In opening remarks to his staff on March 6, 2017, the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Dr Ben Carson, commented on slaves, saying they were ‘immigrants’.

The media and other ‘experts’ verbally ganged up on the retired brain surgeon, best known for his pioneering surgery on conjoined twins. Those outside the United States will be interested to know that Carson is black and grew up in Detroit.

Yet, Obama made the same comment in 2015, and no one said a word. Why is it that Carson was criticised but Obama was not?

The Daily Caller had an article on the media storm:

“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson said during a speech at HUD’s offices.

“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.”

Liberal pundits blasted Carson’s remarks, saying that it is insensitive to use the term “immigrant” to describe people taken to a new country against their will.

This is what Obama said two years ago at a naturalisation ceremony:

“Certainly, it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves,” Obama said.

“There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

That was not the only time. He spoke at an earlier naturalisation ceremony in 2012:

“We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means — we are a nation of immigrants.  Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else — whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande,” Obama said at the ceremony.

The Daily Caller looked for media mentions of the 2012 and 2015 speeches. There were none.

Everyone harping on about Carson is simply angry that he is a black Republican in the Trump administration. ‘How dare he?’ they think.

Of course, Carson had to issue a statement. He said this (emphases mine below):

“I think people need to actually look up the world ‘immigrant,’” he said in an interview with Armstrong Williams. “Whether you’re voluntary or involuntary, if you come from outside to the inside, you’re an immigrant. Slaves came here as involuntary immigrants.”

Obama’s family and slavery

It is highly possible that both sides of Obama’s family owned and sold slaves in the past.

In 2009, Cynthia Yockey, a former Democrat turned conservative, wrote ‘Obama’s Kenyan ancestors sold slaves’, which is a remarkably well researched article not just on Obama’s ancestors but also on the nature of the slave trade in general. It continues today and is a Muslim practice in certain countries. This is a good article to share with older children and summarise for younger members of the family.

Yockey wrote about the topic because, on July 12, 2009, Obama visited Ghana. She said that he had to:

hope no one in the state-run media would think to wonder why he didn’t choose Kenya in East Africa, the land of his father and his father’s tribe, the Luo, which also was a major slave-trading center.

She added:

One reason may be that New World blacks would be descended from West Africans. However, I am suspicious that another reason is that on both his mother’s AND his father’s side of the family, Obama is descended from people who owned and/or sold black African slaves. How ironic that Obama received almost universal support from blacks who are here because their ancestors were grabbed up and sold into slavery by other black Africans, including Obama’s father’s tribe.

Yockey notes that, in 2007, the Baltimore Sun fully researched the slavery angle involving Obama’s white side of the family.

Having read the Baltimore Sun article, I want to point out to you this interesting bit near the end:

Author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson wrote in a January salon.com article that she had previously refrained from opining about the senator because “I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn’t black.”

” ‘Black,’ in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves,” Dickerson said.

Back now to Cynthia Yockey’s research. She saw that there was an article on About.com — no longer there in 2017 — which was reproduced elsewhere, called ‘Obama’s African Forebears Were Slave Traders’. It describes the thriving Muslim slave trade in Africa in the 18th century:

Muslims encouraged warring tribes, Obama Jr’s Luo ancestors included, to capture “prisoners of war” and sell them into slavery.

Kenya tribe leaders, also exported slaves and ivory that had been exchanged by Africans from the interior for salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. The slaves were then marched to the coast and shipped to Muslim Zanzibar (an island South of Kenya), to be traded again.

The British ended the practice by law in 1847.

However, Yockey reproduced other articles saying that African Muslims had traded slaves for centuries before that. Furthermore, European buyers had to go through a Muslim slaver to buy black slaves. They could not operate independently.

Yockey’s research uncovered another important point: Muslim slavers from Kenya looked African but, in fact, were Arab, just like the Luo tribe of Obama’s ancestors.

White indentured and enforced servitude

In the history of the United States, black slaves were not the only people who arrived involuntarily. White Britons did, too.

I don’t know if history books still include indentured servitude in their coverage of Colonial history. If not, they should re-introduce it.

One of my best friends has ancestors who arrived in the US in the 17th century as indentured servants.

Indentured and enforced servitude were one up from slavery. However, sometimes slaves were treated better than indentured servants.

Indentured servitude involved someone in debt or other hardship becoming the temporary property of the person to whom he owed a debt or a better off person. The person who acquired them — the master — worked them for a certain number of years, after which the indentured servant became a free person.

However, it should be noted that there were also cases where men just wanted to leave their homeland for a new future in the colonies. They voluntarily sought and signed such agreements.

USHistory.com has an excellent article on indentured servitude, which came at a time of severe unemployment in England and a boom in the new colony of Virginia. These bonded servants worked in the tobacco fields or as house servants. A summary and excerpts follow.

Most indentured servants were men, however, women also signed these agreements. The master paid for their passage to the American colonies and provided them with food, clothing and shelter during the years of their servitude:

Perhaps as many as 300,000 workers migrated under the terms of these agreements. Most were males, generally in their late teens and early twenties, but thousands of women also entered into these agreements and often worked off their debts as domestic servants.

There was also enforced servitude, involving miscreants:

Vagrants, war prisoners, and minor criminals were shipped to America by English authorities, then sold into bondage.

The masters’ treatment varied, just as it did with slavery:

In some areas, slaves were treated more humanely because they were regarded as lifetime investments, while the servant would be gone in a few years.

There were also terms and conditions the servant had to abide by:

The length of servitude could legally be lengthened in cases of bad behavior, especially for those workers who ran away or became pregnant

Masters retained their right to prohibit their servants from marrying and had the authority to sell them to other masters at any time.

The only upside to indentured or enforced servitude was access to the courts and the possibility of owning property, provided one hadn’t died from overwork.

Upon being given their freedom:

many workers were provided with their “freedom dues” — often consisting of new clothes, farm tools and seed; on rare occasions the worker would receive a small plot of land.

Some former servants could not find jobs after being given their freedom. Men in such a position often ventured westward, which, in the 17th century, would have been as far as Kentucky or Tennessee. (The big move to the West did not begin until the 19th century.)

Servitude, slavery and the law

Each colony — later, state — had their own laws governing indentured or enforced servitude and slavery.

The Law Library of Congress has a detailed and interesting article on how colonial and state law applied to indentured servants and to slaves. The article focusses mainly on Virginia but provides a useful overview. Excerpts and a summary follow.

Both practices ended on January 31, 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation, however:

many laws and judicial precedents that had been established before that date would not be changed until the mid- or late-twentieth century.

Before that happened, most of the laws around these two groups of people involved women, illegitimate children and racial intermingling.

In 1662, Virginia:

passed two laws that pertained solely to women who were slaves or indentured servants and to their illegitimate children. Women servants who produced children by their masters could be punished by having to do two years of servitude with the churchwardens after the expiration of the term with their masters. The law reads, “that each woman servant gott with child by her master shall after her time by indenture or custome is expired be by the churchwardens of the parish where she lived when she was brought to bed of such bastard, sold for two years. . . .”37

The second law, which concerned the birthright of children born of “Negro” or mulatto women, would have a profound effect on the continuance of slavery, especially after the slave trade was abolished—and on the future descendants of these women. Great Britain had a very structured primogeniture system, under which children always claimed lineage through the father, even those born without the legitimacy of marriage. Virginia was one of the first colonies to legislate a change:

Act XII

Negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother.

WHEREAS some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall committ ffornication with a Negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the ffines imposed by the former act.38

Because of this law, slave masters were keen to procreate with young female slaves, so they would have a steady supply of slaves to come:

There are a number of court cases concerning slave women who either killed their masters who forced them to have sexual relations or killed the children rather than have the children enslaved.39

Racial mixing, including sexual congress, was not unknown in that era. In 1691, Virginia amended their aforementioned 1692 birthright law, under which a child born to a white woman and a black man was free:

This amendment stated that a free white woman who had a bastard child by a Negro or mulatto man had to pay fifteen pounds sterling within one month of the birth. If she could not pay, she would become an indentured servant for five years. Whether or not the fine was paid, however, the child would be bound in service for thirty years.

Conclusion

Both slaves and indentured servants had a miserable life.

And, there was nothing that Ben Carson had to apologise for, especially as Obama had spoken similarly on two occasions during his time in office.

I hope this brief foray into American history, past and present, has helped to enlighten and fill in gaps on what was known as ‘human chattel’ and immigration, regardless of race or origin.

The Riverwalk has appropriate Bible readings for the Emancipation Proclamation — 152 years on — that we would do well to read and remember today.

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