Party are herders; that we are perpetrators of our own victimhood; that we are amoral and materialistic. During his talk with Big Boy, he proudly recounted an exchange with a white conservative who stopped him in traffic to praise him and equated Christianity with “Middle America.” Throughout the rest of the interview, West repeatedly implied that that America, the “Bible Belt,” is the “real” America. Such rhetoric is very similar to that of many white conservatives. It says a lot about who he connects with, and who he aspires to be.

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