Last week rapper Kanye West met President Trump at the White House in what must be one of the most bizarre meetings in Oval Office history. Wearing his infamous, Chinese-made, Make America Great Again baseball cap, West regaled an unusually silent Donald Trump with his thoughts on masculinity, hydrogen-powered planes and the Democratic party.
In May, in another logorrhoeic display, West opined that “slavery was a choice” – a result of “mental imprisonment” – and more recently expressed a desire to see the repeal of the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which abolished slavery. West’s continued praise for Trump, a man who once referred to white supremacists as “very fine people”, has led to widespread condemnation and the accusation (from fellow rapper Snoop Dogg, among others), that West is nothing but an Uncle Tom.
The weaponisation of black or Muslim voices to amplify the views of illiberal forces is a growing global phenomenon
The central character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as different to Kanye West as it’s possible to be: impoverished, enslaved, a Christian martyr. However, the figure of the “Uncle Tom” has long migrated away from that archetypal hero of the abolitionist movement. From the moment he was contrasted with the radical “New Negro” of the 1910s, the Uncle Tom was seen as the insider who loved the “massa” and put the slavemaster’s interests above his own people. Powerfully portrayed by Samuel L Jackson in the otherwise dismal Django Unchained, the Uncle Tom at his worst is an informer, a co-conspirator, or an instigator and apologist for white violence.
There is something of the orphaned child about him; desperate for love and care, wherever it may come from. There is the air of the orphaned child about Kanye West, too. Since the death of his mother he appears unmoored, lost in the fantasy land that his Kardashian in-laws live within in Los Angeles; he is hurt that, on return to his hometown of Chicago, Drake’s tracks are played more on the radio than his own. West demands that his support of Trump be perceived as an act of independent thought, his escape from the prison of Democratic party support (that binds most African Americans); as brave as Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman’s flight from chattel slavery.
The diagnosis of bipolar disorder floats above West’s MAGA cap (he said last week that he was misdiagnosed), and it is impossible to tell whether his controversial statements stem from manic episodes, or a carefully contrived strategy to stay in the headlines; his flirtation with Trump possibly as manipulated as his wife Kim’s nude photos.
Meanwhile in the UK, the Conservative candidate for London mayor, Shaun Bailey, has been condemned on social media as an Uncle Tom after his past statements resurfaced regarding the danger of Britain becoming “a crime-riddled cesspool” if Muslim and Hindu festivals are accommodated.
Over the years many ethnic minority Conservatives have been disparaged as Uncle Toms and “native informers” – a term for those who worked with colonial authorities – and there is a strong sense of betrayal when black or Asian people seem to turn their backs on the communities they have left. However, it has to be unreasonable to assume that all members of minority groups have identical economic or political interests, especially in Britain, where neither the Labour nor the Conservative party have been innocent of using race and racism to garner votes.
In Bailey’s case, though, there is a problem in a prospective black mayor of London regurgitating the unsubstantiated, prejudiced views of the far right.
The weaponisation of black or Muslim voices to amplify and justify the views of illiberal forces is a growing global phenomenon. In Sweden, the former Muslim Mona Walter condemned the election of fellow Somali migrant Laila Ali Elmi, claiming it to be the first step in the (wholly farcical) Muslim takeover of the country.
In the United States, the renowned anti-Islam campaigner, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has long been celebrated by the hard right (she has worked for the neocon American Enterprise Institute). In her autobiography, Infidel, a picture is painted of a Somali and Muslim world so oppressive to women that the only rational response is to reject it and flee from it. Yet she conveniently sidestepped her former feminist convictions to support Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US supreme court. At a time when sexual equality is under siege, all voices should be heard and all experiences added to our understanding of the societies we live in; yet I cannot help but feel that a lucky few are insensible to the pain of the many.
The reach of Hirsi Ali’s views, most of them dependent on her privileged position as a former “insider” within the Muslim world, is startling, and can only be understood in the context of how her extreme statements accord with mainstream anxieties and prejudices. It also relates to the marginalisation of the people she speaks about, who have few high-profile voices.
While I do not believe it serves society to denounce as an Uncle Tom those we perceive as misguided or dangerous, we do have to be vigilant against the utilisation of a few satisfied individuals to justify the disenfranchisement of a large, poorly represented group. And maybe we shouldn’t act so surprised that Kanye West sees himself better represented by a billionaire celebrity, like himself, than anyone else.
• Nadifa Mohamed is a British-Somali novelist