Detroit: Tear Down That Name!

Apr 4, 2019 by

Geniuses are extremely rare and people who are geniuses in several areas rarer still.

That was Paul Robeson. But he was a victim of blacklisting in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. His reputation was dragged through the mud and his career paralyzed for years because of his history of praising the Soviet Union during the communist period including the reign of Joseph Stalin.

“Whether I am or not a Communist is irrelevant. The question is whether American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or sympathies, may enjoy their constitutional rights”, he said.

Eventually he was, of course vindicated and a public high school named after him here in New York City.

Lessons are continuing to be learned, or should be, about his legacy.

The person who performed the only successful separation of twins joined at the back of the head, developed new treatments for brain-stem tumors, was the youngest chief of pediatric brain surgery in the nation, served as Director of that department at top-ranked John Hopkins University for almost 30 years and was awarded upwards of 5 dozen honorary doctorate degrees, had a school aptly named for him: the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

The circumstances of his childhood childhood were conducive to an outlook of doom. His parents split and his mother, working as a domestic worker, was suicidal. They lived for a time on food stamps, and Carson was a mediocre student with a dangerous temper.

Hardly a promising start for the brain surgeon who would author over 100 neuroscience publications and receive the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As an eminent physician and Detroit native whose soul runs through his veins ( even though he is a political conservative) it would seem natural for a high school of medicine to bear the name of this illustrious scientist. 

He is an African-American whose contributions to brain surgery are unsurpassed anywhere.

It did. But no longer.

Dr. Benjamin Carson’s name will likely be replaced when the school board votes on April 16th.  

Why? 

Because he is in President Trump’s cabinet .

According to former board member, LaMar Lemmons, Carson’s political views don’t comport with those of most residents of Detroit. According to the school district’s policy, a school can be renamed for several reasons, including negative information coming to light about the honoree.

Survey results confirmed sentiment for a change.

Indeed, his are not generally the views of the preponderant population. Some of them clash. But to repudiate him in this way amounts to an impugning of his legacy. He is a flawed man of stupendous intellect whose handiwork has brought tears of joy to many children and their parents.

He’s not a confederate general. Neither is he a promoter of cultural genocide.  African-Americans are not monolithic in their view, even if they are united through historical victimhood.  removing Dr. Carson’t name from an existing school is soft vilification. Great albeit controversial figures must not be venerated subject to a proviso that they share a particular manifesto.

Richard Wagner, one of the greatest opera composers of all time,was a virulent anti-semite who was revered and often quoted by Hitler. For many years, Israel, many of whose citizens were Holocaust survivors, banned Wagner’s music from public performance out of disgust for the composer’s vile opinions.

But after reflection, the prohibition was ended. It was a complex and agonized analysis.

Robert Moses, who conceived and brought to fruition many of New York City’s infrastructure masterpieces, has no bridge, tunnel, highway or school named after him, because of his egregious character. There are countless other great people whose contributions to humanity outweigh controversies about their lives.

There are far more extreme examples than these and Ben Carson is certainly not among them.

African-Americans have given the world monumental evidence of genius.  Examples are countless yet typically uncounted.  Sometimes there is an implicit condescension in the selection of those profiled, because they tend to be limited to entertainers, athletes, elected officials and social activists.  They deserve the fame, but so do renowned scientists, mathematicians, inventors and others.

There is a tinge of racism in their exclusion.

It’s essential to inclusively embrace legitimate greatness, and Carson is no imposter. He, like astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an African-American who has benefited humankind. It transcends political party platforms and quirks of ideology.

Carson and Tyson are among many other African-Americans who by their achievements, magnificently crush the ugly argument that African-Americans can reach the summit in only restricted areas of endeavor. If we delve into the lives of almost every distinguished person of any race, we will discover something to disqualify them from sainthood.

Honoring African-Americans for football and boxing prowess and rap music and letting their contributions to science, exploration and philosophy willfully slip from the grasp of our interest and credit, is analogous to providing them with separate facilities, like depicted in the movie Green Book.

Benjamin Carson is not a screaming, overbearing reactionary. He is not in sync with many of us and there’s plenty of room for him to grow. But to take his name off a building because of our differences is reminiscent of the removal of faces from photos of leaders in certain tyrant nations after they have fallen out of favor.

Perhaps a proposal made to resolve the controversy over statues, such as of Christopher Columbus, in New York could be considered in Detroit.  Retain Dr. Benjamin Carson’s name on the school building, but at the entrance to the school in the hallway, install a plaque or dedicate a longer explanation in some form, giving a balanced view of the strength and weakness.

Removing Carson’s name from the school is like burning books in a bonfire. His legacy, like many of the incinerated books, illuminates the world.

Ron Isaac

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