The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration has a lot to learn about African American history. Here’s a reading list.

President Trump, right, and Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, after a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Feb. 21. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s no denying that prominent members of the Trump administration are challenged when it comes to African American history. Consider these examples, with the most recent first:

* Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon-turned-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said on Monday that Africans who were captured and transported to America and sold as slaves had the same aspirations as other immigrants:

“That’s what America is about. 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 compares slaves to immigrants coming to ‘a land of dreams and opportunity’

Before he became HUD secretary, Carson said at a Values Voter Summit in October 2013:

“Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”

And in October 2015, Carson told a conservative radio host that while he agrees there is racism in the United States, it isn’t what many think it to be:

“There is, but it’s not where you would expect it to be. It is mostly with the progressive movement who will look at someone like me, and because of the color of my pigment, they decide that there’s a certain way that I’m supposed to think. And if I don’t think that way, I’m an Uncle Tom and they heap all kinds of hatred on you. That, to me, is racism.”

* Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Feb. 26 called historically black colleges and universities — which were founded because blacks weren’t permitted to attend white institutions — “pioneers” of school choice. Here’s what she said in a statement about HBCUs after meeting with presidents from many of the institutions:

“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

‘Totally nuts’: Senators blast DeVos for inaccurate comments about black colleges

* The Education Department’s official Twitter account on Feb. 12 misspelled the name of W.E.B. Du Bois, a black sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. Du Bois was misspelled as DeBois — an error one doesn’t expect from the U.S. Education Department.

* White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Feb. 8 that Coretta Scott King, the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was essentially wrong about Jeff Sessions, a U.S. senator from Alabama who is now Trump’s attorney general, in a 1986 letter she wrote when he was nominated to be a federal judge. It said in part that Sessions had used his powers as a U.S. attorney in Alabama “in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to read that letter on the Senate floor on Feb. 7 this year, but Republican senators stopped her, leading to the discussion at Spicer’s news conference the next day.

* President Trump on Feb. 1 made comments to honor Black History Month and talked about black abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, who died Feb. 20, 1895, as if he were still alive:

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

He also appeared not to understand what “African American” means when he said:

“During this month, we honor the tremendous history of the African Americans throughout our country — throughout the world, if you really think about it, right?”

Actually, no, if you really think about it.

Trump also used the occasion to talk about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., but not so much about King’s legacy but rather about how the media had reported mistakenly on the removal of a King bust from the Oval Office. He said:

“Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King. But they said the statue, the bust of Martin Luther King, was taken out of the office. And it was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate.”

* Vice President Pence tweeted about Black History Month on Feb. 1 this year, praising a white man, Abraham Lincoln, a message that didn’t go over well on Twitter.

Clearly some lessons in African American history are needed. Here is a short reading list, from Dexter Gabriel, an assistant professor  in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut, who has a joint faculty appointment with the Africana Studies Institute. His research interests include the history of bondage, resistance, and freedom in the “Black Atlantic,” as well as interdisciplinary approaches to slavery within popular culture and media.

Gabriel’s shortlist:

* “Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage”  by Sowande’ Mustakeem
The book by Mustakeem, an associate professor in African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, explains the violence and regulation of the process called “the Middle Passage,” the part of the slave trade that took place at sea.

* “Trouble in Mind” by Leon F. Litwack
The book by Litwack, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an authority on black history, is an account of the brutal age of Jim Crow.

* “Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi
The book by Kendi, an award-winning Africana studies historian at the University of Florida, is a definitive history of anti-black racist ideas and their impact on American history.

* “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” by Manisha Sinha
The book by Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut,  reveals the often ignored role that African Americans played in their emancipation, from the American Revolution through the Civil War.

* In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt” by Melissa E. Wooten
The book by Wooten, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, looks at how race and racism shaped America’s black colleges and universities in the mid-20th century.

And here are a more books from other recommenders:

* “Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940” by Jonathan Holloway
Holloway is a professor of history, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University. His book tells stories that African Americans have told about their past and why they matter today.

* “Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and his book is a comprehensive history.