Ben Carson, the new secretary of housing and urban development, said so in his first speech to the agency this week. Referring to the entry of European immigrants at Ellis Island, Carson said, “That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity.” He then added: “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.”
Carson’s impulse to homogenize our diverse origins lumps everyone together, without making important distinctions about the different pathways that dictated people’s arrivals. The conditions under which individuals and groups came here on their own accord, or were brought here against their will, have had monumental consequences for our life chances and the evolution of our rights as citizens.
Slaves were chattel. Slavery was a violent system of conquest and domination. Africans were kidnapped in the interior of the continent, marched to the coastline and packed in vessels like inanimate cargo. Some never left the ships alive because of inhospitable conditions on board. The “Middle Passage,” as it was called, was a deeply alienating journey into hell. These were one-way voyages with no chance of return.