Exploring Systems of Racial Oppression in the Works of J. Cole and Esi Edugyan
by Emma Holleman Jones
The present analysis operates based on the understanding that rap is equally as valid, intellectual, and important as traditionally accepted artforms, such as the novel. Therefore, though writer Esi Edugyan and rapper J. Cole utilize different media, this essay investigates the commonalities between Edugyan’s novel, “Washington Black,” and Cole’s music. In order to substantiate and supplement this comparison, the author incorporates ideas from historical theorists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, as well as present-day scholars such as Ava DuVernay, Leslie David Burns, and Benjamin Lewellyn-Taylor. Both Edugyan and Cole explore the lack of recognition of Black intellectualism, the exploitation of Black artistry, the abuse of Black labor, and the source of intraracial violence in Black communities. Analysis of these themes provides insight on the multifaceted, complex nature of Black oppression in the past and present. The striking similarities between Edugyan’s historically based novel and Cole’s current work demonstrate how current systems of Black oppression mimic and derive from America’s racist past.
KEY WORDS: rap, hip-hop, systemic racism, slavery, mass incarceration, double-consciousness
Esi Edugyan’s recent novel Washington Black depicts a young Black man who lives as a runaway slave and later as a freedman in the nineteenth century. While Edugyan bases her novel on intensive historical research, Washington Black still resonates with the modern-day reader. In many ways, current hip-hop artist and rapper J. Cole touches on similar themes to Edugyan in his music. The commonalities between Edugyan’s historically grounded tale and the semi-autobiographical work of J. Cole highlight the ways that racism and Black oppression continue to manifest in the modern era. Though they utilize different artistic platforms and write about different time periods, Edugyan and Cole both explore the lack of recognition of Black intellectualism, the exploitation of Black artistry, the abuse of Black labor, and the roots of intraracial violence. Investigating the similarities between Washington Black and Cole’s music sheds light on the historical roots of present-day racial oppression.
The present analysis stands upon the assertion that rap explores the human condition in a form that is just as valid as traditionally accepted art forms, such as the novel, poem, or essay. After Edugyan published Washington Black, the novel quickly gained recognition and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Whereas some professors have already begun introducing Edugyan’s novel into college curricula, Cole’s song lyrics remain largely unacknowledged by academia. Scholar Leslie David Burns comments on this difference when he writes that hip-hop “is contested by some as a legitimate genre of art” (28). Nonetheless, Burns believes that hip-hop is “a better vehicle for communicating than any other genre of art today” (28). To substantiate this assertion, Burns points to the “honesty” (28) of the form, which gives it a unique ability to convey the human condition. Burns explains that those who question the authority of hip-hop doubt the legitimacy of “the most refined intellectual production” (25) by African-Americans in the present day. Rap grew out of the hip-hop movement, and J. Cole exemplifies why rap specifically deserves recognition as a fine art when he describes his own creative process: “I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style, I studied the greats ” (Cole, “Middle Child”). Cole’s artistic growth matches that of any great artist: he develops his skill through the study of previous “greats.” Cole views rap as an arduous artistic production, a production therefore tantamount to art forms like the novel or essay that are recognized by academia. Though many academics ignore hip-hop and rap, Burns and Cole demonstrate that these art forms express important intellectual content and deserve recognition. This foundation legitimizes the present analysis, which considers the creative output of Edugyan and Cole together.
Edugyan and Cole testify to the lack of recognition of Black intellectualism in past and present society. Edugyan’s protagonist, nicknamed Wash, proves astute and academically inclined; however, when Wash breaks ground in marine biology by creating the first live-species aquarium in England, the public does not acknowledge his accomplishments. This lack of recognition disheartens Wash as he recalls how he “had sweated and made gut wrenching mistakes, and in the end [his] name would be nowhere” (Edugyan 355). Wash’s frustration originates from society’s failure to recognize both his physical labor, which is described with the corporeal adjectives of “sweat” and “gut,” and his illustrious achievements. Cole touches on this idea when he expresses frustration that White kids love his rap simply because “they wanna be black and think [rap] is how it feels” (Cole, “1985—Intro to ‘The Fall Off’”) and not because they genuinely appreciate his artistic production. By saying that his listeners “wanna be black,” Cole points out that many listeners fetishize Blackness. Acknowledging this fetishization emphasizes the lack of authentic understanding of the Black experience that Cole raps about. Through this line, Cole thus voices a frustration that White audiences miss the content and artistic process imbued in his rap. Though Cole and Wash work hard to gain intellectual recognition, the intellectual nature of their work is largely ignored and negated.
Edugyan and Cole further explore the relationships between White power and Black intellectualism as they expose the duplicity of the White support that Wash and Cole receive. In Washington Black, Wash finds himself indebted and emotionally attached to his master’s brother Titch after Titch teaches Wash how to read and helps him escape from slavery. Yet, Titch painfully abandons Wash in the middle of the novel. Wash perceives that “[he] was not of use to [Titch], and so [Titch] abandoned [him]” (Edugyan 373). Although Titch may seem like a benevolent character, he actually uses Wash temporarily for his own purposes. Cole views the support of his White fans in a similar manner. For example, Cole raps about the “temporary dough” (Cole, “G.O.M.D.”) of his profession, a profession where White audiences often regard Black artists as fleeting fads. Benjamin Lewellyn-Taylor bolsters Cole’s personal observation when he explains that the music industry generally believes that rap has a “short shelf-life” (53). Therefore, Edugyan and Cole tap into a cultural phenomenon when they expose the fleeting, unsubstantial nature of the White support that the Black community receives.
Edugyan and Cole both understand the underlying reason for the ephemerality of White support: the flawed perception of Black individuals by White individuals. In Washington Black, Wash spends a great deal of time with Titch, assisting with Titch’s experiments and household chores. At the closing of the novel, however, Wash comments that Titch “saw, in the end, what every other white man saw when he looked at [him]” (Edugyan 372). At a time when Black bodies were regarded as chattel, this line implies that Titch fails to regard Wash as a whole, complex human being. Despite their endless hours together, Titch always views Wash as a “rare thing” and never “as [an] equal” (Edugyan 373). Edugyan’s word choice shows that Titch does not perceive Wash as a sentient, intelligent being but rather as an intriguing object. In the present day, Cole expresses a similar frustration at the flawed perception of Black individuals. He notes that “every rich black nigga gotta be famous” while “every broke black nigga gotta be brainless” (Cole, “G.O.M.D.”). Cole chooses to emphasize race by saying “black” twice. The alliterative hard “b” sounds also accentuate this line. Through these choices, Cole draws more attention to the fact that these stereotypes are unjust and racialized. In their works, Edugyan and Cole purposefully draw attention to—and thereby advocate against—the shallow perception of Black individuals by White society.
These stereotypes of Black men are so pervasive that, in order to sell his music, Cole sometimes layers his songs so that White audiences receive the image of a famous rapper that they expect while his authentic artistry still exists within the song. For example, the chorus of Cole’s hit song “Middle Child” talks about violence, sneakers, and sex. But, the intervening verses attest to the fact that Cole does not “snort powder” and that he strives to uplift the Black community by getting his “niggas more chips” (Cole, “Middle Child). By using the word “chips” Cole draws attention to the strategic and game-like elements of power, a game which he clearly plays by layering songs such as “Middle Child” to appeal to a wide audience. By operating in these layers, however, Cole adopts what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double-consciousness” (Du Bois 3). Du Bois famously commented on the experience of being Black as “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 3). The concept that White people are “amused” by Black people who are forced to conform to the White “tape” applies directly to Cole’s method of layering meaning within this song. In “Middle Child,” Cole conforms to stereotypical imagery that will entertain the White population in order to win a large salary, while simultaneously living as an authentic, non-stereotypical Black man. While the majority of Cole’s songs do not cater to these stereotypical images, the layering in “Middle Child” serves as evidence that the pressure of the double-consciousness still exists today. Clearly, the one-dimensional perception of Black individuals that haunted Wash throughout Washington Black continues to linger in the present era, producing this double-consciousness within Cole.
In addition to discussing Black intellectualism in their works, Edugyan and Cole also illustrate the exploitation of Black artistry by White society. In Edugyan’s novel, Wash quickly develops extraordinary artistic capacities when Titch gives him basic drawing implements, but both Wash’s malevolent slave master and Titch attempt to utilize Wash’s talent for their own purposes. For example, Titch asks Wash to illustrate his scientific discoveries and inventions: “I want you to draw what you see. The topography is most important” (Edugyan 54). Titch focuses on his own desires and dictates the subject matter of Wash’s drawings so that he can use them for his own scientific pursuits. While this overt exploitation may seem like an antiquated phenomenon to some, Benjamin Lewellyn-Taylor writes extensively about the neo-colonialistic exploitation of Black artists in the music industry. From the White monopolization of record labels to the snubbing of Black artists at the GRAMMY awards, Lewellyn-Taylor says, “Black cultural expressions are exploited, commodified, stolen, misunderstood, or ignored, but they are never really valued” (Lewellyn-Taylor 6). To support this point, Lewellyn-Taylor comments on the White domination of top executive positions in the music industry (53). In fact, White executives often own the rights to Black artists’ entire bodies of work (Lewellyn-Taylor 53-54). Cole’s lyrics further expose the modern relevance of this issue. For example, in his song “Apparently,” Cole repeatedly asserts, “this is my canvas. Ima paint it how I want it baby.” In a world where White executives often control the creative output and monetary compensation of Black artists, Cole emphasizes this line to affirm his own creative freedom. In the words of Du Bois, Cole strives to “use his best powers and latent genius” (Du Bois 4), an action which has been and continues to be denied to Black people. Clearly, society threatens the creative expression and artistic ownership of both Wash and Cole. Examining the works of Edugyan and Cole together, especially in the context of Du Bois’ observation, exposes the continued exploitation of Black artistic genius in the present day.
Lewellyn-Taylor views the profiteering and appropriation of Black music by White individuals as an exploitation of “black labor” (54); Edugyan and Cole extend Lewellyn-Taylor’s observation as they write about the general abuse of Black physical labor in the past and present. Edugyan’s novel briefly captures Wash’s life of physical enslavement, during which Wash experiences intense trauma. Even after Wash acquires physical freedom, he spends his time under the shadow of White oppression, laboring for White men as a freedman. In the recent documentary, 13th, Ava DuVernay argues that modern mass incarceration acts as an extension of slavery. In society today, the incarcerated population predominantly consists of Black and Brown men, who serve long sentences and are exploited through systems that allow prison managers to sell the labor of their prisoners (DuVernay). Cole highlights the connection between mass incarceration and slavery when he raps, “too many niggas in cycle of jail / Spending they birthdays inside of a cell / We coming from a long bloodline of trauma” (Cole, “Middle Child”). In these lines Cole speaks to the large volume of incarcerated Black men, as well as the cyclic nature of their incarceration. He also uses synecdoche to talk about the many years, represented by birthdays, that these men spend in jail. Most importantly, through stringing these lines together, Cole demonstrates that the incarceration of Black people acts as an extension of the “trauma” that their ancestors experienced. The word “bloodline” refers to the concept of inheritance and evokes a connotation of blood and violence. This double entendre highlights the fact that violence against Black people has been occurring for many generations. In “4 Your Eyes Only,” Cole adopts the perspective of a friend when he raps, “I try to find employment even if it’s wiping toilets / But these felonies be making life the hardest.” After incarceration, Cole’s friend can only find employment at the most menial of tasks because of his criminal record. This line reflects a larger trend where many incarcerated Black men return to physical freedom only to work menial jobs for White supervisors, just as Wash did after enslavement. Joint consideration of Washington Black and Cole’s music exposes a tragic truth of our society: the exploitation of Black labor and the lack of Black economic agency have not ceased.
Comparing Edugyan’s novel and Cole’s current body of work also illuminates how the familial hardships caused by mass incarceration echo the forced separation of families during slavery. Throughout Washington Black, Wash attempts to come to terms with his feelings toward Big Kit, a maternal figure on the plantation. Wash reports wanting to “calm [his] sense of rootlessness, solve the chaos of [his] origins” (Edugyan 368). However, by the time Wash realizes Big Kit is actually his biological mother, she has already died. Wash’s feeling of “rootlessness” characterized the experiences of many Black individuals during slavery, when families were often estranged or torn apart by the slave trade. In the present day, Scholar Elyshia Aseltine notes that “even short periods of incarceration” can jeopardize Black men’s “social lives” because they “risk losing … their children” (Aseltine 597). In “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole painfully depicts how incarceration can rupture a family: Cole again raps from the perspective of his late friend, specifically mentioning the pressure of knowing that his “daughter gotta eat” and the succeeding “temptation to . . . snatch your daughter bike and pawn it” (Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only”). In these lines Cole depicts the aftermath of incarceration, including economic deprivation and the following temptation to break familial trust. Economic deprivation eventually leads Cole’s friend to return to crime, which precipitates his premature death (Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only”). In this way, the friend’s economic hardship caused by his incarceration results in an irreversible separation from his daughter. This song’s storyline strikes the listener forcefully because Cole directs the entire song to his late friend’s daughter. While Cole’s emotive song illustrates how mass incarceration fractures families, Edugyan depicts the horrific separation of families and the lack of parental figures during slavery. Although this analysis does not seek to equate the two systems, the repercussions of mass incarceration chillingly echo the separation of families during slavery, negatively impacting young generations in both cases.
Finally, Edugyan and Cole both portray intraracial Black violence as a consequence of slavery and modern systemic oppression. In Washington Black, Wash experiences violence at the hands of his mother at an early age, but he most notably comments on violence within the Black community when he speaks of life in Nova Scotia: “the way blacks sometimes treated one another, as if all they had endured in cruelty would be paid back doubly on their brothers” (Edugyan 218). Wash sees intraracial violence, or violence between “brothers,” as a consequence of the “cruelty” enacted by White oppressors. Cole also mentions the ties between intraracial violence and White oppression when he raps, “we killing our brothers . . . Distorted self image, we set up to fail” (Cole, “Middle Child”). Cole joins these two lines in a couplet purposefully, hinting at the close relationship between Black crime and the undervaluation of Black people in society today. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commented on this phenomenon in one of his speeches: “It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society” (King 216). In these lines King does not excuse the illegal deeds committed by members of the Black community; rather, he contextualizes them in a greater system of Black oppression. While some argue that the high rates of imprisonment for Black males simply occur because Black communities are violent, Dr. King argues that systemic oppression engenders these crimes. Like Dr. King, Edugyan and Cole both suggest that intraracial violence between “brothers” exists in the aftermath of systemic oppression wrought by White society.
Edugyan and Cole both explore the ways oppression affects the Black community and seek to address these issues in their works. Though Edugyan and Cole present their ideas in different artistic mediums and, in turn, target different groups of people, they both challenge their audiences to acknowledge the severity of systemic racial oppression in the past and present. Taken together, the works of Edugyan and Cole demonstrate that America’s racist past is not, in fact, the past. Cole voices a desire to his listener, rapping that he wants to “slap all that hate out your voice” (“Middle Child”). As a first step in achieving Cole’s wish, we can acknowledge the complex and entrenched ways that racism persists. Only after admitting that racial hatred continues to plague our country can we begin to confront it.
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DuVernay, Ava, director. 13th. Netflix, 2016.
Edugyan, Esi. Washington Black. New York, Vintage Books, 2018.
J. Cole. “1985—Intro to ‘The Fall Off’.” KOD, Dreamville Records and Roc Nation Records, 2018. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/4Wv5UAieM1LDEYVq5WmqDd
J. Cole. “4 Your Eyez Only.” 4 Your Eyez Only, Dreamville Records and Roc Nation Records, 2016. Spotify, open.spotify.com/album/3CCnGldVQ90c26aFATC1PW
J. Cole. “Apparently.” 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Roc Nation Records, 2014. Spotify, open.spotify.com/album/7viNUmZZ8ztn2UB4XB3jIL
J. Cole. “G.O.M.D.” 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Roc Nation Records, 2014. Spotify, open.spotify.com/album/7viNUmZZ8ztn2UB4XB3jIL
J. Cole. “Middle Child.” Middle Child, Dreamville Records Inc, Roc Nation Records, 2019. Spotify, open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc
King, Martin Luther. “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 74, no. 2, Jun. 2018, pp. 214-223.
Lewellyn-Taylor, Benjamin. “The Free Black Artist: Frank Ocean Through a Decolonial Lens.” Black Theology, vol. 17, no. 1, 6 Dec. 2019, pp. 52-68.
Acknowledgements: To Camille, for always encouraging me to write.