Dear Ben Carson,
Yesterday, you said that enslaved people were immigrants, and whether you believe that deep down in the soul you used to possess, one can never know. Nevertheless, I am going to talk to you even though I fear you vacated your body a long time ago. I believe you sent yourself away where no one could touch you. You went crazy first and now you exist in parts. You, dear Ben, are a man who once was. But being a woman of hope, I ask: can you walk a ways and see where your heart is? I imagine it used to beat with such vigor and passion, a magic heart.
I believe you are dying a slow death in the shell of your skin, because what else could bring you to say enslaved human beings who were stacked atop each other with no room to move or breathe or relieve themselves, who were starved and whipped and raped, who were ripped from their husbands and wives and from their children—many of whom died during the treacherous journey, their bones their only song now at the bottom of dead seas made holy now by their gleam—were immigrants? They were enslaved, Ben. They were worked, often, to death, for nothing. That’s call slavery, Ben. It went on for four centuries. Ben, did you know they were in chains? Ben, what immigrants be in chains? Ben, you sound so stupid, but unfortunately, you are not merely stupid. If you were merely stupid, this would not cause us such outrage. Ben, we knew a while ago that you had become…different. Conservative. Ignorant. Bigoted. You didn’t look or talk like the Ben who was once ours—the way the Temptations are ours, the way Barack and Michelle are ours, the way Anita Baker is ours, the way Maxine Waters is ours, the way gospel and the blues are ours. But we weren’t enough for you. Our love wasn’t good enough for you, and neither was self-love. Even the best Uncle Toms can be said to have been bought. Oh, Ben. I do not believe anyone bought your soul; I believe you just gave it away. And you can’t stand yourself no more. I might’ve felt bad enough to weep for you, except you chose this.
I don’t know where your hands have been, even though I know what they used to be: beautiful, brilliant hands, soft as an angel’s wing, doing God’s mighty work. Ben, you think you doing God’s work now? You ain’t. No one loves you enough to tell you because everyone in your circle is still clinging to the Ben Carson you used to be in hopes that, maybe, you could return. But I sense no one is holding their breath on that. Your new, white friends must love all that you have become: a lonesome shell that is either silent or, when he speaks, deadly.
Though I believe you are gone, gone, gone, I got to at least tell you about yourself. Ben, how many Black boys and girls wanted to be doctors and surgeons because of you? But look what you did yesterday: you made racist white people—and even non-racist white people—get off for slavery. Yeah, you did that. I know it can’t sting you just right because you deadened yourself a while back. Nevertheless. You made them believe we wanted that torture and terror. Ben, do you realize you made them believe it was okay to steal us from our first homes? That somehow, slavery was part of our striving? Ben, do you know you told them we wanted that? That we believe it was all worth it for the American Dream, which for many of us, remains a trick? Ben, your hands dirty. They ain’t just dirty, though, Ben. Your hands bloody. Your hands bloody with Black blood. You put bodies on those ships yesterday. You put chains on little children. You said “immigrants” as if we chose. As if that could even be possible. If you were only stupid, Ben. But no.
It’s sad that you have chosen to be comatose because they were jealous and couldn’t take your Black genius, how you understood the brain—back then— the way Morrison understands language or the way Miles knew his horn. Ben, you are probably struggling with whom I mean when I say they. I mean white people. I see you shaking your head at that Ben, but they were lesser than you because they couldn’t stand all the genius you were. They hated the way your mind outmaneuvered theirs. Oh, Ben. I can only imagine the landmines of micro and macro aggressions you withstood, on the regular. You were a beautiful brown tree, and they were a hurricane. A fist formed to pound you. I can only imagine the word “nigger” on repeat and all the countless, creative ways they called you that, day in and day out. After all, their greatest creativity is their brutality. The more creative your genius became, the more they reviled you. The more rootless you felt. You let it sink into the bone, how much they hated you. You let them wear you out. Their whiteness haunted you. Their whiteness said you ain’t shit, and you believed them because you wanted their love.
Why was our love not enough? Did we not hold you up? Did we not whisper your name at Sunday dinners? Did we not pray for God to keep working through your hands? Did we not know your name like we know Dr. King’s? Oh, Ben. Our love is the best love, baby. It’s a shame you couldn’t know that when it mattered, back when your soul was in its place, back when your heart beat on time. Your hands used to do magic work. Oh, Lord, your beautiful hands! Now they don’t have no witness to speak of. They just fold in your lap. I can almost hear them: Well, Lord. We tried.
Ben…what happened to Ben Carson?
I know he gone. But do you know where you put him? Did you drown him where they drowned Emmett? Was he shot in his driveway like Medgar? Was he bombed on Christmas Eve? Did you lock him in a cell and throw away the key? Did you cut out his tongue when you took away his heart and his soul? Can you count the lives you touched? Then broke? Does Ben know that number?
No, you don’t even dream anymore.
Ben, I have always believed Baby Suggs, holy, of Morrison’s Beloved when she said, “There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks. They don’t know when to stop.” Then she died. I thought that was the end-all. But you have bested even her. There ain’t no bad luck in the world, I offer as revision, but a Black man who hates himself. Because that man can do no good. All he can do is make the folks who once loved him wonder if it was a phantom all that time. You made the descendants of the so-called masters feel like they were doing us a favor. Four hundred years of “good looking out.” Oh, Ben. How you disappoint.
You need to know you should stop talking. I believe silence is golden right now while you go out there and find your real tongue—the tongue that used to raise people from what would have been a certain death without first your tongue declaring what you were about to do, then your hands doing that magic on operating tables. Lord, how you used to shine in that operating room. How you used to shine everywhere. Don’t you miss your shine? Do you remember how it felt to glow? Naw. I don’t imagine you do.
Ben, I can’t stand you no more or the sound of your voice. I remember who you were, though. Part of why we’re out here dragging you for life is not just because you deserve it, but because your mouth is an open wound, and you hurt us with your lies yesterday. We bear the memory of what you used to mean to us. Once, I would have loved to introduce my son to you. That time has passed. I’d believe you might have a chance to come back if it wasn’t for your eyes. They are such lifeless, dead things.
You still got breath, from what it looks like. You have to have breath to be talking, even though you should stop. Can you use your breath as a starting point? I’d hoped you might’ve left your soul someplace where you can go back for it. But yesterday, you snatched pretty much all hope of that. Still and all. I write to you. Maybe something inside of you is still alive. You owe us an apology, you sad, sad shell of what used to be a man worthy of our esteem, our respect, our devotion, and our love. Now, all we got for you is shade. And scorch. Even if you uttered sorry, all we would hear is lifeless noise. So. Keep it.
Ben, put your eyes back in. See what you did to yourself. Amidst a sea of brown love that washed over you, back then, as a prayer, you waded out into deep water and went under. Now you work for a spoiled, hateful, incompetent soul. You salute to him. Those splinters in your feet are from the pedestal we put you on, that you shattered. Oh. How you bleed.
I leave you, bewildered but not surprised.
Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She is published in a number of journals and literary magazines, including Callaloo, African American Review, Fledgling Rag, and Huizache, and is completing her first novel and poetry collection. She is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.