Election Day 2016: Common, the White House + the Black Imagination

Tiny Desk Concert with Common.


How the White House functions for black America in the past eight years has always fascinated me. It can serve as a type of canvas for the black American imagination in an impactful way. For those of you who have studied your American history, the White House was built by slaves and when occupied by then-president George W. Bush it became an ultimate symbol of oppression and privilege for the black American (Hurricane Katrina, anybody?!). When President Barack Obama was occupying the White House, for some black Americans, it became the symbol of pride, possibility and an ultimate source of black empowerment. The feelings associated with the White House generally depend on who has access to it and rarely does it have anything to do with how politics are actually operating for the black American person, but more so how it feels to see a black possibility in a space long only occupied by powerful white men and only the most acceptable and respectable of negroes.

With that in mind, the black entertainment industry has proved to be just as enamored with this paradox as the general black American population. The desire is understandable to be a Kendrick Lamar or a Nicki Minaj and participate in this claiming of a space long preserved for those heavily invested (be you liberal or conservative) in white domination. It is the ultimate arrival for a power type and a validation that was never viewed as possible a decade ago to be invited to this space. In a way, the black American public loves to view this because it tells us that we, too, can arrive at great amounts of validation and power, even if it just symbolically. This adoration is totally informed by the nature of capitalism and the idea that a proximity to whiteness and power might be all that the black American needs to survive.

We believe that access to these spaces, symbolically, means that a fundamental change is happening in the fabric of America. Sorry to burst your bubble, though, but it is not. White supremacy has no preferred race when it comes to using someone to carry out its function, and neither does imperialism or capitalism. The mascots of these dominating systems might change with the times, but the game stays the same. The latest case of this behavior was the performance of Common at South by South Lawn during NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, which took place inside the White House library. According to NPR, “Common’s choice of songs dealt with incarceration as the new slavery, imagined during a time where women rule the world and honored the man he looked up to all his life, his father.”

That first phrase confused me.

To rap about being anti-slavery and the prison-industrial complex from inside the White House would mean you are ignoring colluding with the very establishment that created the prison-industrial complex in the first place. It makes me wonder if we forgot, intellectually, how the White House was built and by whom. Have we forgot that black-and-brown slaves sweated, toiled and died to erect this building? Do we think those invested in politics have any true interest in abolishing slavery as opposed to simply evolving it? This is the danger of how the White House functions for the black imagination because we fail to see it as a place that has done incredible harm to black people directly, simply because more black bodies have access to it. However, this is the scariest portion of how the White House functions because through symbolism and warm rhetoric that may even refer to those exploited enslaved Africans from the Diaspora.

It can have black common folks and superstars alike agree with their own domination in hopes that the conspiracy helps them to arrive at the conjoined roads of empowerment and freedom.

I re-read the phrase and gave Common another artistic possibility. Common knows everything that the White House stands for and the evil it has done to the possibility of black freedom. For him, in his imagination, he may believe that rapping about the need to abolish all forms of slavery serves as the ultimate artistic protest. In the same way that Beyoncé performing at last week’s Country Music Awards served as a type of reclaiming of music that belonged to Blackness — the pushback to these types of artistic protests are a clear and bold declaration of white supremacy through exclusion and appropriation that has been practiced for decades. Without knowing what the artist’s intentions are this blatant disregard is less of an intervention and more of an endorsement to the thing you desire to disrupt.

We will not know the results of Common’s performance before we witness it. It would be unfair to assume anything without a quote or declaration of intention from him, but it does invite us to disillusion ourselves from symbolism. Think about it… the idea of divorcing the black imagination’s love affair with empty iconography is a radical one. It invites us to realize some of the things that we enjoyed in the delight of symbolism did not prevent police brutality or from Flint’s water to be poisoned. And that’s the trouble with being so invested and infatuated with symbolism—it is too often static. It does not exist beyond the televised performance or the soul-stirring speech. This is all to say that yes, the White House was built by slaves and now black people are living in it, but this should not insinuate that slavery is over and that there are not slaves building something just as big and violent for white supremacist, imperialistic-capitalistic dominators in the present day.

Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.

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