Like much of modern America I was appalled by a seemingly innocuous line in a recent speech by the newly appointed Department of Housing and Urban Development Director Dr. Benjamin Carson. On his first day in office he addressed staff members with a lecture on the virtues of hard work and dedication in the pursuit of the American dream. With great reverence paid to the contributions of immigrants he particularly pointed out the efforts those forcibly brought to this country against their will.
“That’s what America is about,” Carson said. “A land of dreams and opportunity. 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 reverent tone and apparent sincerity notwithstanding there were many who took exception to this analogy. It’s a bit of a stretch to imply that slaves who arrived on the shores of North America in chains were included among those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” For a black man in 21st century to suggest that African people subjected to the horrific indignities of forced labour, rape, torture and murder could be lumped together with those who voluntarily immigrated to this country is at best naive. I, like others, found the comparison outrageous.
In response to Carson’s statement my friend Herb Frazier posted on Facebook an essay he wrote 20 years ago. On a visit to the National Park site at Ellis Island, New York, where so many immigrants first arrived in the United States he discovered a historic link to a past defined not by bondage but rather the aspirations of a brighter future. In the hopes allowing others to better understand the true immigrant experience of African-Americans he has graciously allow me to share it here.
A Feeling of Being Disconnected
by Herb Frazier of The Post and Courier
Dateline: August 28, 1997
ELLIS ISLAND, N.Y. – If the tour boat did not stop here on its way to the Statue of Liberty, I wouldn’t have come to this place where immigrants first touched the United States. What I knew of this island’s history did not make me think I nor any black American would feel comfortable on this land in New York Harbor.
I tried to resist that feeling as I joined a group of mostly white people who had gathered around National Park Service ranger Janice Coyne. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people entered this country through here, she said. Later, Coyne unwittingly created a situation that made me feel even more uncomfortable. She passed out yellow sheets of paper that gave the group instructions on how to use Ellis Island records to look for their immigrant ancestors.
As the stack of papers moved closer to me, I began to feel the anxiety one has in church as the collection plate approaches and you don’t have money to drop in it. Instead of a miser in church, I was an interloper of information intended only for white eyes in America. Some whites in the group boasted that their ancestors came through Ellis Island by steamship from Europe. My ancestors likely came to the South on a slave ship from Africa.
I had become a different kind of American. I am part of this country but I remain unable to grasp its center. I saw my culture in conflict with the culture of the people around me. When the papers finally came to me, I allowed them to pass by. Too bothered with this uncomfortable feeling, I stepped back, not wanting to touch them.
As a black Charlestonian at Ellis Island, I thought about Sullivan’s Island. The enslaved Africans who arrived at Sullivan’s Island didn’t, of course, come by choice. A comparison with them is insulting, I thought. When the tour ended, I saw something that began my real education of Ellis Island, which opened in 1890.
A park service brochure said not all immigrants came from Europe. Some came from the West Indies. What? They never taught me that in school! Coyne introduced me to Andrea M. Boney, who is living proof of it. Boney is the park service’s supervisor of tours and education programs at Ellis Island. Her grandfather, Arthur Bostic, immigrated through Ellis Island from Trinidad, she said. Bostic was 32 when he arrived here in 1920. Bostic’s first job had him cleaning tracks on the New York City transit system. Later, he worked as a porter for a company that published women’s magazines.
It was not until 1984 when Ellis Island’s restoration began that Boney learned from an aunt about her connection with the nation’s first immigration station.
“I regret not knowing sooner,” she said. “There are tons of questions I would have asked him about what it was like being processed through here.”
Bostic was extremely pro-British. He never gave up his passport from Trinidad, a former British colony. He died in 1963. Bostic’s family had his name added to the island’s American Immigrant Wall of Honor that pays tribute to more than 500,000 individuals and families who passed through here.
“We get African-American visitors and they don’t feel they have a connection with Ellis Island,” Boney said. “A fair amount of Africans and people from the Caribbean came by way of Ellis Island in the 1920s.”
One who came just prior to that period was Marcus Garvey. He arrived in 1916 from Jamaica. From 1899 to 1931, 142,559 black people came from Africa and 32,138 people immigrated from the West Indies. “We have not had an exhibit that would address that section of the population,” Boney said. “It is something that will be planned down the road.”
The Ellis Island records are available in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and 13 regional sites. In the South, records are kept in East Point, Ga. Ellis Island is a Euro-American symbol. The few black faces that passed through here still do not change that. What impressed me, however, was an experience of the cultural double-vision W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in “The Souls of Black Folk.”
Du Bois said to be black in the United States means to always see yourself through the eyes of others. “One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Du Bois wrote those words in Atlanta in 1903 at the dawn of the 20th century. For me, he could have written them today at the twilight of the 20th century.
Herb Frazier is currently the public relations and marketing manager at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, South Carolina. Before he joined Magnolia in November 2010, Frazier edited and reported for five daily newspapers in the South, including his hometown paper, The Post and Courier. In 1990, the South Carolina Press Association named him Journalist of the Year. He has taught newswriting as a visiting lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa. He is a former Michigan Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. Frazier is the author of “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories.” He is also co-author of “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel.”
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