I often tell my English as Second Language students that except for pure-blooded Native Americans, our country is a nation of immigrants and their descendants. English, I explain, is technically not our official language, but our common language – the language of immigrants.
Yet even as I tell my students this, I am painfully aware that my African American friends have little sense of the immigration experience.
I am silently haunted by that scene from the 1977 Roots TV miniseries in which newly acquired slave Kunta Kinte (koon-tah-kin-tay) was flogged until he would give up his African name. His slave name would be Toby and he would forget the language of his mother. Then “American assimilation” would be complete!
Neither his name change nor his migration had been voluntary, making it clear that this was not the “Ellis Island” version of immigration. In reality, one should never refer to these as immigrants without a big asterisk and an explanatory footnote. While Kunta Kinte is more or less fictional, the people he symbolizes were not.
Dr. Ben Carson, our new African American Secretary of HUD, shocked our country this week when he described the countless thousands of kidnapped forced laborers transported in the bowels of slave ships as seekers of the American dream, those:
“other immigrants … who had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land”.
After the understandable negative reaction, Dr. Carson insisted that one could be an involuntary immigrant. Indeed, as he is the descendant of these “immigrants with an asterisk” not to be confused with the Ellis Island variety.
By Monday night on a Facebook account he shares with his wife, Dr. Carson made the following clarification, providing the footnote for the asterisk:
The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences. Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders.
The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy.
The two experiences should never be intertwined, nor forgotten, as we demand the necessary progress towards an America that’s inclusive and provides access to equal opportunity for all.
When speaking before white folk, our black citizenry often feel forced to de-emphasize the fact and effects of our history regarding the “slave caste” upon which our new nation rested. Their valid concern is that we white folks are often in denial, and just don’t want to hear it.
Had Dr. Carson included his ultimate clarification in his original presentation, it would have been a really powerful and useful speech. But to ever assert that the real Kunta Kinte’s of our past were in search of the American Dream is beyond excuse, justification, and belief.