How truthful is Roots?

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How truthful is Roots?

John D Clare, Greenfield School

Many teachers still use clips from Roots as an important part in their portrayal of the slave trade, but is it perhaps time to consider moving it from its current classroom role of 'visual vehicle of the facts' to 'challengeable fictional interpretation' of the slave trade?
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 - is 'phoney baloney'.
Interpretation not Fact

Roots was a phenomenon in itself; hugely successful, and accepted by both black and white communities, it set the standard interpretation of slavery and the slave trade for a generation, and played a powerful role in the resurgence of Black awareness and the civil rights movement .

It seems to me that, although the visual power of the video must surely ensure its continued use in the classroom, teachers need to use it - not as a source of or illustration of factual information about the slave trade, but as an exercise in the validity of an interpretation.
As for CONTENT, the information above about Haley's errors of fact, and possible exaggeration of setting could be set against what the pupils are learning in the classroom about the general facts of the slave trade to come to a conclusion about the video's factual accuracy.

And as for PROVENANCE, Haley's prior work as a Playboy writer, and the successful plagiarism claim, set against his 12-year research of his family's history (aided, his book says, by many experts) should allow the pupils to assess his authority as an historian. In this respect, the book's DATE will be important for the more able pupils, as they see the book as part of the 1970s 'Black is Beautful' movement; whether conscious or unconscious, Haley had a motive to lie - he wanted to present himself as 'an African', he had already tapped into the civil rights issues when he wrote a book about Malcolm X (1965), and there are even claims that he openly asked the Gambian authorities to come up with a history which fitted his story.

Note: little of this is my original stuff - it's all from trawling round the internet - so apologies for any errors that have elbowed their way in. Nevetheless, I found it interesting, and it is certainly relevant as the new National Curriculum seeks to raise the profile of the Slave Trade as a classroom topic. Any reactions - constructive or hostile - are welcome - I'd like to 'hit the spot' with this one.

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