By: Angela Thorpe
By now, everyone is aware of Ben Carson’s not-so-inspirational speech that left this gem suspended in the minds of many: “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder, for less.” Let’s get one thing clear. Slavery and immigration are two completely different things. It’s no consolation that his publicist Uncle Ben tried to clean up his mess in the most authentic way possible: a Facebook post. It is crucial to exercise discernment and to be intentional about your words, as words have power. As we have seen all too frequently recently, series of unhinged words have spun their way to statements, which have transformed into very dangerous tales. Such tales have made way for the perpetuation of false narratives, and a gross movement towards a nation where “alternative facts” are accepted. This cannot be the new normal. We’ve got to speak out against ignorance, against lies and against counter-narratives to preserve reality, and to create movements for change and spaces for care and acceptance. So, let’s talk about why slavery does not = immigration and why the difference matters in a world of alternative facts.
As a public historian, it’s my job to help everyday people, of all ages, understand how the past informs the present. I talk about enslaved peoples daily, and teach elementary schoolers about the U.S. slavery. First, let’s define what slavery is not: immigration. In fact, good ole Webster defines slavery as “the state of a person who is chattel to another.” On the other hand, immigration is defined as “[coming] into a country of which one is not a native for permanent residence." Note that one of these terms illustrates a voluntary action. That’s where Uncle Ben misses the first mark. To “come over in the bottom of slave ships” is a literal contradiction; any right-minded person can glean that being packed onto a ship, like cargo, is highly unlikely to be voluntary. Furthermore, enslaved Africans did not choose to relocate to countries like the U.S., Jamaica and Brazil to become permanent residents, to start new lives like immigrants to Ellis Island, as Uncle Ben also claimed in his speech. Need proof? Read this account chronicling Ghanaian abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano’s experience being captured and forced into slavery. Let’s not forget: real people were literally living their lives when they were kidnapped, taken captive, held in dungeons, transported during the Middle Passage and sold as goods through the duration of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Does this sound voluntary? It shouldn’t. Because it’s not.
I want to revisit these slave ships that Uncle Ben talked about. These slave ships that millions of living people were packed onto during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A period that spanned nearly 400 years, from the mid-1400s to the mid 1800s.
During the Trade, individuals from various regions of the African continent--including West Central Africa, the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin--were captured, transported across the Atlantic Ocean and forced into slavery, often to help cultivate the agricultural infrastructure of regions in North and South America. People were sold or traded for goods like rum, sugar, cotton and guns (among other things); forced into slavery. Yes. Humans. Traded for...liquor? Weapons? Spices? These are facts. About 388,000 enslaved people were transported to the United States between the mid-1600s to the early-1800s—about 3.6% of the total number of Africans that were transported to North America during the trade.
So, yes: enslaved peoples arrived in the Americas on slave ships. But how dare Uncle Ben act as if these people stepped off of these vessels with a dollar in one pocket and a dream in the other. My ancestors--Uncle Ben’s ancestors--were packed onto these ships like cargo. These individuals longed for food and air in virtually vent-less spaces, while their bodies mingled with feces, urine, vomit, blood, infection, and sometimes, dead bodies, as they were transported across the Atlantic for as long as four months.
How many individuals survived the Middle Passage? No one knows. Estimates suggest that at the least 18% of individuals bound for the U.S. alone died. This harsh reality cannot compare to that “immigrant” narrative that Uncle Ben (and others before him) spun. It is, at best, unfair, and at worst, disgusting, to compare this human trade with voluntary journey towards new life that characterizes immigration.
When enslaved Africans were dumped in foreign lands, and purchased in literal marketplaces by other humans with oft-light faces and foreign tongues, they were not given the opportunity to work. Rather, they were forced to work. Men, women and children were literally perceived as work-horses, property to be “sold and disposed” of. Why else would human beings be anonymously tallied on tax records alongside land values, their existence as property seared with black ink onto cream paper?
Our ancestors did not choose to work, and could not refuse to work; rather, they worked to live. For what were the consequences of refusal? Our ancestors had no rights, and were placed within specific boundaries; boundaries that, if broken, would elicit harsh punishment, and, at some points, warrant death. Consider the 1855 North Carolina slave codes: they instruct slave-owners to inflict up to 39 lashes onto enslaved peoples who teach one another to read, who preach or who burn brush fires; they prevent enslaved peoples from dancing, raising livestock or leaving the plantation without written permission; and they provide guidelines for putting enslaved peoples to death
Does this sound like an unrestricted life, in which one could simply “work hard?” No. This is the literal encapsulation of enslavement...or, as I like to argue, something even deeper. Our ancestors didn’t simply exist within these boundaries, or within a system--it is what they lived. And what is life? Breath. Love. Joy. Fear. Peace. Anger. Laughter. Defeat. Resilience.
Our ancestors lived out the human experience, with dignity and strength, in a system that considered them 3/5 of a human.
That’s not just slavery. That is faith in action...faith as a verb. Because these people had the audacity to live their lives, all the while hoping for things--freedom, God, health, family, rest, love--they often could not see.
To call the life experiences that our ancestors endured “hard work” is a gross disservice.
I reject false narratives like Uncle Ben’s, and seek and teach truth in my work, because ultimately it is the truth that will save us. I teach people the above truths in the hopes that they will understand this fact/idea: our country was stripped from, and built upon the backs of people of color. We cannot escape something so deeply sowed into the fabric of our soil without acknowledgement, understanding or reconciliation. Rhetoric like that of Uncle Ben’s, or of the Marigold Manchild’s, water down this reality, and obscure the necessity of bridge-building, dialogue and safe spaces. We should be pressed to preserve reality, and be moved to support the truth and justice seekers who do this in their daily lives, leveraging whatever platforms they have. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief history lesson. I hope that you will continue to seek truth. And I pray that you show love to the truth and justice seekers in your life.
Resources on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
- The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: The Abolition of the Slave Trade
- PBS Africans in America
- Slave Trade Database
- Interactive Video of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
- The African American Migration Experience (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)
- North Carolina Tax Lists and Records (1600s-1800s)
- North Carolina Slave Deeds
- Runaway Slave Advertisements
- Slave Narratives