Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is Roots Wrong?

In his 1976 book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, author Alex Haley created one of the classic stories of slavery. The TV mini-series which was based on the book affected the way a generation felt about slavery and the slave trade. It was published as non-fiction, and purported to be the result of Alex Haley's quest to discover his ancestry.

But how truthful is Roots?

Roots NEVER claimed to be 'the whole truth'. Haley called it 'faction' - fiction based upon fact. Haley explained that he had discovered his family's genealogy, but had 'woven' imaginary content - e.g. what the characters said - and other information from history around his family 'facts' to create a realistic narrative story.

However, it is now accepted that not only were the 'story' elements of the narrative 'fiction', but that the 'facts' on which Haley based is story were also not true - i.e. that the whole story was fiction from beginning to end.

Genealogical Errors
Haley's search started with a family tradition about a proud and rebellious slave ancestor who - although he had been given the slave-name of 'Toby' - was always proud of his African name 'Kintay' along with a few remembered African words supposedly passed on down through the family. Haley tracked 'Toby' to the slave plantation of John Waller (named, for some unknown reason, 'Reynolds' in the TV miniseries - see here for a long list of differences between the TV miniseries and the book), he used the few remembered African words to track down Toby's birthplace to The Gambia in Africa, and he even found the ship - called the Lord Ligonier - which he believed had brought Toby to America in 1767.

The book ends when Haley, having gone back the village of Juffure in The Gambia, visits a local oral historian - a 'Griot' - who tells him of one Kunta Kinte who was captured by white men in the woods and taken as a slave. It is a thrilling and moving moment. Through that moment, not only Alex Haley, but millions of other Black Americans learned to value their African lineage - at the time, it was a significant moment in the Civil Rights movement, and part of the raising of Black awareness.

But Haley was not a professional historian - he wrote for Playboy magazine - and when they began to check his genealogical research, family historians Gary Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills found LOTS of mistakes. One of the worst was that the 'Toby' on the Waller estate came to America, not in 1767, as Haley claimed, but in 1762 - so he could not have gone across on the Lord Ligonier.
Worse still, 'Toby' died eight years before Alex Haley's great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy (who Haley said was Toby's daughter) was born - so he CANNOT have been Haley's ancestor.
Other historians, including a BBC documentary, have shown that the 'griot' who Haley met in Juffure was not a griot at all, but a 'nice old man' who had been pressurised by the Gambian tourist board into saying what Haley wanted to hear - certainly Juffure has profited from the tourist trade generated by Haley's book.

Roots still has its supporters, but nobody nowadays tries to claim it is true - they argue instead that perhaps Haley's ancestors didn't come from Juffure and maybe weren't the people Haley thought - but they MUST HAVE come from Africa, and they WERE SURELY captured and brought as slaves on a slave ship - so the story is true in spirit, even if the names are wrong.

Setting Errors
But is it true in spirit? Even then, how fairly does Roots portray the slaves' experience of the slave trade?

In his book: The World and a Very Small Place in Africa, Donald R Wright (2004) points out that Juffure was far from the quiet idyllic backwater it appears as in Haley's book - it was a busy commercial centre, a few miles from the British slaving port. It was part of a western Africa regularly swept by famines, wars and slaving raids.And although in Roots, Kunta Kinte is captured by white 'toubobs'; in reality he would almost certainly have been sold by Black Africans as part of a commercial business deal.
And - most controversially of all - it has been suggested that even the depiction of the Middle Passage in Roots might be overdrawn. Although it is fairly certain that everything that happened to Kunta Kinte DID happen to some African slave at some time on some ship, it is arguable that slave ships as brutally cruel as Haley's Lord Ligonier were rare - it was in the interests of slave traders to keep their cargo strong and healthy, records show that a greater proportion of sailors than slaves died on the Middle Passage, and most of the classic horrors of Middle Passage turn out to be abolitionist propaganda.

The final nail in the coffin was when it came to light that Haley had accepted out-of-court that he had copied large chunks of Roots from The African by Harold Courlander (Haley paid Courlander $650,000), and that his editor at Playboy (Murray Fisher) had written large sections of the book - not even the fictional part of Roots was reliable!
In 1993, Philip Nobile went through Haley's notes for the book, and labeled Roots: 'a hoax, a literary painted bird, a Piltdown of genealogy, a pyramid of bogus research.'

Nobody denied it. Roots remains a wonderful and thrilling story, and debunking it does not justify the slave trade, or its lasting legacies of racism and economic and political damage to Africa. But the fact is that Roots is to the slaves' experience what Braveheart is to William Wallace and that it is - in the words Black writer and New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch - 'phoney baloney'.

When you have stripped away all the errors and from Haley's story, all that remains that you can say was undeniably true is the things that happened to EVERY slave:

An unknown ancestor of Alex Haley lived in
Africa. He was sold by slave traders, marched to the coast, put on a
slave ship and transported to America. When the ship docked in
America, he was prepared for sale, auctioned and given a new

The key question is whether the ‘bits that remain’ (‘the pink bits’) are enough to argue that Britain should apologise and pay reparations – given that this was the shared experience of 3 million African people?