The September that Abraham Lincoln set foot on the battlefield of Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation he met in the White House with Bernard Kock to discuss colonizing a small island off the coast of Haiti with free blacks. The day before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed a contract with Kock to send nearly 500 black Americans from Washington, D.C. to that island as part of his continued efforts to colonize parts of Latin America and Africa with black Americans. Had the colonization scheme worked, history would have dubbed our sixteenth president as “The Great Colonizer.” Lincoln’s solution for black America, then referred to as the “Negro Question,” was based on the premise that blacks were a troublesome people. Today, CNN has reframed that question for its “Black in America 2” special; visitors to the program’s website can now click on the “Your solutions for black America” tab and upload their answers to a question premised on the idea that African Americans are a problem people.
CNN’s “Black in America” series seeks to educate viewers on issues facing blacks, breakdown stereotypes, and expose truths; while the program’s effectiveness at accomplishing these goals is for debate, the fact that it is perpetuating the stigma that black Americans are troublesome is not. Cornel West describes this common phenomenon that occurs when individuals talk about race in his Race Matters. He advances previous observations that arguments made by conservatives who call for black responsibility and liberals who solely blame systemic discrimination for the problems of black people are both based on the assumption that blacks are a problem people. Instead of Americans with problems, these views see two Americas—one black and one white. West profoundly concludes, “…we confine discussions about race in America to the ‘problems’ black people pose for whites rather than consider what this way of viewing black people reveals about us as a nation.”
So, what does CNN inviting people to give their “solutions for black America” reveal about us collectively? First, it reveals that white Americans are largely exempt from being held accountable for the role they play and/or have played in creating a system of racial subordination. Second, it demonstrates the current inability of Americans (mostly white) to have an open, honest dialogue on racism, which begins by addressing the past and making amends. Third, it reveals an instinct to skip problems and move directly to solutions; this mistake will be fatal to the movement for racial justice. Fourth, the burden of problems that black Americans are dealing with is unfairly put on their shoulders for the entire nation to watch. Fifth, it reveals that we are still unable to transcend race on certain issues (classism, sexism, etc.) and work in common cause to address mounting challenges. Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, it reveals how our nation continues to isolate black Americans, perpetuates an “us” versus “them” mentality, and ignores a history of systemic racial inequality.
Upon investigation into Kock’s background, the contract Lincoln signed was voided, but not too long after the president signed a similar contract with two New York businessmen to colonize the same land. They hired Bernard Kock to organize and lead the project and during May 1863 he and 453 blacks landed at the Ile à Vache. It was discovered shortly thereafter that Kock had ran off with the colonizers’ money and provided them with little to survive; as a result, 100 black Americans died. During spring 1864, Lincoln’s administration sent a vessel to pick up the survivors. Despite courageous voices, the Great Emancipator chose to view blacks as a problem people and at the time slaves were liberating themselves because a proclamation he signed, he spent time pursuing colonization projects to move them out of the country. That was one of Lincoln’s solutions for black America and now CNN wants “your solutions for black America.” The time to discuss what this reveals about us as a nation is now.