COMMENTARY: The Kanye conflict over the slavery exception clause: Amending the amendment that ‘abolished’ slavery

Kanye West visits the Oval Office Oct. 11 to meet with President Trump. As he had on Saturday Night Live and other occasions, as dozens of camera rolled, he stressed the need to end prison slavery by removing the slavery exception clause in the 13th Amendment that enslaves prisoners.
Kanye West visits the Oval Office Oct. 11 to meet with President Trump. As he had on Saturday Night Live and other occasions, as dozens of camera rolled, he stressed the need to end prison slavery by removing the slavery exception clause in the 13th Amendment that enslaves prisoners.

by Amani Sawari

I used to listen to Kanye West often. “Late Registration” was one of my favorite albums, so you can’t get me not to sing along to every single word of “Gold Digger.” Over the years, West has never been afraid to speak out even if what he had to say wasn’t in line with popular opinion.

Everyone knows about the moment in 2009 when he criticized Taylor Swift on stage on live television as she was accepting an award at the VMAs. That was a moment when we all realized that Kanye wasn’t riding in the same size boat as everyone else.

But it wasn’t until more recently, after his making outlandish comments about slavery, that we stopped rooting for him. Kanye’s ridiculous statements about slavery being “a choice” on TMZ, a popular tabloid news outlet, offended many people who were understandably disappointed by the use of this platform and celebrity status to degrade the lives of the millions of people who suffered for centuries as slaves.

His words were not only careless but dangerous. Even more recently, Kanye spewed a range of absurd statements at the White House with Trump ranging from “If he [Trump] don’t look good, we don’t look good” and “When I put this hat on, it made me feel like Superman,” as he wore the red staple accessory of Trump’s campaign.

Over the years, West has never been afraid to speak out even if what he had to say wasn’t in line with popular opinion.

While spewing these seemingly foolish statements, Kanye also told the dozens of political officials and press, “There’s a lot of things affecting our mental health that makes us do crazy things that put us back into that trap door called the 13th Amendment.” By sprinkling in this statement, Kanye boldly addressed the problem that our country has with criminalizing those suffering from mental health issues and he went on, saying, “I did say abolish with the hat on because why would you keep something around that’s a trap door?”

While being given the floor to speak in one of the most powerful offices in the country, Kanye actually sprinkled in some gold gems and we need to take notice and organize behind the energy that he is generating. While Kanye West is not known for his social justice work, we have encouraged entertainers and athletes to contribute to social justice causes, even though many of them are not activists or organizers.

While West may not be able to mobilize people, he is using his platform to shed light on an important issue and we cannot allow his call to amend the 13th Amendment to get lumped into his other publicity stunts.

This stunt is strategic

By now the general consensus on slavery recognizes that the African people who built this country were forced from their homeland, violently separated from their families and abused on a massive scale throughout the centuries that race based chattel slavery was an operational function of our society. Because Kanye unwisely negated this fact, now when we hear more about his stance on public issues, especially those related to slavery, people label him as an ignorant lunatic, turning their ear from whatever he has to say and lumping his statements together under the umbrella of stupidity.

While West may not be able to mobilize people, he is using his platform to shed light on an important issue and we cannot allow his call to amend the 13th Amendment to get lumped into his other publicity stunts.

However, his most recent statements about the 13th Amendment are ringing a familiar tune that deserves fair and valid consideration. As a prison abolitionist, I’d recognized the call for amending the 13th Amendment from last year’s Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March and this year’s National Prison Strike, both calling for an end to prison slavery.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery – but the slavery exception clause keeps prisoners enslaved, not by a private plantation owner but by the state. OGs tell the youngsters when they come to prison, “Welcome to slavery!” To those who respond, “Hell no, I ain’t no slave,” they say, “Read the 13th Amendment.”

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery – but the slavery exception clause keeps prisoners enslaved, not by a private plantation owner but by the state. OGs tell the youngsters when they come to prison, “Welcome to slavery!” To those who respond, “Hell no, I ain’t no slave,” they say, “Read the 13th Amendment.”

Rather than the 13th truly abolishing slavery, it actually wrote slavery into the Constitution by giving it a legal status and a place for use in the United States. The amendment’s slavery exception clause places the slave status on those who are convicted of a crime, transforming former plantations into penitentiaries.

This is the literal case in states like Louisiana where prisoners do field work for pennies an hour on previous plantation grounds, but is also the case for those prisoners answering customer service lines and doing roadside maintenance for little to no pay. There is no regulation on the amount that a prisoner must be paid; many perform life threatening jobs like fighting forest fires with insufficient safety equipment for $2 a day.

The amendment’s slavery exception clause places the slave status on those who are convicted of a crime, transforming former plantations into penitentiaries.

In addition to the exploitative working conditions, prisoners also suffer in inhumane living conditions: in overcrowded cells, being served inedible food and having no access to sufficient health care. These were all conditions that humans lived in during slavery and they continue to be the case in the modern slave era.

In addition, prisoners suffer sexual, physical and mental abuse with no overriding third-party responsible for protecting their rights. It is obvious that slavery is still operating in this country; however, now it is happening behind brick walls and barbed wire. Officials have been able to keep these crimes against humanity happening in the dark, but now a light is being shined in and we must demand a transformative change.

The danger of Kanye being perceived as an abolitionist spokesperson

Due to Kanye’s recent loss of credibility in the area of social justice, the danger in his call for amending the 13th is that the idea itself, which has been advocated for by prisoners and abolitionists for decades, could lose its legitimacy. I find the relationships between Kanye’s outlandish statements and prisoners’ call for abolishing slavery in the National Prison Strike to be troubling.

In a tweet the previous day, Kanye had written: “This represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love.” And in an interview with TMZ on Oct. 1, Kanye explained further: “What I want to say is abolish was the wrong language. I misspoke by saying abolish. Amend is the right language and what’s awesome – I don’t say dope, I say awesome because there’s power in words – lovely, what’s beautiful about our constitution is we can amend it.”

In a tweet the previous day, Kanye had written: “This represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love.” And in an interview with TMZ on Oct. 1, Kanye explained further: “What I want to say is abolish was the wrong language. I misspoke by saying abolish. Amend is the right language and what’s awesome – I don’t say dope, I say awesome because there’s power in words – lovely, what’s beautiful about our constitution is we can amend it.”

However, if we are to properly align the two, then we can actually reinterpret Kanye’s statements for the benefit of the current prison reform movement. Recently, as the spokesperson on behalf of the call by the incarcerated organizers of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak for a National Prison Strike, I asked everyone to do their part in organizing the prison abolitionist movement.

Mass incarceration has grown into a monster over these dark decades without light being shed into our nation’s prisons, so it’s going to take commitment and intentionality in order for us to collectively destroy this monster and deconstruct this complex system. That includes chauvinists, which means that I must disregard my personal biases.

I refuse to reject any individual’s help in this movement, especially that of celebrities with huge followings who can really bring attention to this issue and assist in helping people educate themselves and become more aware. Our role is not to divide people or turn anyone away from the movement because of their unique or offensive opinions.

While Kanye is a clown in many senses of the word, his buffoonery can be used to our advantage. Right now he has everyone’s attention, so instead of writing off his statements as if they’re all idiotic remarks, it’s time to critically take a look at the claims he’s making because prisoners have been resisting and fighting to abolish the 13th Amendment for decades and now a magnifying light is amplifying that call.

Incarcerated voices are the most silenced of our society, so historically it has been very difficult for them to reach the masses with their message. With the most recent National Prison Strike, in which many are suffering various forms of retaliation as a result of their actions, larger names with substantial followings have begun to take notice, such as rapper J Cole, who tweeted about the National Prison Strike during its first week.

While Kanye is a clown in many senses of the word, his buffoonery can be used to our advantage. Right now he has everyone’s attention.

It is a substantial aid when entertainers like Kanye West join prisoners in advocating for prisoners’ rights. While Kanye has recently been seen as a bullhorn of b*******, rather than factual, this one about ending slavery actually holds truth.

Whether or not he believes that our ancestors were forcibly enslaved, he does recognize that slavery is alive and well today. That is due to the choice of the writers of the Constitution, not the slaves themselves, and now that we are aware of how the slavery exception clause in the 13th functions, it is time to abolish it. Kanye’s statements are shedding light on the current prisoner-led resistance movement.

Even the joker has an agenda

Now Kanye is not going to be the new face of the prison abolitionist movement. He is an entertainer who has used his platform to shine light on an issue.

For all those who are activists and organizers, it is our responsibility to use the energy that his actions create in order to inspire more activists and organizers to join this movement. As a result of this issue gaining traction, more people will be willing to work on behalf of prisoners to maintain and protect their human rights and eventually to abolish prisons as we know them today, functioning as warehouses for human bodies where inmates are routinely abused, neglected and kept in a constant state of financial, emotional and mental instability without the proper access to medical care, educational opportunities or rehabilitative programs.

Kanye tweeted this photo of himself on a private plane wearing his favorite hat with this caption: “We will provide jobs for all those who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment.”

I’d also like to point out the fact that Kanye is not an idiot. He is an intelligent man. He is a millionaire and he married a millionaire. While he might not have the same values or morals as everyone else, just because he doesn’t hold a specific value in high regard does not make him any less a genius.

Kanye West came into the entertainment game as a young man, became a wealthy producer and rose to the top with dozens of hit songs while maintaining a consistent and dedicated fan base. He’s proven to the world that you don’t have to finish college to be successful.

Speaking of college, while I was studying at the University of Washington, I had two friends, two twin brothers, who were in complete support of Kanye no matter what. Every time West pulled a ridiculous stunt in front of the world, we’d look at the twins, expecting them to come to his defense – and they were always able to do so with confidence.

Now I am channeling the energy of Jamal and Jaylen in order to come to Kanye’s defense and say that there is legitimacy in his statement about the 13th Amendment. There are hundreds of organizations and strong individuals who are already in support of this movement to amend the 13th, which did not abolish slavery. Through its slavery exception clause, slavery, the act of exploiting people, has a legal place in our country’s prisons protected by our nation’s Constitution.

Many people were outraged by Kanye’s false comments about slavery being “a choice.” So many of us were outraged that the comment became worldwide news. Today there are still millions of slaves, many of whom live in a constant state of violence and oppression, so where is the outrage?

Kanye’s clowning might not be so conflicting after all.

Amani Sawari, prior to being named the Bay View’s new editor, served as spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the people who first conceived the 2018 National Prison Strike. She is a journalist committed to “writing to enlighten, engage and empower.” She can be reached at amanisawari@gmail.com or @Sawarimi or by mail to 14419 Greenwood Ave. N., Ste A #132, Seattle WA 98133. Visit her website, http://sawarimi.org. And support her on Patreon.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay View.

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