Opinion

Renée Graham

Rewriting the history of slavery

Ludicrous statements recently made by Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, both members of President Trump’s Cabinet, are nothing less than a flagrant attempt by this administration to recast this nation’s shameful history of slavery, bigotry, and oppression.

In his first staff address as Housing and Urban Development secretary, Carson should have stopped talking after calling America “a land of dreams and opportunity.” Nevertheless, he persisted. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” Carson said. “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.”

You’ll need an earthmover to unpack everything offensive about Carson’s comment.

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Those forced into slavery were not immigrants. Africans arrived shackled together in the dank bellies of teeming ships, not in search of better lives. During their transatlantic nightmare, countless people died from disease, starvation, and murder. Those who survived found ceaseless brutality, worked under constant threat of an overseer’s lash or worse, and were paid nothing. If they could still dream at all, it was for the opportunity to kill their oppressors, flee the plantations, and reunite their families. There was no prosperity or happiness — only crushing misery they would never want inflicted on loved ones.

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Carson presented a rosy interpretation of a vile institution whose stench still chokes us. If the former neurosurgeon can’t find a reliable history book, perhaps he can get his skilled hands on a dictionary to look up the vastly different definitions for “slave” and “immigrant.”

This comes less than a week after Education Secretary DeVos claimed Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are “pioneers” of school choice. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality,” she said in a statement.

DeVos, who eventually backtracked, overlooks the fact that HBCUs are “living proof” of the Jim Crow era, and the only choice black people had was to create their own places of higher learning since they were barred from segregated colleges and universities.

These aren’t misstatements, but part of a sinister pattern. In an administration at war with facts, these historical rewrites seek to minimize the pain and suffering of African-Americans. It is literally a page from Texas textbooks that, in 2015, referred to slaves only as “millions of workers from Africa [brought] to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

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We’ve seen this before. In January, a White House statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day made no mention of Jewish victims, opting for what was called a more “inclusive” tone — a move praised on a neo-Nazi website.

As inept as the Trump administration is, never underestimate its desire to craft a frightening new world order that will amend the past to cement its archaic vision of the future. Hardships like slavery and segregation are repackaged as cheery bootstrap parables. A Holocaust remembrance must now take “into account all of those who suffered,” as White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia compared it to something else: Holocaust denial.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So what becomes of us when our history is systematically unmade? The first step in erasing history is to slowly erode our understanding of it. This isn’t just carelessness; it’s an act of contempt.

That’s why pushback to correct this revisionism must be as vigilant as efforts to thwart ongoing assaults on civil rights by this caustic presidency. Otherwise we may soon hear another member of this administration rhapsodizing about that wonderful era when African and African-American workers enjoyed nearly 250 years of prosperity and happiness, complete with free housing and zero unemployment.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham