Dr. Carson, Please Get Your "Alternative" Facts Straight
“The slave ship was a central institution of the slave trade and slavery, as well as a place of extreme violence and suffering. Its ghost still haunts America today through the persistence of racism and inequalities.” — Marcus Rediker, historian, writer, human rights activist, & Professor at the University of Pittsburgh
Revisionist history is a valid method of historical examination. It identifies the re-interpretation of the historical record and challenges orthodox views held by professional scholars about a particular event or school of thought. However, it requires the introduction of new evidence and NOT the spewing of alternative facts! I imagine that an immigrant voyage from Europe to New York at the turn of the 20th century was no Carnival cruise. But to compare the immigrant voyage to that of the slave experience is insensitive, irresponsible and ignorant. Our newest U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, gave an inaugural speech to his staff on March 6th. In it, he compared apples to steak when he described the slaves as immigrants who had a dream to pursue prosperity and happiness in this new land.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity. 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.” — Dr. Ben Carson (video)
One word: HUH?!?
As an adjunct professor of Latin American and Caribbean history, it is difficult to get through 500 years of history in a 16-week semester. Students often enter my classroom with minimal knowledge about our neighbors. They are misinformed and have accepted myth as reality about certain aspects of colonial history. They are unaware of the artificial caste system that existed; the sexual, mental and physical abuse that was endemic; or even the role of the Church and religion in the indoctrination, brainwashing and systemic abuse of the indigenous and slave populations of the “New World.”
The slaves on the lower deck of the ship were far from dreamers, expecting to find the American streets paved with gold (as was once believed by European immigrants). NO! The slave journey has always been one of resistance and pain. Slaves from the same region and tribe were separated because the white man thought it would prevent communication and rebellion. They were wrong. Historians have also found that slaves engaged in mass suicides, arguing that by throwing themselves overboard in the hopes that their spirits would return to their homelands was a form of resistance. This, Dr. Carson, is not the story of immigrants. It is the story of men and women between the ages of 15 and 45 who were enslaved by the millions to the point that it devastated regional economies in Africa – regions that were drained of their most productive citizens.
Dr. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon and undoubtedly an extremely intelligent man, may just not be a good public speaker.
To be a good public speaker you must get your facts straight. You do that through research and appropriate planning. To be a good public speaker, you must understand your audience and your speech writing skills must be on point. If you didn’t mean to compare slavery to immigration, then what exactly did you mean to convey? When you read and re-read that speech, it never dawned on you that this was going to be a PR nightmare? An assault on your own people? Or that these alternative facts weren’t going to fly? This is not about political correctness.
Quite the opposite. There is already a great deal of misinformation out there and to go on record implying that slavery was an immigrant experience is infuriating and sad. The reaction to Dr. Carson’s comments have been visceral. Actor, Samuel L. Jackson, let off a twitter tirade and rightfully so. The comparison is so much more troubling coming from a black man. I would guess that history was not Dr. Carson’s best subject in school!
Listen, we are all good at something. By all accounts, Dr. Carson is a great neurosurgeon. By all accounts he is also a terrible communicator, and therefore a poor public speaker. You might want to stick to what you know, Dr. Carson! Leave the alternative facts for the fiction section; and leave the history lessons and comparative analysis to the professionals.