Local historians, a religious leader and a neurologist disagreed Tuesday with Dr. Ben Carson’s statements Monday in which he described African slaves as immigrants and said the human brain is incapable of forgetting and could be electrically stimulated into perfect recall.
Carson made the remarks during his speech to the staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. Carson was sworn in last week as the HUD secretary.
Carson, the only black member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, spoke about the work ethic and dreams of immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island in New York.
“There were other immigrants who came here on 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.”
In his speech, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, also said the brain “remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard.” He added: “I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right on the side of the head,” Carson said, circling his left temple with a finger, “an put some depth electrodes into their hippocamus and stimulate. And they would be able to recite back to you, verbatim, a book they read 60 years ago.
“It’s all there. It doesn’t go away,” Carson said.“You just have to learn how to recall it.”
Donna Benson, a professor of history at Winston-Salem State University, said Carson’s statements about slavery were inaccurate.
“The African men, women, and children who were forcefully brought to the Americas as sources of unpaid labor were not immigrants,” Benson said. “Historians estimate that 11 million enslaved people were taken from their families, their homes and their cherished ways of life over the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” a period roughly from the 1500s to the mid-1800s.
“By contrast, most of the immigrants who migrated to the Americas came voluntarily along with nuclear and extended family members,” Benson said. “They were seeking a better way of life and freedom. There is a stark contrast between willing immigrants excited about the new world and African people who were captured and enslaved. Slaves — like victims of other forms of human trafficking — were not immigrants.”
Barry Trachtenberg, the Rubin presidential chair of Jewish history at Wake Forest University, also panned Carson’s slavery comments.
“As even the youngest schoolchildren know, African-American slaves ... were brought as captives to the United States for forced labor,” Trachtenberg said.
He added that Carson’s comments about slavery were an “bewildering and outrageous attempt” to rewrite history.
“To recast slaves as ‘immigrants’ permits the United States to avoid taking moral, legal and economic responsibility for the crime of slavery and its consequences,” Trachtenberg said.
The Rev. John Mendez, the pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church and a social activist, joined the historians in his criticism of Carson’s statements.
“How could a man so intelligent and brilliant be so culturally and historically backwards?” Mendez asked. “Everybody knows that African-Americans didn’t come to America voluntarily.
“We were snatched and forced into a dehumanizing slave trade,” he said. “They were ungodly treated that way by Christians.”
An HUD spokesman declined to comment on Carson’s statement. The department later tweeted: “This is 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!”
On another front, Dwayne Godwin, a professor of neurology and anatomy and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said he disagrees “that the human brain is incapable of forgetting, and that everything we’ve ever seen is somehow stored within our brains.”
“The human memory system is a messy, complex interplay between attention and plasticity,” Godwin said. “Unless we attend to things we wish to remember, we are quite likely to forget them — or never store the memory in the first place.
“There are special individuals with impressive memories, so-called ‘savants,’ but by and large our brains are better at ignoring and filtering out things so that we can focus on remembering the really important stuff,” he said.