Before sticking to English Literature, I wanted to pursue neurology. I figured I was stuck in my own head so much I was probably good at getting into other people’s heads as well. Intro to psychology could barely whet my appetite in college, and neurobiology just ignited an even greater desire to understand the brain and the mind and its place as a driving force in our everyday lives. After securing a research position at my university’s college of medicine, one of the students in the cohort turned me on to Ben Carson.
“He’s got neurology in his veins. The guy’s done bleeding edge stuff,” the student bragged, handing me a worn copy of "Gifted Hands." I thought at that moment I wanted to be something like Carson, maybe lead the way in a new strand of neurology, something incorporating the humanities perhaps. I once thought that I could represent people of color like Carson did as a neurosurgeon and be able to impact lives in and out of the operating room. Amidst growing controversy, however, my admiration slowly faded into a heavy exhale and head shake with each news story that broke about geographical, historical and political misconceptions stated by Carson.
Only the fifth person of color confirmed to the positon of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development since its inception by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Ben Carson’s recent controversial comments on slavery cut deeper than most things he’s said before.
Listen, Dr. Carson, we want to believe in you. Young women and men of color across the country, both in the field of medicine and in politics, want to be moved to action with someone they can identify with in office, as diversity is already sparse.
In doing my own research, I found out that the first African-American to ever hold a presidential cabinet positon as HUD was Robert C. Weaver—the great-grandson of a slave. Little is known about Weaver’s stake as an indelible figure in the civil rights movement, or that he started picketing Washington, DC as early as the 1930s and 40s for African-American rights. An esteemed economist, Weaver studied at Harvard University and afterward became Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency before being appointed HUD secretary. Even as the administrator, Weaver and his wife faced difficulty with their own housing in Washington, as they revealed to Ebony magazine how standoffish tenants opposed the idea of integration at the time. Nonetheless Weaver remained steadfast in pushing for equity for people of color in America.
Despite the small “Black Cabinet” who operated in the White House during this period, Weaver and his associates pressured Washington to provide greater employment opportunities for Black Americans. His earlier time as administrator and secretary was rife with opposition, as he began seeing plans for economic equality stagnate in the 1940s, causing him to the leave the Housing and Home Finance Agency after four years. Weaver laid the groundwork for the HUD secretaries that followed, and it behooves those who find themselves staring down the same halls he stood, to fight for the disparaged and overlooked, just as he did.
Ben Carson, we want to identify ourselves in you, not simply because you too are African-American, but because you recognize us, that we too are here. We want to know that you find deep-seeded economic disparity stemming from slavery’s appalling history, and that you too want to address it head on as HUD secretary. We want to look, not at outlandish claims and misconceptions, but at efforts in line with the department’s mission to increase access to affordable housing and homeownership. Ben Carson, we want to believe in you.
Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School in Durham. He is a featured guest columnist.