When I was in the seventh grade, the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school. Books had always been my safe haven, but in the middle of seventh grade I had recently moved from the northeast to south Florida and I needed books more than ever. My mama gave me a couple of dollars—enough to buy one book, maybe two, if I stretched my coins. The book I chose was To Be A Slave by Julius Lester.
I had seen Roots and North and South, but I didn’t know that much about slavery. But To Be A Slave changed my life. I devoured the book and read it incessantly.
I read stories about folks being kidnapped and sold into slavery, folks surviving the daily drudgery, ancestors creating new bonds and cultural connections. It left me sad and angry. It also left me incredibly proud. I recognized that I, a little working class girl, was related to amazing people, survivors who had literally made a way out of no way. In my own naïve way, I wanted to make them proud. To be honest, I still do. The tattered book has a place of honor on my shelf today.
Sometimes I think of the women in my family, women whose names I’ll probably never know, who as, Alice Walker wrote, had histories “cruel enough to stop the blood.” What about the sister-ancestor who wanted to sell her handcrafted wares at the market, or sing, or build houses, or teach school, or whatever and she was stuck birthing and raising massa’s babies, dying beneath the unrelenting sun in a sugar cane field, or withering away in a salt mine—all so someone way off, far away could wash down unseasoned chicken with glug of rum. My God.
Not everyone descendant of formerly enslaved people feels this way, of course. How we reckon with the awful truth of our lineage is personal and complicated. But what we can’t do is revise history out of pain and shame, especially not in mixed company.
Recently, everyone’s least favorite uncle Ben—you know, the one who made a little bit of money and thinks he’s special, the one who’s wife sings off key but is always trying to do a solo, the one who claim he popped off at a Popeye’s “establishment,” the one who has had an extended stay in the sunken place—
"Now you're in the Sunken Place" pic.twitter.com/e29hs8d60g
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) March 7, 2017
Yeah, that one. He said another stupid, self-loathing thing.
Uncle Ben Carson, whose only qualifications for being the newly minted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is that he once lived in a house in an urban area, addressed a crowd full of people and said the following stupid shit:
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson said. “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.”
First of all, this is stunningly inaccurate. Let Ben tell it, and my ancestors—not my actual mother and father who are, in fact, Caribbean immigrants—but my folks further back, my enslaved ancestors actually took a boat ride to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic—willingly—to cut sugar cane for free. Talk about an entrepreneurial spirit. Well, knock me over with a feather.
I don’t know Ben Carson and I know less about his heart, but I can say this about his actions: his words and behavior consistently display a willful ignorance, a desire for whiteness so profound that it’s painful to watch. He wants to have access to some romanticized, sanitized heritage only found in his rose-colored visions of Ellis Island, when the truth is, his history is more likely to be found in a slaver’s ledger, his unnamed ancestor recorded for posterity as “negro wench, age 14,” right under the listing of a chandelier and a chaise lounge.
But that’s our history. It’s not the only part of our history, but it’s an important part. And he can’t “clean up” his statement by claiming that the enslaved were “involuntary immigrants.” It’s a shame that Uncle Ben cannot or will not admit that.