“Roots” was the only book I knew my teenage son to read, aside from assigned school books, computer manuals and chess books. He was thrilled to receive a copy autographed by Alex Haley, courtesy of George Haley, his brother, whom I had met.
Alex Haley himself I never really met, though I saw him in person once because we went to the same barber in Los Angeles. Both then and in his television appearances, Alex Haley seemed like a very decent man. That is why it is especially painful to have to recognize, now that the television series based on “Roots” is going to be re-run on its 25th anniversary, that its enormous success a quarter of a century ago was a tragedy for blacks and for American society in general.
Why a tragedy? The short answer is what Winston Churchill said during World War II: “If the past sits in judgment on the present, the future will be lost.” Some disastrous policies had been followed in the years leading up to World War II, and Churchill had sharply criticized those policies at the time but, now that the war was on, looking back could only interfere with the life-and-death job at hand.
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.
Africans sold vast numbers of other Africans to Europeans. But they hardly let Europeans go running around in their territory, catching people willy-nilly.
Because of the false picture of history presented by “Roots” and by other sources, last year we had the farce of the president of Nigeria making demands on the United States because of the enslavement of people whom his own countrymen had enslaved, and on behalf of a country where slavery still persists, more than a century after emancipation has occurred throughout the Western world.
“Roots” also feeds the gross misconception that slavery was about white people enslaving black people. The tragedy of slavery was of a far greater magnitude than that. People of every race and color were both slaves and enslavers, for thousands of years, all around the world. Europeans enslaved other Europeans for centuries before the first African was brought across the Atlantic. Asians enslaved other Asians, as well as whatever Europeans they could get hold of. Slavery existed in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus ever got here.
Slavery, like cancer, was not limited to any particular country or race. To talk about cancer as if it were an American disease, or a white or black disease, would be absurd. If reparations were to be paid for slavery, everybody on this planet would owe everybody else.
There is no danger of that actually happening. The danger is that too many blacks, especially among the young and the ill-educated, will be backing into the third millennium still looking back at centuries past — or at fictions about centuries past — when there are opportunities all around them that most people in the rest of the world today would die for.
The ancestors of black Americans were not taken from some Eden, and there is no Eden for black Americans to return to today. If compensation were to be paid for the difference between where they are and where their ancestors came from, they would owe money, not receive money. But it would be ridiculous to lose the future because of the past.