Yacine Diallo (1897-1954). Premier de Guinée

Cet article termine la série consacrée au profil biographique et politique de Yacine Diallo. Délibéré, le titre n’est pas seulement figuré et littéraire. Il est plutôt  approprié, littéral et adéquat. Yacine occupa en effet le premier rang public ; il domina de fait la vie politique en Guinée française durant la première décennie de l’après-guerre mondiale 1939-45. Et il s’y maintint du début à la fin — inopinée et précipitée — de sa vie. Pour s’en convaincre, considérons les résultats statistiques de ses campagnes électorales successives.

Chiffres, tableaux et graphiques électoraux

Yacine Diallo entra en lice pour la députation à l’Assemblée Nationale française dans quatre scrutins :

  • L’élection de la Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante : 21 octobre 1945
  • L’élection de la Deuxième Assemblée Nationale Constituante : 2 juin 1946
  • L’élection de la Première Assemblée Nationale : 10 novembre 1946
  • L’élection de la Deuxième Assemblée Nationale : 17 juin 1951

Je me concentre ici sur le Deuxième Collège, qui  était attribué aux Noirs en tant qu’indigène et non-citoyens. Le Premier Collège, lui, était réservé aux Blancs et aux Noirs dotés de la citoyenneté française. Celle-ci offrait un statut d’autant plus privilégié qu’il était difficile voire impossible de l’obtenir.

Joseph-Roger de Benoist souligne que : « Bien que des facilités aient été accordées aux “indigènes” pour devenir citoyens français, en 1937, environ 2 500 seulement en avaient bénéficié, qui venaient s’ajouter aux 70 000 citoyens des quatre communes de plein exercice du Sénégal  : Gorée, Saint-Louis, Dakar, Rufisque. »
Cette ségrégation explique l’élection de Lamine Guèye — natif de Saint-Louis — au Premier Collège en 1946. Par contre, né hors de ces communes et n’étant pas citoyen français à l’époque, Léopold Sédar Senghor devint député du Deuxième Collège. Il en fut de même pour Yacine. N’étant pas éligible au Premier collège, il dut présenter sa candidature au Deuxième Collège.
Au sujet des quatre communes, lire l’article de François Manchuelle “Assimilés ou patriotes africains ? Naissance du nationalisme culturel en Afrique française. (1853-1931)” sur Semantic Africa.

Campagnes, concurrents et scores électoraux de Yacine

Les tableaux et graphiques ci-dessous sont basés sur les données fournies par J.R. de Benoist dans L’Afrique occidentale française de la Conférence de Brazzaville (1944) à l’indépendance (1960), aux pages 519-529

Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante – 21 octobre 1945
Deuxième Collège – Premier Tour
Inscrits16 233
Votants12 829 (79 %)
Suffrages exprimés12 740
CandidatProfessionParti
Yacine DialloinstituteurSection Française Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO)
Mamba SanoinstituteurIndépendants d’Outre-mer
Lamine KabainstituteurParti républicain révolutionnaire
Diafodé Caba
Fodé Mamoudou Tourélicencié en droit
Amara Soumahcomptable
Mamadou Sowlieutenant en retraite
Hervé SyllaConseil Admin. Guinée
Momo Tourémédecin
N’Fa Mamadou Tourérédacteur “A.O.F.“ Dakar
Momo Sakhosecrétaire, greffes & parquets
Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante – 21 octobre 1945
Deuxième Collège – Deuxième tour
Inscrits16 233
Votants12 646 (77,9 %)
Suffrages exprimés12 550
CandidatVoix obtenuesRésultat
Yacine Diallo12 550élu
Mamba Sano5 774
Lamine Kaba5 065
Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante - 21 octobre 1945. Deuxième Collège - Deuxième tour. (Tableau et graphique : T.S. Bah)
Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante – 21 octobre 1945. Deuxième Collège – Deuxième tour. (Tableau et graphique : T.S. Bah)
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale Constituante – 2 juin 1946
Deuxième Collège – Premier tour
Inscrits22 551
Votants18 492 (82 %)
Suffrages exprimés18 428
CandidatVoix obtenuesRésultat
Yacine Diallo10 100élu
Mamba Sano5 170
Lamine Caba3 071
Amara Sissoko39
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale Constituante - 2 juin 1946. Deuxième Collège - Premier tour
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale Constituante – 2 juin 1946. Deuxième Collège – Premier tour
Première Assemblée Nationale – 10 novembre 1946
Inscrits131 309
Votants96 102 (73,18 %)
Suffrages exprimés95 521
CandidatPartiVoixRésultat
Yacine DialloParti socialiste & progressiste60 516élu
Mamba SanoParti socialiste de Guinée30 993élu
Lamine CabaParti Républicain socialiste de Guinée3 421
Fara MillimounoParti républicain de gauche591
Première Assemblée Nationale : 10 novembre 1946
Première Assemblée Nationale : 10 novembre 1946
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale – 17 juin 1951
Inscrits393 628
Votants224 182 (56,95 %)
Suffrages exprimés222 277
ListesCandidatsVoix obtenuesRésultat
Socialiste d’Union guinéenneYacine Diallo, député sortant67 640élu
Albert Liurette67 640 élu
Komby Diallo
IndépendantsMamba Sano, député sortant48 246élu
Maurice Montrat
Jean-Pierre Farah Touré
Union Démocratique
des Travailleurs & A.C.
Sékou Touré
Capitaine Mamadou Diouldé Barry
Niankoye Samoé
Union guinéenneFodé Mamoudou Touré
Oumar Barry
Lamine Ndiaye
Union Frse d’Action Démocratique et SocialeDiawadou Barry
Joseph Marchi
Marcous Kanté
Rassemblement du Peuple FrançaisDiafodé Kaba
Jean-Paul Lambert
Louis Fernandez
Action Économique et SocialeKarim Bangoura
Léonce Magnant
J. B. Peter
Indépendants d’Outre-merMomo Touré
Jean-Maurice Cadoré
Nabi Yansane
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale - 17 juin 1951
Deuxième Assemblée Nationale – 17 juin 1951

Niankoye Samoé, de Nzérékoré, fonda aux côtés de Sékou Touré le syndicat des postiers. Il mourut dans un accident d’automobile survenu la veille de l’élection de la Deuxième Assemblée Nationale, le 17 juin 1951. André Lewin écrit par erreur que Niankoye était un co-listier du BAG de Diawadou Barry. La liste ci-dessus montre qu’en fait il battit campagne avec Sékou Touré et Capitaine Diouldé Barry.

Section territoriale du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (présidé par Félix Houphouët-Boigny), le Parti Démocratique de Guinée était toujours embryonnaire quatre ans après sa création en 1947. Pis, il faisait l’expérience de la traversée du désert. D’où l’absence d’une candidature du RDA en 1951 en Guinée. Sékou Touré fit campagne sous la bannière de l’Union Démocratique des Travailleurs & A.C. (?) cette année-là. C’est en 1952 qu’il fut désigné —et non pas élu— secrétaire général du PDG. Il le resta jusqu’à sa mort en 1984.

Que peut-on retenir ?

La récapitulation de mon exploration de la biographie politique de Yacine donne les titres suivants :

  1. Yacine Diallo, un connu méconnu
  2. Yacine Diallo, revue critique d’une biographie (en trois parties)
  3. Yacine Diallo. Impréparation et Interview (en trois parties)
  4. Yacine Diallo. Premier de Guinée (en deux parties)

Certains de mes articles sur Yacine et celui sur Hammadoun Dicko ont été effacés après une mise à jour d’outils WordPress sur BlogGuinée. Ils seront reconstitués à partir des originaux.

Laissant aux visiteurs le temps de revoir les chiffres et graphiques ci-dessus, je prépare pour la prochaine livraison — finale — quelques réflexions. Elles porteront notamment sur :

  • L’impact de l’hégémonie coloniale sur la génération de Yacine et les réactions locales
  • La concurrence et la coopération entre la chefferie de canton et la couche francophone : les deux béquilles autochtones de la colonisation française
  • L’équilibre ethnique et le partage du pouvoir politique en Guinée française
  • La mort —“salvatrice” et “annihilante” — de Yacine Diallo.

Tierno S. Bah

Thiam. Invocation imméritée du Camp Boiro

Honorable Denise L. Cote, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Honorable Denise L. Cote, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Reconnu coupable de blanchiment d’argent et de corruption en mai dernier par le jury, Mahmoud Thiam, ancien ministre des mines et de la géologie de Guinée, a été condamné, le 25 août 2017, à sept ans de prison ferme à New York, par l’Honorable Denise Cote, Juge fédérale pour le Southern District de New York. Avant la proclamation de la sentence, l’avocat de Mahmoud Thiam a cherché à adoucir la frappe du glaive de la Justice contre son client. Dans un plaidoyer désespéré, il a fait ainsi une invocation indirecte, implicite, inappropriée, illégitime et imméritée du Camp Boiro. Je traduis et commente ici certains passages de la dépêche de l’Associated Press, qui a été largement reprise par les journaux et les sites web.

  1. D’entrée de jeu la juge Denise Cote déclare que le citoyen américain, Mahmoud Thiam, a trahi la République de Guinée en acceptant des pots-de-vin d’un montant 8.5 million dollars US. Il s’agit d’un constat matériel et d’une opinion irréfutable. A n’importe quel niveau de la hiérarchie administrative et gouvernementale, le fonctionnaire et le ministre sont censés servir les populations, et non pas s’en servir. Ils en sont les serviteurs et non pas les maîtres. En compromettant —peut-être irrémédiablement — le potentiel humain, social, culturel et économique (rural et industriel) de la Guinée, les régimes successifs du pays ont créé le cadre toxique dont Mahmoud Thiam est devenu un symbole mondial.
  2. La juge continue : Mahmoud Thiam arriva à Conakry en 2009 pour “aider” la Guinée “et non pas pour la dépouiller.” “Il vit la corruption tout autour de lui. Il décida finalement d’y succumber.”
    La juge prête ici des intentions généreuses et un motif louable à Mahmoud Thiam. Mais la réalité est différente. Car ce n’est pas à son arrivée que M. Thiam se rendit compte de la vénalité rampante en Guinée. Il connaissait les réalités du pays. Et il devait bien au courant de l’effondrement de la moralité publique dans son pays natal et du manque de confiance des dirigeants par les populations. Le fossé se creuse depuis le début des années 1960. En 2009, l’écart était devenu béant et visible de tous, à domicile comme à l’étranger.

Lire (a) Guinea: Estrangement Between the Leaders and the People
(b) Parti Démocratique de Guinée: Reform and Repression  (c) The Decline of the Guinean Revolution. The Erosion of Public Morality

  1. Lansana Conté meurt le 22 décembre 2008.Quelques heures plus tard, son remplaçant choisi et préparé, un certain capitaine Moussa Dadis Camara, chef du service carburant des Forces armées, s’empare du pouvoir. Il s’y installe, appuyé par le Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement. Pressenti pour le poste de Premier ministre, Komara Kabinet invite Mahmoud Thiam à participer à son gouvernement. Consentant, il négocie son départ de UBS et part dare-dare pour Conaky. Son plan — et peut-être l’offre — est arrêté : obtenir un poste lucratif, offrant plein d’occasions pour des tractations plus ou moins légitimes, des commissions rondelettes, ainsi que des pourboires juteux.

    Mahmoud donne à Global Mining Observer en 2014 une version arrondie et édulcorée des circonstances de sa nomination gouvernementale. Il y expose aussi une conception superficielle, naïve, démagogique et prédatrice du développement, qui serait induit et impulsé par l’industrie extractive. Les préalables culturels lui échappent, bien sûr. Et, paradoxalement, les critères d’ordre financier ne font même pas l’objet d’une esquisse d’explicitation…

    Le 14 janvier 2009, il entre au gouvernement dirigé par Komara Kabinet, où il occupe le poste de ministre des Mines et de l’Energie, sous la présidence du petit capitaine.
    Le 3 décembre 2009, Dadis et Toumba Diakité ont une altercation orageuse au sujet du massacre de centaines de manifestants pacifiques le 28 septembre précédent au stade sportif de Conakry. La dispute vire au drame et des coups de feu sont échangés. Dadis reste sur le carreau, grièvement blessé; Touba, lui, s’enfuit et se réfugie hors de Guinée.
    En janvier 2010 un régime de Transition est créé à la place du CNDD. Il a pour mission d’organiser l’élection présidentielle avant la fin de l’année.  Général Sékouba Konaté le dirige. (A noter que cet officier est interdit de séjour aux USA depuis 2016 pour flagrant délit de trafic de devises). Et Jean-Marie Doré remplace Komara Kabinet à la Primature.
    Le 15 février 2010 Mahmoud Thiam conserve son portefeuille, désormais appelé Mines et la Géologie, moins l’Energie donc.
    Le 4 janvier 2011 Mahmoud Thiam est débarqué du gouvernement par Alpha Condé, le nouveau président “élu”. Peu après M. Thiam quittait la Guinée pour retourner dans sa patrie d’adoption, les USA. Pour son malheur, il avait déjà enfreint la loi anti-corruption étrangère connue sous le nom de Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. Dès lors, patient et méticuleux, le FBI l’attendait de pied ferme. Ainsi, dans son interview avec Global Mining Observer, Mahmoud avoue se sentir sous surveillance policière depuis 2004.

  2. “… une terre où la force de la loi n’existe pas.” Lapidaire et exacte, la formule précédente par Juge Cote dépeint bien la Guinée. Elle s’applique à ce pays, hier comme aujourd’hui, depuis 1959. Et tant que la situation durera, il ne faudrait pas s’attendre à la réalisation de gros investissements : Konkouré, Simandou, chemin de fer trans-guinéen, nouveaux ports et aéroports, universités dignes de ce nom, etc.
  3. Mahmoud Thiam “ne montra pas de remords pour sa culpabilité” affirmée par le jury. “J’ai même perçu quelqu’un qui croit exercer un droit”… de profiter des recettes de la corruption, ajoute la juge.
    Cet état d’esprit est un cancer qui s’est presque généralisé dans la fonction publique guinéenne. Lorsqu’un fonctionnaire est nommé à un poste “lucratif”, on lui dit : “C’est ta chance, saisis-la.” “Si tu n’en profites pas pour détourner le bien public à tes fins personnelles, alors tu es maudit ! »
  4. Le code pénal fédéral américain recommande 12 ans ou plus pour le genre de crime dont Mahmoud Thiam a été reconnu coupable. En imposant une peine de 7 ans, la juge a tenu compte d’un argument de l’avocat défenseur Aaron Goldsmith. Pour attirer la compassion et la grâce des jurés et de la juge, celui-ci a invoqué “la torture et le meurtre” du prisonnier politique que fut le père de Mahmoud Thiam. Zélé, l’avocat parla du “violent régime communiste à la tête de la Guinée en 1971”.
    La dictature de Sékou Touré fut d’une violence inouïe, certes. Mais le tyran n’était pas d’obédience communiste. Il était sékoutouréiste ! C’est-à-dire pire que le communisme.
  5. A s’en tenir au communiqué de l’agence de presse, l’avocat n’a pas fourni au tribunal les circonstances de la disparition de M. Thiam père. Les indications suivantes suffisent pour combler la lacune.
    De qui parle-t-on ? Il s’agit ici de Baba Hady Thiam, licencié en droit et directeur de la Banque guinéenne du Commerce Extérieur (BGCE). Intègre et rompu dans la gestion, l’inspection et l’audit bancaires, il faisait partie de l’élite de ce secteur dans les années 1960. Par malheur, le chef de l’Etat guinéen ne connaissait en matière de finance et de banque que les manigances et les magouilles. Entre la probité des professionnels et la fourberie du politicien, la collision et le choc devinrent inévitables. Le groupe de Baba Hady Thiam n’était pas dupe. Au contraire, il mesurait l’ampleur des dégâts causés par la gabegie de Sékou Touré. Se sachant démasqué, et pour éteindre la contradiction à son avantage, le président prit les devants de façon draconienne et tragique. Il accusa, sans la moindre preuve, ses cadres de banque de complicité avec le commando militaire guinéo-portugais qui attaqua Conakry le 22 novembre 1970. Ils furent arrêtés sans mandat, jugés en leur absence, et fusillés ou pendus par des pelotons d’exécution qui incluaient capitaine Diarra Traoré et lieutenant Lansana Conté. Outre Baba Hady Thiam, les victimes de la purge du secteur de la banque incluaient :

    • Ousmane Baldé, Barry III, Moriba Magassouba et Kara Soufiana Keita, pendus publiquement  le 25 janvier 1971.
    • Théodore Soumah
    • Félix Matos Gnan
      Ces pères de famille expièrent pour un crime qu’ils n’avaient pas commis. Ils ne laissèrent pas de fortune à leur famille, mais ils lèguent à la postérité une vie exemplaire et, en l’occurrence, un casier judiciaire vierge.

En plongeant délibérément dans les réseaux de corruption qui minent la Guinée, Mahmoud Thiam a pris le chemin opposé des idéaux, de la droiture et de la rectitude, incarnés par Baba Hady Thiam et sa génération.

Lire Jeunes et patriotes, rêves et carrières brisés

Tierno S. Bah

Kenya’s legal colonial paradox

In 2007-08 Kenya experienced bloody post-electoral violence that claimed more than 1,300 lives and displaced 600,000 people. The conflict pit against each others the partisans of political formations, including the Kenya African Union (KANU) led by Uhuru Kenyatta, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Raila Odinga, etc.

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the International Criminal Court indicted the winner of the presidential election, Mr. Kenyatta. The charges alleged “crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation or forcible transfer of population, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.” However, faced with the Kenyan authorities refusal to turn over “evidence vital to the case,” the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, asked the Court to withdraw the case in 2013.  Regardless, Mr. Kenyatta has ever since been resentful about his indictment. As a result, he has spent a great deal of energy, state resources and political pressure to weaken the ICC. First, he ended Kenya’s membership in the court. Then, he lobbied heavily among heads of state and at the African Union’s meetings for a global continental departure from the ICC. It appears though that his efforts were in vain. In an editorial piece, titled “In Africa, Seeking a License to Kill,” Rev. Desmond Tutu rebuked and condemned Mr. Kenyatta’s maneuver.
Low and behold, it turns out that today colonial era laws still deny Kenyan citizens some of their fundamental rights. Such are the facts laid out in Mercy Muendo‘s, article below, titled “Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws.”
Upon reading the article, I am more than ever convinced that, instead of waging a loosing anti-ICC crusade —it got even lonelier following The Gambia’s recent return to the court —, Mr. Kenyatta ought to clean up his own yard, first.

Tierno S. Bah


Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws

It’s been 54 years since Kenya got her independence and yet there are still a number of archaic, colonial and discriminatory laws on the statute books. From archival research I have done it’s clear that these laws are used to exploit, frustrate and intimidate Kenyans by restricting their right to movement, association and the use of private property.

They also make it difficult for ordinary Kenyans to make a living by imposing steep permit fees on informal businesses.

These laws were inherited from the colonial British government and used to be within the purview of local government municipalities under the Local Government Act. This act was repealed when municipalities were replaced by counties after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

Currently, these laws are contained in county rules and regulations, criminalizing a good number of activities, including making any kind of noise on the streets, committing acts contrary to public decency, washing, repairing or dismantling any vehicle in non-designated areas (unless in an emergency) and loitering aimlessly at night.

The colonial laws served a central purpose – segregation. Africans and Asians could be prosecuted for doing anything that the white settlers deemed to be a breach of public order, public health or security.

Violating human rights

Many of these archaic laws also restrict citizens’ use of shared or public space. Some of them grant the police powers to arrest offenders without warrant, and to prosecute them under the Penal Code.

Offences like the ones mentioned above are classified as petty crimes that can attract fines and prison terms.

Some have argued that these laws are being abused because they restrict freedom of movement and the right to a fair hearing.

A few of them also hinder the growth of the economy. For example, hawking without a permit is against the law. To get a permit, traders must pay steep fees to various government authorities. This requirement is a deterrent to trade and infringes on the social economic rights of citizens.

Another example is the law that makes it a crime to loiter at night. This law was initially put on the books to deter people from soliciting for sexual favours, or visiting unlicensed establishments. It has however become a means for state agents to harass anyone walking on the streets at night.

Genesis of archaic laws

The laws can be traced back to legal ordinances that were passed by the colonial government between 1923 and 1934.

The 1925 Vagrancy (Amendment) Ordinance restricted movement of Africans after 6pm, especially if they did not have a registered address.

Post-independence, the ordinance became the Vagrancy Act, which was repealed in 1997. The Vagrancy Act inspired the Public Order Act, which restricts movement of Africans during the day, but only in the special circumstances that are outlined in the Public Security (Control of Movement) Regulations.

This legislation is similar to the Sundown Town rules under the Jim Crow discrimination law in the United States. A California-posted sign in the 1930s said it all: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne.” — T.S. Bah

The Witchcraft Ordinance of 1925, which formed the basis for the Witchcraft Act, outlawed any practices that were deemed uncivilised by colonial standards. The provisions of the Act are ambiguous and a clear definition of witchcraft is not given. This has made it easy for authorities to prosecute a wide range of cultural practices under the banner of witchcraft.

Rationale behind punitive laws

The idea behind most of the targeted legislation enacted by the colonialists was to separate whites from people of other races, including Asians. For example, in 1929 settlers in the white suburbs of Muthaiga in Nairobi raised an objection when the Governor announced plans to merge their suburban township with greater Nairobi.

That would have meant that they would have had to mingle with locals from Eastleigh and other native townships, which were mostly black. As a caveat to joining the greater Nairobi Township, the Muthaiga Township committee developed standard rules and regulations to govern small townships.

These rules and regulations were applied to other administrative townships such as Mombasa and Eldoret.

White townships would only join larger municipalities if the Muthaiga rules applied across the board.

The Muthaiga rules allowed white townships to control and police public space, which was a clever way to restrict the presence and movement of Asians and Africans in the suburbs.

Variations of these rules remain on the books to date. The current Nairobi county rules and regulations require residents to pay different rates to the county administration depending on their location.

In addition, the county rules demand that dog owners must be licensed, a requirement that limits the number of city dwellers who can own dogs. This rule can be read as discriminatory because the vast majority of lower-income earners now find themselves unable to keep a dog in the city. Indeed, discrimination was the basis of the colonial legal framework.

Can oppressive laws be legal?

Strictly speaking, these discriminatory rules and regulations were unlawful because they were not grounded in statutory or common law. Indeed, they were quasi-criminal and would have been unacceptable in Great Britain.

Ironically, because such rules and regulations didn’t exist in Great Britain, criminal charges could not be brought against white settlers for enforcing them.

To curtail freedom of movement and enjoyment of public space by non-whites the settlers created categories of persons known as “vagrants”, “vagabonds”, “barbarians”, “savages” and “Asians”.

These were the persons targeted by the loitering, noisemaking, defilement of public space, defacing of property, and anti-hawking laws. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment.

Anyone found loitering, anyone who was homeless or found in the wrong abode, making noise on the wrong streets, sleeping in public or hawking superstitious material or paraphernalia would be detained after trial.

Police had the powers to arrest and detain offenders in a concentration camp, detention or rehabilitation center, or prison without a warrant.

This is the same legal framework that was inherited by the independence government and the very same one that has been passed down to the county governments.

The Public Order Act allows police powers to arrest without warrant anyone found in a public gathering, meeting or procession which is likely to breach the peace or cause public disorder. This is the current position under sections 5 and 8 of the Act.

This law, which was used by the colonial government to deter or disband uprisings or rebellions, has been regularly abused in independent Kenya.

At the end of the day Kenyans must ask themselves why successive governments have allowed the oppression of citizens to continue by allowing colonial laws to remain on the books.


The Conversation

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah


In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker