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America the Beautiful
Rediscovering What Made this Nation Great
By Ben Carson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Benjamin Carson and Candy Carson
All rights reserved.
America's History of Rebelling for Change
Of all the nations in the world, of all the social experiments that have been tried down through the centuries, there is no country I'd rather be a citizen of and call home than America. Where else but in this land of opportunity are people given so much freedom to pursue their dreams, with the potential to bring out the best in everyone?
I have been fortunate enough to visit forty-nine of America's fifty states, and I never cease to be amazed by the tremendous diversity one finds here — from big metropolitan cities to small countryside towns, from tropical islands to forested mountain ranges. Vast expanses of farmland produce more than enough food to feed our nation, and huge industrial areas produce airplanes, trains, cars, washing machines, and a host of other devices. The creative innovations of Silicon Valley and Seattle give us technological strength, and the great Northeastern corner of our country boasts some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world. Add to that our ethnic and cultural diversity — one of our greatest strengths — and you begin to see how this nation's diversity enabled it to rapidly become a world power.
Does America have its flaws? Absolutely. We've certainly made our share of mistakes over the centuries and then some. But in spite of our missteps, our nation's history shows that out of our darkest periods, we have responded time and time again to work toward "liberty and justice for all." One of America's most respected legacies is indeed that of rebelling for change.
I grew up in inner-city Detroit and Boston at the tail end of one of those dark periods in America's history. Slavery had long been abolished, but widespread racism remained. The civil rights movement was on the verge of completely transforming the social landscape, but such change often comes slowly. And today, decades later, I can still pinpoint the moment when I came of age regarding racism in America.
My brother and I were playing in Franklin Park in the Roxbury section of Boston when I wandered away alone under a bridge, where a group of older white boys approached me and began calling me names.
"Hey, boy, we don't allow your kind over here," one of them said. He looked at the others. "Let's drown him in the lake." I could tell they weren't just taunting me, trying to scare me. They were serious, and I turned and ran from there faster than I had ever run before in my life. It was a shocking introduction for a little boy to the racism that ran through America at the time.
Growing up, we faced constant reminders of how we were less important than white people. Even some of those who claimed to be civil rights activists could be heard saying such things as, "He is so well educated and expresses himself so clearly that if you were talking to him on the telephone you would think he was white."
By that time, economic hardship had forced us to move to Boston, and we were living with my mother's older sister and brother-in-law in a typical tenement, where rats, roaches, gangs, and murders were all too common. One day my uncle William was giving me a haircut in the kitchen while we watched the news on television when I saw white police unleashing ferocious dogs on groups of young black people and mowing them down with powerful water hoses. Even little children were being brutalized.
Perhaps even worse than the overt racism that I witnessed on television was the systemic racism I witnessed in my own family. My aunt Jean and uncle William had two grown sons who frequently stayed with them in their dilapidated multifamily dwelling. My brother, Curtis, and I were very fond of our older cousins, who always made us laugh. But both of them were constantly in trouble with the police, which resulted in their brutal, racially motivated beatings or Uncle William having to bail them out of jail. Unfortunately, their close friends were drug dealers and gang members, many of whom were killed or died young. Ultimately both of my cousins were killed because of their association with the wrong people.
One could legitimately ask the question, which is worse, overt racist behavior by the police, or a society that offered certain segments of its population little in the way of opportunities, increasing the likelihood of "criminal associations"? We didn't realize these friends of our cousins were dangerous for us to be around. We only knew that they joked around with us, gave us attention, and even brought us candy from time to time.
It wasn't just our inner-city neighborhood where racism flourished; I found it at school as well. During report-card-marking day in the eighth grade, for example, each student was supposed to take their report card from classroom to classroom and have their teacher place a grade in the designated spot. I was very excited because I had all As, and I had only one more class to go for a clean sweep. That class was band, which was going to be an easy A since I was an excellent clarinetist. That last A would make me a shoo-in for the highest academic achievement award in eighth grade that year. I was beaming as I gave Mr. Mann my report card, but my joy quickly turned to sorrow when I saw that he had given me a grade of C in order to ruin my report card and my chances of receiving the highest academic award. I knew that my winning the award would have been an eye-opening experience for many people at Wilson Junior High School, since I was the only black student in the class.
Much to Mr. Mann's chagrin and to my delight, band was not considered an academic subject and did not count; therefore, I received the highest academic award after all. One of the other teachers was so upset about this that she literally chastised all the white students at the award ceremony in front of the entire school for allowing a black student to outperform them academically. The scene is depicted in the movie about my life, Gifted Hands, although in reality she ranted and raved a lot longer than the movie suggested. It was at least ten minutes, although it felt like longer.
In retrospect, I realize that all of these teachers and some of the students were simply products of their environment, but they triggered in me a strong desire to start my own personal civil rights movement to show everyone that I was just as good as they were by doing better than they did in school. As my academic awards and accomplishments continued to pile up, I had to combat feelings of superiority, which proved to be just as difficult as the task of fighting off an inferiority complex. Nevertheless, by the time I was in high school I had come to understand that people are people, and that their external appearance was not a good predictor of what kind of people they were.
In April of 1968, on the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a major riot broke out at my high school in inner-city Detroit. Most of the black students were so outraged that they were trying to physically harm anyone who was white. Some very serious beatings took place, and I saw many of my white friends being harassed. The student population of the school was about 70 percent black, so the white students did not have much of a chance. At the time, I held a job as the biology laboratory assistant setting up experiments for the other students. The department even trusted me with a key to the science classrooms and the greenhouse. So during the riot, I used that key to open the greenhouse and hide several white students during the melee.
By that time in my life, I understood the extent of racism in America, but I also was beginning to have hope for the future. Having lived and studied among both black and white cultures, I knew that there are good white and black people and there are bad white and black people. It mattered not what color your skin was on the outside, but rather what the condition was of your heart and mind inside. And as I better understood human nature, I felt more emboldened to do things differently than everybody else and to chart my own course for a successful life.
I think that many of the people involved in the founding of our nation also felt they were victims of injustice, but they too had a profound understanding of human nature and set out to design a system different from previous governments that would level the playing field.
Today our nation faces a challenge of a different kind — one that nevertheless requires of us all a movement to stand up for our civil rights. One that asks us to educate ourselves as to the founders' original vision for our nation and to take action to assure we protect and pursue that vision. While many nations lean on their past to give them a sense of accomplishment, the United States has a history of redefining itself and moving forward to ensure that there is indeed liberty and justice for all.
A New World Springs Forth
The dangers that face our nation today are every bit as great as those we have faced in the past. The question is whether we have lost our capacity to endure hardship and sacrifice for future generations. We face a national budgetary crisis that threatens to rip our country apart and destroy our way of life, yet many concern themselves only with the governmental benefits they might lose. I write with the hope that we can reawaken the spirit of greatness that created the wealthiest, most compassionate, freest nation the world has ever seen. In this book we will embark upon a brief review of pertinent parts of our history that have everything to do with finding our way forward to a prosperous future.
Whether the first people to arrive on the North American continent were migratory tribes that traveled across a land bridge between what is currently Russia and Alaska, or whether they were ancient sailors who navigated the ocean — America has always had a rich and diverse ethnic background. Our nation began that way and we continue to expand that way. All kinds of people are responsible for our nation's rapid development and great accomplishments, and by the same token, we share blame for many of the atrocities that have occurred on American soil.
The impetus for Europeans to quickly settle the Americas came from the discovery of vast mineral deposits and other natural resources that could create enormous wealth. It was Amerigo Vespucci, an acquaintance of Columbus, who is credited with America's discovery in 1497, five years after Columbus landed in the Caribbean Islands while searching for a new route to the spice-rich Far East. Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho, who visited the Americas in 1421, could lay claim as well — and there is also evidence that Scandinavian explorer Leif Erikson reached the Americas hundreds of years before any of these other explorers. Regardless of who "discovered" America, Columbus's expeditions certainly raised awareness back in the Old World as to the New World's vast potential for increasing the wealth of those nations that were able to exploit it. And once this became known in the Old World countries, explorers began to arrive.
The Spaniards had significant colonies and exploited the mineral wealth here, and America could easily have been a Spanish-speaking nation, but an intense rivalry between Spain and England, particularly during the latter part of the sixteenth century, put America up for grabs. Spain's domination of the oceans was challenged by England and the Dutch, who were building an extremely large merchant marine fleet in Europe. The final nail in the coffin of Spanish domination of the oceans took place in 1588, when the Spanish Armada was sunk in a battle with the English and, more importantly, by a ferocious storm, which decimated their mighty fleet. Because the English dominated the seas in the early 1600s, they decided it was their right to begin colonizing America, and the first of the permanent English colonies, Jamestown, was established in 1607.
I still remember the idyllic pictures of the Jamestown settlement in my school books as a child, but in reality the settlement was anything but ideal. Many of the settlers were English gentlemen who had no idea how to work in a wild environment. They quickly ran out of food while battling the Algonquin and enduring very harsh winter conditions. You don't have to have much of an imagination to visualize how desperate those early settlers must have been. The vast majority of the early settlers succumbed to starvation and violence, and there are even credible reports of cannibalism. They suffered extreme hardship and personal sacrifice, all to create a more stable and prosperous future for subsequent generations.
The Europeans had also not anticipated the fierce resistance shown by the Native Americans, who had no intention of simply handing over their land. Although many movies portray the Europeans as vastly superior to the Native Americans in warfare, their most effective weapons were the diseases they brought, against which the Native Americans had no immunological resistance. These diseases wiped out whole villages and tribes through massive epidemics that were far more effective than any fighting force. While the Native Americans were being vanquished, the English, French, and Spaniards, among others, fought for the dominant position in the New World. The Jamestown colony would never have survived if it had not been for the friendship developed with the tribe of Powhatan, who taught them some basic fundamentals of farming and traded food for beads — a gracious, saving exception to the conflict and warfare that characterized our nation's early history.
In time, the English Jamestown settlement grew and thrived, especially after the introduction of indentured servants and slaves in 1619 and the development of American tobacco, which quickly became all the rage in England and other parts of Europe. The rapid growth of the tobacco industry turned out to be a financial bonanza for the fledgling colony, enabling it to survive. There were early attempts at remote self-rule, the most permanent of which was the establishment of the House of Burgesses, which consisted of a governor, councilors he appointed, and some elected estate representatives.
Around the time of the establishment of the House of Burgesses, a second permanent colony was being established by the pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the harbor of Cape Cod Bay. These religious separatists were interested in the New World primarily because they felt that their freedoms were compromised both in terms of religion and life in general. In an attempt at self-rule, they constructed an agreement of behavior known as the Mayflower Compact, the first documentation of self-government in North America. In this contract, they agreed to the fair and equal treatment of everyone for the good of the colony. Unfortunately, "everyone" did not include women, those who were not land owners, slaves and indentured servants, or the region's natives. To their credit, they were trying to build a type of society that was foreign to most of the world, since most colonies were governed according to the wishes of the ruler of their mother country. These were immature attempts toward a more noble goal, but at least they were steps in the right direction.
Over the next few decades, an explosion of colonization occurred, largely from people seeking religious freedom and/or financial opportunities. Many in Europe saw an opportunity to escape the oppressive and overbearing governmental systems under which they languished, and these people emigrated in droves, bringing with them a strong determination to make a better life for themselves and their offspring, unfettered by oppressive overseers disguised as government. The opportunities to enrich themselves through their own efforts brought out the best in many people, but it also brought out avarice, greed, and a host of unethical behaviors that invariably accompany freedom. Fortunately, those whose characters were constrained by religious principles far outnumbered those lacking moral rectitude. The British remained technically in charge of all these colonies, but due to the independent-minded nature of many of the colonists and the distance involved, British control was somewhat tenuous. The other powerful nation of Europe, France, was also vying for control and power in the Americas, but they were largely distracted by their ongoing wars with the Iroquois, and seemed to focus more on trading and exploration than on establishing settlements.
Excerpted from America the Beautiful by Ben Carson. Copyright © 2012 Benjamin Carson and Candy Carson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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