Did Alex Haley Lie To Us?

When I think of slavery, the first thing that comes to mind is the TV Series – Roots. Roots followed the author’s family tree from arriving in America as a slave up to modern times (Roots: The Next Generation). I’ve only seen it once but the impact lasted a lifetime and affected how I saw the world in many ways. That being said, imagine my surprise to read this quote about Alex Haley concerning his work.

There are some very big jobs at hand for black America — and looking back at centuries past is a costly distraction from the work that needs to be done here and now. Moreover, the past that people are looking back at in “Roots” is not a wholly real past. When challenged by professional historians, Alex Haley called his work “faction” — part fact and part fiction. He said that he had tried to give his people some myths to live by.

It was not that “Roots” merely got some details wrong. It presented some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened — false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.

Q: What was false about Roots?

An Alternative Viewpoint

 

A: Whites Did Not Hunt and Capture Blacks

Let me begin by continuing the quote I cited above.

There are some very big jobs at hand for black America — and looking back at centuries past is a costly distraction from the work that needs to be done here and now. Moreover, the past that people are looking back at in “Roots” is not a wholly real past. When challenged by professional historians, Alex Haley called his work “faction” — part fact and part fiction. He said that he had tried to give his people some myths to live by.

It was not that “Roots” merely got some details wrong. It presented some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened — false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.

“Roots” has a white man leading a slave raid in West Africa, where the hero Kunta Kinte was captured, looking bewildered at the chains put on him as he was led away in bondage. The village elders were likewise bewildered as to what these white men were doing, carrying their people away. In reality, West Africa was a center of slave trading before the first white man arrived there — and slavery continues in parts of it to this very moment.

A minimal amount of research bares this out! Africans were not captured by whites and turned into slaves, they were already enslaved by other Africans and sold for profit, to white people. To be fair, there is more to this story and I will unpack more of it over several newsletters. For now, know that slavery was practiced in Africa long before it came to America and in several forms. Debt Slavery for example, still exists today in Africa. You also had military slavery and domestic slavery and several other forms, many which still exist today.

But, I digress. Many societies in Africa kept slaves, typically for domestic purposes and as a way of showing off their power and wealth. That being said, things went from bad to worse when Europeans became desperate to BUY SLAVES (again, not hunt and capture slaves) for use in the Americas.

To understand why the selling of African people to Europeans boomed at that time is to understand the basic human nature – greed. Check out this quote from the BBC.

In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:

“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”