The American prophet and democratic martyr, Martin Luther King Jr. opined, “there is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” At the risk of being too charitable, Benjamin Carson’s recent address to his staff regarding slavery inculcates this danger.
Addressing the personnel of the Housing and Urban Development Department, Sec. Carson proffered, “there were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” His remarks belong alongside the Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ assertion that geneses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as the prototype of school choice. This is reactionary revisionist history attempting to proof America from her own extremist terrorism.
Out of the womb of fire and blood, America was born with the birth defect of racialized slavery. The enslaved Africans in America were not immigrants, but imports. The narrative arc of the American experiment hinges on the mobility and contribution of immigrants and “imports”—black bodies trafficked in as lucrative chattel. The kleptocracy looted Black life of her ancestral dignity and vandalized her of a story that predates the Columbus excursion and the arrival of the Dutch ship in 1619.
With the clanking of chains like music to their captors’ ears, enslaved Africans entered the European colonies in the Americas via a bill of sale not steamship tickets, Refugee status, Visas or Green cards. Their aching for Africa, freedom and/or equality notwithstanding, these enslaved Africans personified the American dream. To profit from the system of slavery, particularly as an owner, exemplified the American dream for the white masses.
It is alarming, though not surprising, the head of HUD misrecognizes the reality and consequential weight of America’s founding injustice—chattel slavery. How can we trust him to mitigate existing covert structural injustices related to his department when he obscures the greatest racial horror native to our republic? Since these comments were addressed to the career professionals at HUD, this historical faux pas potentially renders millions of Black and Brown bodies vulnerable to greater discrimination in public housing, home ownership, predatory renting and other forms of economic disinheritance. A significant number of these most vulnerable persons are descendants of imports and immigrants.
His remarks are symptomatic of something more endemic to the American consciousness. Sec. Carson’s rhetoric examples the myth of American innocence and exceptionalism—both tied to a destructive messianic complex. Benjamin Carson’s revisionist approach to antebellum American history is dangerous to the moral health of America—a nation with a tragic penchant for disremembering the violent truth that lurks beneath the surface of the American Dream. The American Dream is tied to whiteness and its carnivorous manifestations in American systems. This genocidal forced labor built American economic greatness, while preventing American moral goodness. Ironically, the legacy of slavery compromises the virtuousness and guaranteed the so-called greatness of America—the greatness Mr. Trump feverishly campaigned to restore. Americans are the authors of destruction, but pusillanimously retreat to ivory towers of innocence when confronted with the work they authored.
The hubris and moral blindness of the founders did not allow the deadening practices of slavery to catch up with the life-giving words of the preamble to the constitution, which makes clear the necessity to build a nation on certain inalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America grounded itself between the Atlantic and the Pacific on stolen land and stolen people. Genocide and trafficking—taking land and taking people—are American values. Removing people from their land is traditional in America—the theatrics of displacement.
Carson’s contribution to the growing phenomenon of alternative facts lacks moral neutrality, but instead mutes the American conscience. Scores of textbooks used in our public school districts dilute the era of slavery by substituting terms for slaves and plantations with “agricultural workers” and “farms” respectively. The moral obesity of America results from the national addiction to the cheap bread of historical misremembering and alternative facts.
In the age of Donald Trump, there is a revolutionary character to simply telling the truth. The soul of America is predicated on the revolutionary character of truth-telling by politicians, clergy, educators and public thinkers. A poignant colloquialism birthed out of the Black religious experience seems most appropriate advisement for Sec. Carson, “Tell the truth and shame the devil.” Naming our sins is the first step to transcending them. America must change or die. The redemption of this republic hinges on our courage to naming myriad sins of White capitalist heteronormative xenophobic patriarchy.
Standing in the moral mirror, America must undress herself of the crown of terror, regalia of bigotry and undergarments of whiteness. America must strip herself bare and stand naked before the author of the universe under whom we pledge allegiance to a flag soaked in the blood of the slaughtered. America must name its history of trafficking enslaved Africans from the cradle of humanity to America, history of chattel slavery, history of fugitive slave laws absconding the idea of Black freedom, history of Black codes and predatory sharecropping, history of lynching and police terrorism, history of redlining and residential segregation, history of mass incarceration and what Cater G. Woodson called miseducation. To save America, we have to tell the truth and shame the devil. Enslaved Africans were imports not immigrants.
Willie Dwayne Francois III serves as Pastor-elect of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey (Atlantic City). He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College and holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Francois’ pastoral activism takes shape around racial and economic justice and criminal justice reform. He is an adjunct instructor in African American Studies at the University of Houston.