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Yesterday, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson described enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as “immigrants.” While discussing immigration and the American dream, Carson told HUD employees:

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 minimizes the experience of enslaved Africans by equating their experiences with those of immigrants who came to the Americas voluntarily. First, “the immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships” weren’t immigrants, they were slaves. They did not have a choice. They were kidnapped or captured from their homes (often by their fellow Africans) and brought to the coast where they were sold to white slave traders, who then packed them into slave ships for their journey across the Atlantic. Olaudah Equiano, an African born slave who later became a leader in the anti-slavery movement, described the experience of traveling on a slave ship:

The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Next Carson stressed how enslaved Africans “worked even longer, even harder for less.” Depending on where they arrived in the Americas, slaves did not work “even harder for less.” They worked for nothing—slaves don’t get paid. In some cases (especially on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean), owners and overseers worked their slaves to death rather than pay for medical care or food. It was cheaper to buy new slaves than keep the old ones alive.

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Olaudah Equiano 

Finally, Carson claimed that enslaved Africans “had a dream” that their descendants “might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” Stuffed into the bowels of slaving vessels, Africans were not dreaming of a better future for their children in some far-off land that they’d never experienced. Rather they mourned the loss and shattering of their lives—never to see their homes, friends, or families again. Equiano described how he would have preferred remaining in slavery in Africa rather than going to the Americas: “I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.”

By placing the experience of enslaved Africans on par with those immigrants who voluntarily came to the Americas seeking new and better lives, Carson marginalizes the struggles of African-Americans today who still live with the enduring legacy of American slavery.

Additional Reading

Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

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