It’s time for black Americans to put the “We are all Immigrants” belief in proper perspective. African Americans are an ethnic group to which the cliché does not factually apply. Politely nodding in agreement to their own marginalization has become fully acceptable in black leadership circles. And since they don’t oppose the idea, rank and file blacks accept the idea as gospel truth too. But everyone capable of historical reasoning, clearly understands that ancestral blacks did not migrate to the U.S. Facts will reveal the truth. Now, there is some truth in the belief that America is a nation of immigrants. The problem is that this often repeated idea is only partially true! There is no question that various immigrant groups are the foundational populations to which most Americans can trace their ancestry. A slightly different scenario emerges however, when the myth is examined through the lens of the African American experience in the American “melting pot.” Very quickly an ominous sense of foreboding descends on the entire matter. The situation is succinctly described by a highly respected source who was familiar with the complexities of black’s presence and position in the human collage that is America.
On Saturday March 4, 1865, the 16th President of the United States delivered his Second Inaugural Address to an adoring crowd. Thousands were present in front of the East Portico of the White House to witness the momentous speech containing only 701 words. Mr. Abraham Lincoln devoted a portion of those words to a topic familiar to most Americans. In the third paragraph of the Address he writes that…”One eight of the whole population (at the time of the Civil War) were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by War; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it…Each (northerners and southerners) looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”
Data from the eighth U.S. Census in 1860 determined the total population to be 31,443,321 Americans. Within that population was 3,953,761 slaves or 12.6% of the general population. Freed blacks were apparently not included in the count. Allowing for the natural increase in human populations, the generally accepted number of blacks in America at the time of Mr. Lincoln’s second presidential address, some five years after the 1860 general census, is 4 million. These are blacks who arrived in America in bondage and at gunpoint between 1619 and 1810 and their American-born children. After 1810 the importation of African slaves was banned in the United States thereby making all increases in the slave population to that point, the result of live births. It’s a relatively safe assumption then that none of the +4 million blacks in antebellum America considered himself or herself an immigrant…and President Lincoln did not consider them as such either. These Africans and their progeny were by law and custom, considered imported property.
There is no attempt here to deliberately revise a time honored and universally cherished national slogan just to be hateful or malicious. It should be pointed out that no nation-loving American sets out to deliberately dismantle a time-honored and cherished national belief without sufficient cause. There has to exist compelling rational grounds to rebuke an iconic ideal’s core message. And in this case there are such justifications. Its seems that there are major historio-cultural weaknesses in the idea that merit a critique ; 1) the presence of factual ambiguity; 2) absence of historical correctness; and 3) the desire to project unfettered generosity as a national characteristic. In the effort to manufacture this charitable principle and to then tout it for national consumption, the proponents overshot their mark and instead imprinted a credo onto the psyche of the American public that is essentially a stylized overstatement of factual evidence bordering on deception by omission.
Even more baffling than the campaign to popularize the “We are all immigrants” maxim, is that the notion as presented seems inviolable, and is therefore elevated above contestation, challenge or opposition. Undisputed. Unchallenged. Unopposed. That the lofty status of this belief has made it impervious to criticism or re-examination says a great deal about the power of the media and perhaps even more about the state of mind of the American public. As a result of its rise to dominance, this cliché makes progress in the deadlocked national discussion on immigration virtually impossible. It’s very easy to label anyone who does not go along with the myth a bigot or worse. Consequently, African American political pundits cautiously, if ever engage in the immigration argument with any conviction unless they willfully and callously are willing to reject the dreadful start their ancestors got off to in America. Leading blacks simply genuflect symbolically in the direction of the Statue of Liberty by concurring with the myth and then moving on to less contentious discussions. Several imbedded assumptions however are consistently implied as a result of the predictable impasse that these quarrelsome debates reach. At the conclusion of these discussions it can be reliably predicted that ; 1) no decisive action is going to be taken by either the Democrats or the Republicans to stem the massive influx of foreigner nationals from South America, 2) to oppose unrestricted illegal immigration is somehow antithetical to American ideals, 3) the rule of law must be suspended in the case of illegal immigrants because their presence in America is now irreversible, 4) immigrants are arbitrarily assumed to be a revitalizing force for the nation, 5) borders are artificial constructs that impede the natural movement of humans and suppresses their predilection to seek and follow road signs that lead to greater material and social opportunity, and 6) America is a nation of immigrants.
The first five of these assumptions are arguable on the grounds of their being vague and unsubstantiated. They lack evidence of theoretical integrity and sociological validity making them easily refuted by careful, objective analysis. It’s the sixth assumption however, that is most resistant to criticism and least subject to change; that is because it is partially true, highly regarded and inherently desirable… and hence, the perfect rhetorical bomb to drop in a serious, televised immigration debate. Nonetheless, no one dare challenge this assumption due to the reverence with which it is held and because of the almost magical power that it acquires when spoken. That “America is a nation of immigrants” is a mantra that’s used to bludgeon immigration control advocates into, at a minimum, neutrality. Today, proponents on both sides of the debate consider the notion that “America = immigrant” to practically be axiomatic. The notion plays well with the public, creates great sound bites for politicians, resonates with all demographics… but is in stark contrast to the authentic history of a people who never migrated to the United States; black Americans.
As any clear thinking, informed, black American will admit, their ancestors were never considered “immigrants.” Yet, they withhold their misgivings out of a peculiar reluctance to not be perceived as someone outside of the mainstream ideology. Nonetheless, the definition of an immigrant is “a person who voluntarily comes to a country where they were not born in order to settle there.” Would the operative word, voluntarily, in the description of an immigrant be suitable for a Kunta Kinte, the character in the epic 1977 TV miniseries “ROOTS” who easily personified the 4 million black slaves in America in 1860?? Of course not; and the label “immigrant” if it were applied to Kunta Kinte, would be a fraudulent, grotesque exaggeration. Mr. Kinte did not immigrate…he came to America in chains. He was forced at gunpoint into the hold of a ship anchored off the coast of his native land and then forcibly and involuntarily relocated to America to work/labor under horrific conditions without compensation, until he died.
Obviously the cliché that “America is a nation of immigrants” has little if any viable application to the real world existence of 21st century black Americans who are aware of the full arc of their history on this continent. Yet the idea remains one of America’s most venerated and frequently repeated platitudes. The reason for the stubborn insistence that this myth is a national truism is in part due to the desire of liberal ideologues and the irrational “open-borders” crowd, to mythologize the peopling of America to their advantage. The intent is to assuage the sensibilities of Americans who would prefer not to delve into the harsh reality of chattel slavery in our nation’s founding.
The fact of the matter is that black people arrived in America early and in great numbers. No reception center welcomed the arrival of these dazed, frightened men, women and children. Immediately upon arrival they were subjected to the dehumanizing “seasoning” process. From that point forward, their general conditions deteriorated rapidly. Only deliberate historical amnesia can account for any other description of the introduction of blacks to their new lives in America. And the historical record is filled with accounts of the lives of black slaves in America going back for hundreds of years describing the horrific conditions under which they worked and lived. It is nonsense to believe that 4 million immigrants would trade their native land, family, culture and freedom …to be a slave in a foreign land in perpetuity. But the myth survives, facts notwithstanding. How can this be?
Well, in a delusional, secular America, truth is irrelevant…right and wrong are passé. So if, America is NOT a nation of immigrants exclusively and in the truest sense, never was…who cares?? The situation is way beyond seeking the truth at this point. It is being used as some sort of psychological salve that allows the user to find comfort in what can only be described as a kind of historical magnanimity. In an America that is allegedly beyond “race” everyone is anxious to bask in the glow of espoused cultural and racial progress while its anathema to revisit the calamitous racial situation at the dawn of the nation. As a result, repetition over time has made the myth an apparent highly self-evident fact. The only way to reverse the myth is for Black Americans to politely, but insistently denounce it as it applies to them at every opportunity. If not, the myth will continue to be injurious to the black American historical presence in the U.S., to the extent that our children may one day think that the American slaves were grateful for being transported to these shores.
Ironically, as the great expanses of land in our nation beckoned for waves of Oriental, European and Latin American immigrants to join the grand experiment in democracy, a roiling mass of blacks were already here, under extreme hardships and trying desperately to escape. Today in America, the “welcome wagon” greets immigrants at our borders whether they are legals or illegals. These transnationals are granted and fully expect to receive subsidies, medical care, job opportunities and in many cases, the unofficial extension of the right to U.S. citizenship. For African Americans though, those same privileges of citizenship took a Civil War to acquire and later a constitutional amendment to guarantee, though they had already been in America for generations. Obviously, the contrast between the arrival circumstances of blacks and other ethnic groups is then, palpable to the extreme. One thing is however, for sure…early American blacks were never, never, ever immigrants.2