Erykah Badu finding “good” in Hitler highlights the limits of Black empathy after slavery
Who gets to fully represent “bad” and who gets to represent “good,” even when they, too, are demonstrably oppressive? And who benefits?
*A note from our editor Sherronda J. Brown: January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and our theme at Black Youth Project is Human Trafficking and Slavery. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.*
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I decided to watch a trashy horror film on HBO called The Final about a group of bullied high school outcasts who take brutal vengeance on their abusers. I love revenge flicks where the underdog finally overcomes their oppressor, but the movie was about as awful as you can imagine—even despite having one of my favorite herbs in hand. But there was one particular moment my heightened brain zeroed in on.
In the film, the outcasts lure their tormentors to a cabin under the pretenses of an exclusive costume party before drugging them and chaining them up in preparation for torture once they awake. To blend in with the party before the drugging, a few of the bullied kids dress up as what seems like Nazis, complete with red armbands and swastika-like symbols. It was so offhand, unremarked upon, and attached to characters you were supposed to empathize with that I was taken aback. You don’t make such casual references to Hitler and the Nazis. In today’s world, they are completely evil, and that shouldn’t be equivocated with such whimsy.
This is why Prince Harry received so much backlash when he dressed up as a Nazi a few years ago… Except now he’s the world’s royal darling. Except others who are just as evil, particularly America’s slave owning and genocidal founding fathers, have their legacy equivocated all the time. Sadly, I probably wouldn’t even blink twice if the kid in The Final dressed up as the rapist Thomas Jefferson. So what is the truth, really?
Who gets to fully represent “bad” and who gets to represent “good,” even when they, too, are demonstrably oppressive? And who benefits from these flattened representations?
Yesterday, R&B singer Erykah Badu was thrown into hot water when she said in an interview with Vulture that she “see(s) good in everybody. I saw something good in Hitler.” The backlash was swift and brutal, in the same way as my immediate response to the Nazi kids in The Final. How dare she acknowledge anything other than evil in the worst man on earth? To do so, some argued, means that she does not care about his crimes, and by extension she does not care about Holocaust victims. If she cares about “the good” in Hitler—at all—she does not care about anything else.
It can’t be ignored that, in the past, Erykah Badu has made many damaging arguments, such as that young girls should wear modest clothing so as not to elicit the “natural desires” of men. But while her comments in the Vulture interview were certainly not well-worded, they highlight how the world seeks to reward nuance primarily when it benefits white people, and punish nuance when it doesn’t.
Though we know Hitler’s violence extended well beyond white Jews, as the symbol he has been made into, his victims are a community largely considered to be white. This is why the responses to Badu’s comments are accusations that she is anti-semitic, not anti-Black, although Hitler was both. This is why Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil, but you might not even know who King Leopold II is, and you almost definitely aren’t creating a national controversy when someone argues George Washington has “good in him.”
As anyone with sense can deduce, Badu wasn’t saying that whatever “good” resided in Hitler overshadowed his evil (indeed, it was difficult for her to even pinpoint what that good was). What she was saying speaks to a reality all Black people know too well.
Black people are forced to live with our tormentors and their legacy every day. Nuancing their violence is the only thing that keeps many “well-meaning” white racists from waking up with their throats slit tomorrow.
In contrast to Badu, white society, which is reliant on punitivity and incarceration (and which naturally harms Black folk the most), argues for us to “nuance” its crimes to reinforce the good-bad binary and erase the violence that has been done to us. The founding fathers may have owned slaves, they say, but they also built this nation, so we should only honor and worship them.
Badu offers up a Blackened vision of nuance that challenges the anti-Black good-bad binary. In her world, the founding fathers (Hitler) may have built nations (had good in him), but they are still genocidal sociopaths. The script is flipped on its head. Good and bad do not eclipse each other, and there is only what you do after acknowledging all parts of a person exist simultaneously.
These are the types of survival lessons Black folks have always offered in the face of colonization. There is Hitler in every white person who participates in genocidal systems like capitalism, who wipes us out of our neighborhoods via gentrification, who votes for Trump, or coddles their mother who did. There is Hitler in white communities everywhere, and we have learned to manage it, for better or worse, by building with whatever good is there despite.
I believe Badu’s detractors are right in one regard, although it doesn’t contradict anything she said: good should never outweigh the bad simply because it exists. Until we are ready to destroy this binary way of thinking altogether, there will always be a struggle to properly acknowledge a person’s full being without compounding societal harm. And until we are willing to ensure that the good of those who symbolize or enact anti-Blackness does not outweigh their bad either, the damage of that binary will always exist.