Four thousand is a reference to the 40 acres that black people were supposed to receive as reparations and start-up investment after the American Civil War, reparations that were never fully distributed. Kanye seems to be saying, we never got our 40 acres, but on my own, I raised 100 times that amount.
In the early 1900s, Kanye’s family was located in Oklahoma, a land of opportunity for black people. When Kanye’s grandfather, Portwood Williams, was born, Oklahoma had 50 all-black towns, more than any other state. At the center was Tulsa, home to what Booker T. Washington proudly proclaimed “Black Wall Street.” The neighborhood was founded by one of the first self-made black millionaires – OW Gurley – and was widely considered one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the south.
In 1921, when Portwood was seven years old, idyllic Black Wall Street was attacked by a mob of angry white lynches in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. More than 300 black people were murdered and 35 city blocks and the businesses therein were burned down. As a young boy, Portwood worked at shining shoes, bringing his money home to help pay the bills, but also keeping some for himself. As an adult, he started an upholstery business, found success, and was eventually honored as one of Oklahoma City’s Outstanding Black Businessmen.
In 1958, Portwood took her young children to what became a three-day sit-in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City. It was not enough to quietly build your own success; he had to go beyond self-interest and claim broader power as well. He wanted to show what it meant to succeed — on his own terms and with autonomy — as a black man. Portwood and his wife, Lucille, had four children: Shirlie, Klaye, Portwood Jr. and Donda, Kanye’s mother. They would instill in them a strong work ethic, unwavering determination, an unwavering faith in God, and a commitment to civil rights.
When you consider this story, Kanye’s mindset starts to make more sense. The Williams family persisted in a vision of self-reliance even in the face of extremely violent racism. For Kanye, it set him on a path of seeking agency and power through often iconoclastic methods: “We’re going to do things my way now.” That’s why those 4,000 acres mean so much to him and his father.
This movement is bigger and older than Kanye. In 1895, at the Atlanta Exposition, Booker T. Washington gave a speech that would become known as the “Atlanta Compromise”. Before a predominantly white crowd, Washington urged black people to avoid confrontation with white people over segregation or political or social equity and instead focus on building independent black economic security. His argument was this: Black people should create their own destiny and fortune, independent of their white surroundings.
More than a century after that discourse, this do-it-yourself framework of black economic autonomy has persisted in black political thought. In few places has this been clearer than the resurgence of black economist Thomas Sowell in surprising online spaces. Sowell is a prolific writer and conservative-libertarian thought leader. At the core of his ideology, Sowell sees the combination of federal aid and racialized rhetoric as a gateway drug to incapacitate the working class and undermine black family values, the community economy, and sustainability. The enemy is not conservatism, Sowell proclaims, but liberal intellectuals, celebrities and politicians who hide behind platitudes and create ivory towers around public knowledge and the free exchange of thought.