It’s time to Break It Down!
As I was perusing recent news items, thinking about what to focus on as today’s topic, I encountered a number of stories that reminded me of the tangled web we weave as we attempt to navigate issues of race and class, especially race, in America. I trust you will indulge me as I examine three cases.
There are circles in which slavery is characterized as America’s original sin. Interestingly, in other arenas, it appears that people have been persuaded to believe the institution never existed. Or, if it did, that it was a mere side issue that barely warrants mentioning, and certainly did not affect the growth and development of this country in any substantive way. Suffice it to say, anyone who embraces or touts the views premised in those other arenas, maintains only a casual relationship with the truth, at best, or has been fundamentally misled, or as Dr. Carter G. Woodson might have framed it, is miseducated, or is utterly in the deepest possible denial state.
With that preamble, let’s get into the examination of the cases at hand. If you need more expanded background on the role of slavery in fueling the early American economic engine, this post may be too advanced for you. American History is replete with examples. Do some homework and get back to me.
So in Case Number 1, the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an avid school choice proponent, in a speech a couple of weeks ago, described Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) as “pioneers of school choice.” School Choice? How about No Choice? No Other Option? Or, No, You Cannot Attend School Here?
Whether a function of designed dissembling, or of unintentional tactless maladroitness, her statement was widely deemed unacceptable. There was sure, swift, and pointed pushback against Ms. DeVos’ loosely worded characterization. After meeting with leaders of HBCU’s, she subsequently praised the institutions for identifying “a system that wasn’t working and taking it upon themselves to provide the solution,” from the outset of their founding. As she endeavored to cleanup her misstatement, she asserted that:
“The institutions started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.”
“HBCU’s are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
Wait just a cotton-picking minute (pun intended). What she did not say was anything relating to the historical context underlying the creation of HBCU’s, such as:
They were a response to Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the South.
Such laws barred black students from attending white colleges and universities.
Ergo, HBCU’s were institutions of necessity (for black higher education), not of choice.
There is more to this conversation, to be sure, but I think this is enough to establish the predicate that even as we push, inexorably, toward the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, many people, including leaders of the highest order, frame narratives built on lies, or charitably, misinformation, rather than leading with difficult truths.
In case Number 2, we have known for decades that Sally Hemings played a pivotal, or at least bigger than advertised, role in the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, venerable Founding Father, Second Vice President, Third President, First Secretary of State, U.S. Minister to France, Virginia Delegate to Congress, Second Governor of Virginia, Virginia Delegate to the Second Continental Congress, President of the American Philosophical Society, founded the University of Virginia, author of the book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), considered the most important American book published before 1800, instrumental in making the Louisiana Purchase (during his Presidency), and principle author of the Declaration of Independence (you know, the all men are created equal document).
In contemporary vernacular, Jefferson was a bad mother…Shut your mouth…But I’m talking about Jefferson! And, as Isaac Hayes said of John Shaft, Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man. Almost on cue, the next line of the song is, “But no one understands him but his woman.” That’s where Sally Hemings enters the epic Jeffersonian tale.
Mr. Jefferson, in addition to all of the stellar assignations noted above, was a slave owner. Ms. Hemings was his property. But, it went further than that. For more than a century, it was denied, but we now know that Jefferson and Hemings were sexually involved, to put it in a light more generous than he deserves. The unvarnished truth of the matter is Jefferson willfully availed himself of her body from as soon as her early teen years, and he was the father of at least one of her children (DNA verified, in case anyone wants to argue that point). In other words, he raped her. At will. Repeatedly. For years! That is not hyperbole, it’s not fake news, and it’s not an alternative fact. It’s just, in a word, truth. I think that’s enough about the TJ cover-up.
Case Number 3 involves another current Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. Secretary Carson was a candidate for President, and before that he was a distinguished neurosurgeon. Whether one believes he is an apt fit for his current job, he has certainly earned a certain amount of respect and intellectual gravitas. And yet, when in public forums, he has been known to sound as though he is ensconced somewhere between awkwardly uncomfortable or inelegant and down right ridiculous. Earlier this week, he trended toward the latter.
In his first meeting with staff at HUD, Carson shared several anecdotes having to do with his career as a neurosurgeon and then praised immigrants who worked long hours to build a better life for their families. Then, almost before one could blink, he…”passed the Rubicon.” He asserted that slaves brought to the United States against their will were immigrants. To be more precise, he 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.”
As you might imagine, at least I hope you would, his comments, those above in particular, drew quick condemnation from African Americans in general, and from civil rights groups in particular, the latter casting his remarks as offensive.
Just so we’re clear, enslaved Africans did not voluntarily come to the United States. Moreover, they were denied freedom for hundreds of years. Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect said of Carson’s remarks:
“This is as offensive as it gets.”
That may or may not be an accurate assessment, but Mr. Goldstein was not alone, nor were his comments the most forceful directed at Carson. The Twitterverse was fully engaged, including a hyper-poignant vitriolic bomb from Samuel L. Jackson. While I will not repeat Sam’s rant, you can click on the final link below to see it, in the event you have yet to run across it. Also count the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) among those who criticized Dr. Carson.
On the flip side, a HUD spokesman referred to the reaction to the Secretary’s comments as:
“The most cynical interpretation of the secretary’s remarks to an army of welcoming HUD employees. No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude.”
It’s also worth noting Dr. Carson was well received by hundreds of HUD employees in the room. He got a standing ovation at the end of his comments. As an aside, the spokesman and the employees do work for Secretary Carson. But that’s beside the point. I am not deflecting to HUD staff. This was about Dr. Carson, Thomas Jefferson, and Betsy DeVos. Keep a keen eye on them or on their examples, and on anyone else who plays fast and loose with the facts as they pertain to race and class, especially to race. Why? Because I consider…”Avoiding the Inconvenient Truth About Race: An Invitation to Lie!”
I’m done; holla back!
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