By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 13, 2017
When President Donald Trump promised to make America great again, no one believed he wanted the United States to relive its dark history. To be sure there was a desire to return to a time when things appeared to be less complicated—a kind of white-skinned Utopia—but no one believed the president would hark back to a period when racial bigotry, religious scapegoating and ignorance prevailed.
Betsy DeVos, the new US secretary of education, believes in the efficacy of charter schools that function independently of established public schools. She also believes historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were the “real pioneers” of school choice. My younger daughter who attended Hampton University in Virginia, an HBCU, could have told her that HBCUs were founded because black students were not allowed to attend white segregated schools.
Rev. Richard Allen, born into slavery in 1760, founded the African Methodist Church (AME), the first national black church in the United States in 1816 because black parishioners were discriminated against when they practiced their religion. Emanuel Mzumbo Lazare (1864-1929), one of Trinidad’s most famous AME members, was described as standing up “in his manhood as a full blooded Negro with no apology for his existence” (The Crisis, 1920). He championed black rights in this country.
Dr. Ben Carson, one of the best neurosurgeons in the United States, couldn’t get it right about the origins of the black presence in the United States. He described African Americans as being among the earliest immigrants who went to Virginia in 1619. He observed: “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer [than whom?], 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” (New York Times, March 6).
Carson is a black man. Caught in a muddle, he explained his misstatement a few days later: “You can be an involuntary immigrant. Slaves didn’t just give up and die, our ancestors made something of themselves” (New York Times) which explains his success in the field of medicine.
On February 1, the beginning of Black History Month, President Trump declared: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice” (The Washington Post, February 2). One isn’t sure if he meant Douglass is still alive. Dana Milbank opined: Trump “raised the dead” (Washington Post).
Taking the president’s error in stride, Douglass’s family averred: “Like the president, we use the present tense when referencing Douglass’s accomplishments because his spirit and legacy are still very much alive, not just during Black History Month, but every month” (Huffington Post, February 2).
Not even Pope Francis is exempt from assault by ignoramuses. Conscious of his role as father of the Christian Church, he asked the leaders of the Western world to be more compassionate about the plight of immigrants and refugees. He was especially sympathetic to Muslim refugees. This attempt at mercy has become a sore point between Washington and Vatican City.
President Trump wishes to limit the number of immigrants who come into the United States. He placed a three-month ban on their traveling into the country. Some people justified President Trump’s position. They say it was part of the mandate he received from his constituents during the last elections.
But one is hard-pressed to understand why Pope Francis should be the butt of ridicule and opposition from persons inside and outside Vatican City. One of Pope Francis’s most ardent opponents is Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, who has emerged as the face of the anti-Francis opposition.
Stephen Bannon, Mr. Trump’s ideological guide, is a friend of Cardinal Burke. Recently, he met Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League. They all oppose Pope Francis criticism against unfettered capitalism and his 2015 encyclical on environmentalism and climate change.
In an interview with Il Giornale, an Italian Conservative newspaper, Cardinal Burke remarked: “The whole history of the Islamic presence in Europe is an attempt to conquer it” (Financial Times, March 8). If Cardinal Burke had read Christopher de Bellaigue’s Islamic Enlightenment, he would have known that when classical Islamic civilization was at its height (between the eight and thirteenth centuries) Europe was in the Dark Ages. It was Islamic scholars who kept the treasures of Hellenistic science and philosophy while Europe was asleep.
Pope Francis has been called “an illegitimate holder” of the papacy in much the same way President Trump tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by claiming he was born in Kenya. While three early popes were Africans, Pope Francis is the first non-European elected to the papacy in modern time. Correspondingly, President Obama was the first non-European to be elected as president of the United States.
African and Islamic civilizations have not always been in the rearguard of intellectual thought. We should resist any attempt to falsify our history or to slander our illustrious leaders. In this time of deception, watchfulness is our only guide to action.