Kanye West’s Twist on Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”

Recently before class started, Professor Schacht played a song called “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol. The song was originally written as a poem, published in 1937, but because of its strikingly grim yet powerful lyrics, artists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone have taken the poem to the performance stage.

Professor Schacht played Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” and by hearing just the first eight bars of the piece, I was reminded of the song “Blood On the Leaves” by the renowned modern day progressive artist, Kanye West. “Blood On the Leaves” actually uses the first eight bars of “Strange Fruit” as a sample for the song and to establish a theme that is prevalent in Kanye’s most recent album, Yeezus, which includes “Blood On the Leaves”. It was appropriate for Kanye to use “Strange Fruit” as a sample for “Blood On the Leaves” because of the correlating messages that both songs provide. However, it is interesting to see the difference in time period and context that each song specifically addresses.

Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” is concerned with the era of slavery, specifically the lynching of slaves. The song utilizes vivid language such as, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” to expose the gruesome nature of lynching as well as the oppressive history of slavery.

Kanye West was obviously influenced by this theme of oppression in “Strange Fruit” causing him to create “Blood On the Leaves” and “New Slaves”, another song on Yeezus, that offer a twist on this idea of oppression. Rather than attacking the original era of slavery, Kanye attacks today’s highly consumerist society and claims that this is the generation of the “New Slaves.” By “New Slaves”, Kanye means that today’s generation are blinded, or “enslaved” by corporate branding and the media. He portrays this idea of the “new slave” and modern day racism in his song “New Slaves” which ultimately illustrates how this generation is being financially and mentally “lynched” by big corporations and even government agencies. Take the following paraphrased lyrics as an example:

  • “Doing [fashion] you would have thought I had help, but [corporations] wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself”
    • (Although Kanye started as a musical artist, since his debut, he has branched out into more fields of visual art, especially fashion. However, big fashion labels and designers disliked Kanye’s attempt to venture out into the fashion world because they perceived Kanye as purely a musical artist. Therefore, when Kanye states that he must “pick the cotton himself” he means that if he wants to do fashion, he must financially do it all on his own.)
  • “You see it’s broke [man] racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store. And it’s rich [man] racism, that’s that ‘Come in please buy more.’”
    • (This bar shows the disparity between how store owners treat those who have money and those who do not. Society continues to separate people not based on just race and gender, but also class as well.)
  • “Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA, they trying to lock [people] up, they trying to make new slaves. See that’s a privately owned prison, get your piece today. They’re probably all in the Hamptons bragging about what they made.”
    • (Kanye is attempting to reveal the true intentions of government agencies such as the DEA and the CCA and how he feels that “the system” is perpetuating racism and corruption.)

As you can see, Kanye talks about an increasingly oppressive and unequal society where rich corporations are all about remaining rich while promoting the idea of “the American Dream,” which Kanye believes to be a façade. Especially in the song “New Slaves”, Kanye takes jabs at corporations and the media for how they oppress and control the minds of easily molded young individuals in society that become mesmerized with materialism as an expression of socioeconomic status. Kanye denounces the financial and mental “enslavement” that is taking place in today’s consumerist society and is adamant about change.

Disillusionment Characterized by Move from Innocence to Experience

Holy Thursday, also called Ascension Thursday, is a time where the church community comes together to take pity on the poor and hold a service for the impoverished children of London’s charity schools. Holy Thursday as depicted in the Song of Innocence seems to be an idealized take on the service portraying the impoverished children of England singing in unison with their “clean innocent faces.” Their song is a “harmonious thunder” and a “mighty wind”. Blake draws upon the same scene and questions its validity in his Songs of Experience. Blake ponders is that “trembling cry a song?” “Can it be a song of joy?” Blake questions the society that would allow it’s children to be subject to such harsh conditions, despite the prima facie angelic scene described in the Song of Innocence.

In a period characterized by high mortality rates often attributed to poor hygiene and low to no understanding of disease, the amount of orphans in England skyrocketed to the point where the state had a difficult time housing and caring for its wards. Factory owners approached government officials and parish leaders with a proposition that in exchange for the orphans labor, the owners would supply the children with housing and nourishment. Grossly unregulated, this simple solution evolved into a system comprised of child laborers working 10-15 hours a day in deplorable conditions, only to have their most basic physiological needs tended to by the factory owners.

Blake in his “Experienced” depiction of Holy Thursday critiques the English society that left its children susceptible to the abuses of industry.

“Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,—
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?”

Blake’s contrasting views of the Church scene portray conditions as they currently are for the children of England and how they ought to be. Would these children have been born into a community protected and nurtured by the idealized Church in his Innocence version, they would likely never have been left vulnerable to the horrors of the factories, which in reality they suffer.

A Closer Look at the Case for Reparations

A case for reparations for slavery always involves the idea of white privilege. Those that have urged society to give African Americans reparations for slavery and past disadvantages have also told us that whites have benefitted from an immense amount of amassed wealth.  Proponents argue that the present effects of past disadvantages should be solved by a rule of social justice that involves returning wealth stolen from years of free labor.  Furthermore, many of the ways in which supporters call for a giving back of wealth are vague and consist of demanding large amounts of money from the government, and ultimately the American people.  The politicians and common folk that believe in reparations for slavery seem to be in favor of a solution that basically aims at correcting history, although given, we do not live in a world (or country) of absolute equal opportunities in the present. After pondering this point of view, I have several observations that lead me to question its implications, and comment on the attitudes of those who are informing us of our moral duty to fix the wrongs of our forefathers.

One of my first observations about the argument for reparations is that an attempt at fixing the past would not stop at American slavery.  There is a long list of conquest of land and resources that spans all of history. In our particular country, some might argue that the Native Americans were the first to have the privilege of claiming the land in present day United States and to the south of us. Tribes were located in different areas and fought over hunting rights to specific territories themselves, some winning over others. A model of conquest ethics has been embraced time and time again throughout history.  Some countries like India have been invaded by multiple groups, like the British and Afghans, Persians and the Mongols.  This argument isn’t far removed from the context of reparations for slavery.  Take for instance Father Divine, who has argued that all nations and all peoples who have been involved must pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated labor. In other words, he is calling to fix an injustice of the past, by putting the burden on the descendants of the guilty. Not only is this complicated, but it also opens Pandora’s Box to compensating every possible oppressed people group in the past…which is just about every tribe and tongue imaginable in some form or another.

However, many supporters of reparations do choose to only focus on American history, specifically on the disadvantages of the African American community as a result of slavery, Jim Crow Laws or housing discrimination.  Although again, things do get complicated quickly when the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission asks “the West” for $ 777 trillion within five years, like in 1999.  It seems that some major taxation would have to take place in order to come up with this amount of money in such a short period of time.  Furthermore, I still wonder what supporters claiming to be beneficiaries of white privilege are going to do about it; after all, the burden falls on them.  Many proposals have called on the government to make direct payments. The problem of complicated genealogies may be a problem here, even for those who are proven descendants of slaves. What about those that are half white and half black? Should they be half punished and half compensated?  Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, demanded that the federal government take radical measures in compensating African Americans: “For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied,” and “For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation.”

It seems that many are waiting for society or the government to enforce their ideology, but may not be doing anything about it themselves.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I respect you completely if you hold this point of view and live in such a way as to demonstrate that you are committed to it. However there are many students who attend a top notch University, let’s say Stanford, Harvard or MIT, taking complete advantage of an opportunity that many others do not have, while still demanding the American government to do something about the discrepancy between white privilege and black disadvantage.  My challenge to these students would be to enforce their own moral code – not wait for society or the “system” to do so. They may want to give up their position in the university to a minority that did not have that opportunity.  My point is, in order to persuade others of your point of view, live it out! You or I may or may not agree with the philosophy of Diogenes of ancient Greece, but I’m sure we can both appreciate his authenticity in living out what he was urging society to do.

I would raise the argument that there is an alternative for correcting history, instead of finding out the people who are in possession of stolen goods and returning them the descendants of African American slaves.  An alternative would be to establish equal rights under the law, to truly be color blind, to treat people according to the content of their character, and not according to their skin color or their ancestors. But also to have compassion on people of all different skin colors.  After all, the white “race” is not the only people group to be racist; all people groups have the potential, and have been racist in the past. There are African American descendants of slaves who are racist and white descendants of good, just people that are racist. Furthermore, making right the wrongs of the past through demanding money is not just, but facilitates more injustice.  Acknowledging and repenting of the past, even of our fathers’ sins, and committing to create equal right under the law is one very viable solution to past discrimination and oppression of our fellow countrymen.

But, my friend, act according to your own conscience….and be completely committed to it.

The Evil Men Do

Slavery in America is an important, but shameful time in our nation’s history. In his Independence Day Oration, Frederick Douglass, presents his thoughts on slavery and how it contradicts the foundation of America. Long after the abolishment of slavery, there is still discrimination against African Americans as explained in The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Within Douglass’s oration, it is said that the evil men do goes beyond their generation. The two readings can be connected by this idea, where Douglass explains the current situation of slavery and Coates describes the aftermath, several generations past its abolishment.

Douglass was honored to be speaking at such an event on an important day for Americans, however he was upset by how ironic the situation was. The founding fathers risked death to overthrow the British “home” government because they felt oppressed and unfairly treated. So this day of joyous occasion, the liberation of America, was not enjoyed by everyone. “I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them,” (Douglass). This is where the irony lies. Frederick Douglass accuses America for not being truthful to the foundation upon which it was built. “We fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers,” (Douglass). It is ignorant to celebrate a day considered so great for overcoming oppression while we subject an enormous amount of people to enslavement. Nothing pro slavery is found in the constitution, it is not a constitutionality argument because we know it to be immoral and wrong. There are many things in the constitution however, that are unsympathetic to slavery. Frederick Douglass within his speech states that because America is so young, there is hope that everything could be turned around. Until then, this country is based on a lie and should be ashamed for not sticking to the same values as its founding fathers.

A famous quote used in Douglass’s oration was one that connects well with The Case for Reparations. “The evil men do, lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones,” – William Shakespeare. In this article we see how African Americans were not much better off after the abolishment of slavery. Discrimination and acts of terror were a common sight. Many former slaves became farmers and lived in constant debt to their landowners. Refusing to work meant arrest on sharecrop farms, blacks were punished more harshly for their crimes, and where freed slaves lived were “ecologically distinct” from white neighborhoods. Frederick states in his oration that blacks were left out of the celebration of Independence Day because they were not considered Americans. The same case is seen here. The economic power that modern day America has become is largely due to cheap or free labor from slaves. Even after slavery, blacks were still exploited and discriminated against solely to show disrespect. The article finishes up saying that reparations would equate to “. . . the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” (Coates). Even today we have not reached this point.

The recent and current effects slavery still has on our nation supports that the malevolent things we do goes beyond our life time. Hundreds of years after slavery has ended in America, African Americans continue to deal with racism, inequality, and oppression. Coates recognizes that black lives in America are improving, but we still have a long way to go to undo the damage caused by past generations.

Institutional Racism in U.S. Health Care

Institutional racism in our health care system has been a concerning issue for a long time, but little to no progress has been made since 1970s. For instance, there is a significant increase in the amount of closed hospitals in minority communities, there are barriers to insurance and specialized physicians, and a lack of standardized collection of data on race in terms of provider and institutional behavior which makes it more difficult to obtain an accurate description of the discrimination in health care.

There are some discriminatory factors that are very deeply rooted that cause minorities to be at a disadvantage when it comes to health care. Some of these factors include increased probabilities of minorities becoming ill due to unhealthy environmental practices that take place near their communities. For instance, minority communities are more likely to be exposed to toxins like lead or asbestos than predominately white communities. Minority communities are also more likely to be targeted by marketing campaigns of unhealthy products like tobacco and alcohol. Another problem is the fact that there is a disproportionate amount of minority physicians compared to whites. One could make the argument that if there were more minority physicians, there would be better health care in minority communities because these physicians would be more apt to practice in their communities. Ways of combating this are affirmative action policies, but these policies are under political and legal scrutiny.

Coates would argue that this further exemplifies why we need to have a discussion on reparations. The discussion must take place because there are still so many examples of how black  populations in the U.S. are being discriminated against today. Opening the discussion could enable society to recognize and find solutions to these modern instances of discrimination even if an agreement on reparations is not met.

Who is deserving of Liberty?

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to Liberty? – Fredrick Douglass, 1852

The Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4th of 1776, stated that all men are created equal. However, in the eyes of a negro slave living in the South, that statement is far from true. Fredrick Douglass sought to it that people realize the irony and hypocrisy of that statement by shedding a light on slavery. In deliverance of his oration, Douglass began by talking about Independence Day. Douglass uses the term your instead of our when stating “It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom”, somberly implying, that political freedom does not apply to him.  

He goes on to talk about how in this day and age, affirming the equal manhood of blacks should be enough. He states that black people shouldn’t have to prove their manhood when they are “…ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers… “. Does one need to prove any further that they are deserving of the same liberties as everyone else in their country? In the eyes of the Declaration of Independence, the negro race are deserving of the same liberties as everyone else. However, there are some, namely racist white folks, who refuse to acknowledge that. During this time, white people felt as if they were in a position of power to segregate America all on the grounds of skin color.

Everyone, including slaveowners, were able to see the wrongfulness of slavery. Slavery in and of itself is morally and objectively wrong. It is wrong to “…work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters…”. Why should it even be put into question how awful this system is? It is apparent that slavery, racism, and bigotry goes against everything America stands for.

Though slavery was abolished, the repercussions of it still exists today. Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that none of the creators of the Declaration of Independence felt entirely comfortable stating in the document that all men are created equal. They felt hypocritical in writing that in since most of them owned slaves. Coates describes the story of Clyde Ross: as a buyer for a new home, he had faced a significant amount of racism. He bought his house “on contract”, in other words, having all the responsibilities a homeowner, with the disadvantages of a renter, and experiencing the negative effects of both. Ross had to pay a much higher price for his home, compared to the white individual who owned it beforehand. Chicago’s impoverished black neighborhoods are characterized as “ecologically distinct.” instead of “of low economic status,”. There is a major difference in the two statements. 

The argument stands that all men are entitled to liberty, but not all are granted liberty. America proclaims it is the home of the free, but Douglass and Coates would argue that statement is false.


William Ellery Channing, Friend of Thoreau


Born on November 29th, 1818 in Boston, Massachusetts, William Ellery Channing could very well be described as a wandering man. Throughout his life, he attempted to go to school and even live as a family man, but time and time again he found himself unable to settle down. Leaving his family in 1844 to resume his unanchored wandering, Channing first visited New York City, then Europe, and until finally returning to Concord in 1846.

Channing and Thoreau were close friends, and would regularly keep company on walks through the woods, admiring the sights of nature around them. In a letter to Thoreau, it is evident that the two are close. Channing writes:

“My dear Thoreau,

The hand-writing of your letter is so miserable that I am not sure I have made it out. If I have it seems to me you are the same old sixpence you used to be, rather rusty, but a genius piece.”

Channing was also the one to suggest Thoreau live in solitude. Previously, he himself had spent some time living alone in the woods, and in a letter suggesting Thoreau do the same, he wrote “I see nothing for you on this earth but that field which I once christened ‘Briars;’ go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you.” Thoreau took this advice to heart and so began his stay in Walden, where he wrote on his experiences, creating the famous piece of literature we have today.

Eleven years after the passing of Henry David Thoreau, Channing published his biography Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist in 1873.


Sigmund Freud on Morality and “Higher Laws”

Morality is a commonly discussed topic in the realm of philosophy, especially for those “outside-the-box” thinkers who seem to have “bizarre” and new beliefs for an individual of their time or era. Sigmund Freud is no exception. Not only controversial in his beliefs, he become well-known for his ideas of the human psyche and human sexual development.

But how does this apply to morality? Like many famous philosophers, they  discuss morality and, more often than not, religion finds its way into the conversation. Sigmund Freud discusses morality in his work, Civilization and Its Discontents

Referring to morality, including a religious aspect, commonly a higher power is thought of as God. This God, to followers, creates the moral standards of which all followers strive to live by. Interestingly, Freud believes a higher power is simply an illusion that is used for a sense of (false) security. In other words, to Freud, there is no almighty, moral God of which all humans should follow to have a sense of morality. Rather, Freud believes that morality is unique to every individual and is shaped by situations that each person experienced, is experiencing, or will experience. 

Referring to page thirty one in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud further explains this situational aspect of his definition of morality. To him, decisions an individual makes and their actions are based upon their morals, which differ for every person. We must act to satisfy ourselves, not a higher power, to avoid guilty thoughts and feelings. More importantly, a higher power shouldn’t dictate a person’s thoughts or opinion of themselves. You can still be a good or “moral” person even if you don’t satisfy a higher power’s wants and needs from you, according to Freud. 

There’s also another interesting aspect of Freud’s theory is that he further suggests that rather than humans freely deciding for themselves, they don’t have control over moral codes and the more they fight to feel moral the more they feel immoral. Freud finds this “phenomenon” entirely irrational and has no explanation for it. He does try to explain it, however, through references of morality being part of individual development (with a heavy emphasis on human sexual development) as well as influences from evolution(s) of civilization development.

All in all, Freud’s personal explanation of sexual development talks about the ego being the main center of morality. However, he argues that with all humans having an ego, how can there be a higher power? Is it the ego or a higher power that forms or dictates TRUE morality or virtue?


— Analysis done by Group 5 on 12/02/2015 —

The Dumbest Thing To Ever Be Important

Earlier this semester, Dr. Schacht, Ken, and I had a side discussion about whether we would consider J.R.R. Tolkien a contributor to the humanities for his epic tales. We spoke about how his significant impact on literary fiction made him a relevant topic in humanities.

Wikipedia defines literary fiction as “a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”

Tolkien’s epic tales absolutely fall under this definition, but now in a new way.

The New York Times published an article yesterday (December 4th, 2015), titled Is Gollum Good or Evil? Jail Term in Turkey Hinges on Answer

Apparently, a Turkish physician, Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, lost his job with the Public Health Institution of Turkey for jokingly comparing the appearance of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to that of Gollum, the slimy, bug-eyed character in Tolkien’s Middle Earth – a crime punishable with jail time in Turkey. gollum

Because the Judge has admittedly and unfortunately not read Tolkien’s works, or seen The Lord of The Rings in its entirety, a panel of “experts” was assigned to assess the question “Is Gollum good or evil?” before the next phase of Ciftci’s trial begins in February. Turkey’s team of experts will include “two academics, two behavioral scientists [psychologists], and a film-and-telivision aficionado,” according to NYMag’s discussion of Turkey’s predicament.

In a statement to The Wrap, Peter Jackson, director of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, along with two screen writers (Fran Walsh & Phillippa Boyens) who worked with Jackson on the films, pointed out:

“If the images below are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol.”

Hilariously, they’re right.

Simply put for those who don’t know, Smeagol is Gollum’s less devious, arguably innocent alternate personality (it’s actually a little more complicated than that) – though this does not mean Gollum is definitively evil.

So with regards to what defines the literary fiction and the humanities, this ridiculous situation Dr. Bilgin Ciftci found himself in is another indication of Tolkien’s works being contributions to the humanities. It is an assessment of the human (or former hobbit) condition within Tolkien’s epic tales, and provides deliberate social commentary.

Religion and Freud

For today’s blog we’re going to compare Sigmund Freud’s religious views to those of the previous authors we’ve studied in HUM 2.  Freud had an atheistic world view, and said that religion was an expression of underlying psychologic duress.  in Civilization and its Discontents he said “the whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.”

Pope Francis’ views are obvious.  He subscribes to the Catholic interpretation of the New Testament and believes in both creation and the greatness of god.

William Blake didn’t discuss god as a sentient entity.  Instead he focussed on the institution of religion, claiming that it could entrap and destroy people. He wrote poem # 50 of his songs of innocence and experience in particular to assault the more violent practices of the church.

The weeping child could not be heard.
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They strip’d him to his little shirt
And bound him in an iron chain
And burn’d him in a holy place
Where many had been burn’d before:
The weeping parents wept in vain
Are such things done on Albions shore.

Marx meanwhile was very anti-religious.  He saw it as a way for the power elites to maintain control over the huddled masses via fear..  He claimed thatReligion is the opium of the people.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.” (Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved 19 January 2012.)

Finally, Locke didn’t discuss religion as an entity but frequently referenced god as a divine creator who also gave humanity all of its natural rights.  Locke was clearly religious, but he didn’t specify a faith.  So that God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority so far to appropriate: and the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions. (2nd Treatise number 35)