The Enduring Legacy of the Willie Lynch Hoax

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Kanye West’s emergence from his self-imposed cocoon of social media silence last week has not been seamless. After proclaiming his support for Donald Trump and the president’s Make America Great Again plank, the musician and fashion designer took to TMZ Live on Tuesday for arguably the most bizarre of what has already been a bizarre fortnight of proclamations:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally in prison. I like the word ‘prison’ because ‘slavery’ goes too direct to the idea of blacks. Slavery is to blacks as the Holocaust is to Jews. Prison is something that unites as one race, blacks and whites, that we’re the human race.”

Kanye is well aware of the weight his words carry. As someone who has referred to himself as the “most impactful artist of our generation,” Kanye long ago realized that anything he says, no matter how inane and obviously ridiculous, will be incessantly discussed. For Kanye to then make such an ignorant proclamation is willfully disingenuous. And his follow-up tweets (now deleted) didn’t help to clarify his position:

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The latter tweet references William Lynch, a purported 18th-century slave owner from the British West Indies who traveled to Virginia in 1712 to teach slave owners how to better control their property. His speech on the banks of the James River was first “discovered” in 1970, and began its life online starting in 1993 when a reference librarian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City uploaded the “Willie Lynch letter,” which detailed how Lynch psychologically and physically tortured slaves. The letter is also patently false.

Willie Lynch never existed, nor did anyone from the British West Indies organize such a summit to advise slave owners in the early 1700s. As the librarian mentions in an email to her superiors, “Prof. [William] Piersen of Fisk contacted us a few months back about its origins and provided me with a critique which points to the narrative being a much-latter-day document…assuming Prof. Pierson’s [sic] critique is on target, I think it likely that it’s a ’60s or ’70s document.”

I accessed this email via the Wayback Machine, which means it has existed to dispel the Lynch rumor for years. Yet the letter continues to be legitimized within the framework of pop culture. Kanye isn’t the only artist to name-drop Lynch: So has Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, and Nas among others.

And it’s not just rappers dotting bars with reference to Lynch’s “letter,” Denzel Washington quotes the letter at length in the 2007 film The Great Debaters.

The letter, and its supposed relevance explaining not only the slave experience but also the origins of “lynching,” has been disseminated enough times that in 2004 Jelani Cobb wrote an extended answer to the question, “Is Willie Lynch’s letter real?”

There are many problems with this document — not the least of which is the fact that it is absolutely fake…it has been cited by countless college students and a black member of the House of Representatives, along the way becoming the essential verbal footnote in barbershop analysis of what’s wrong with black people.

When Mark Adams of the Baltimore Sun contacted the publisher of the St. Louis Black Pages in 1998 — the newspaper that first printed Lynch’s speech in the early 1990s — to inquire about the provenance or authenticity of the letter, Adams was rebuffed. “I’ve never run a piece that got the response this one got. There’s something truly magical about it. Don’t ask me to explain it,” said publisher Howard Denson. “How else can you explain how whites kept control when they were outnumbered five, 10 or 20 to one?” he asked. “Blacks still carry the negative mental legacy of slavery. I think we really need to address the things that hold us back. Blacks spend $400 million annually, but they believe they’re poor and powerless because they’ve been conditioned to think that way.”

Even though the letter is fake and Willie Lynch is a conjuring from the civil right era, that is not to say the character doesn’t have power. As Lupe Fiasco noted via Twitter:

Lynch’s letter shouldn’t be downplayed, but it also shouldn’t be given the sort of weight that a work of historical  significance carries, and perhaps a search down a Willie Lynch rabbit hole with lead to other examples that provide a far greater historical context, whether that be Solomon Northup, When I Was A Slave, or Cudjo Lewis.

Willie Lynch is an urban myth, and while the internet is full of stories that we know to be false, we’ve known for more than two decades that there was no Willie Lynch, so why keep spreading the lie to only fit a convenient narrative? For Kanye to willfully ignore what has been proven untrue is perhaps more dangerous than his support of MAGA and his “brother,” Donald Trump.