Alex Haley’s “Roots”: Fact or Fiction?

by | Jan 30, 2002 | POLITICS

“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 […]

“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.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.


  1. If White man had nothing to do with slavery, then what was the Civil War all about?

  2. Confederated vs. federated govt. Slavery brought this issue to the front, with the federal government wishing to ban it and the southern states insisting slavery wasn’t addressed by the Constitution because of “states rights.”

    In essence, if the states wanted to practice slavery, the feds had no say in the matter.

  3. PS. Slavery was/is all about racism. Racism is all about collectivism–and has no color–practiced in history by black, brown, yellow, red and white–save that of death.

    ” Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

    “Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.

    “Like every form of determinism, racism invalidates the specific attribute which distinguishes man from all other living species: his rational faculty. Racism negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination.”

    Ayn Rand, “Racism,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 126


  5. “People of every race and color were both slaves and enslavers, for thousands of years, all around the world.”

    Looks like you’re not too good at reading. The point Sowell makes is that slavery existed everywhere all over the world perpetrated by ALL races. At no time does Sowell make the absurd claim you are claiming he made.

  6. Slavery has been non-existent in the East. It is a racket purely run by Muslim and Christian invaders and ancient Romans.

  7. Slavery has been non-existent in the East

    This can only be said by someone who is completely ignorant of the history of Asia, as slavery was prolific in the Middle East and India for thousands of years, as well as existing all over China to a lesser extent.

    It is a racket purely run by Muslim and Christian invaders and ancient Romans.

    This too is false. It’s also weird that you think that no Muslims or Christians exist or existed in the east, but were exclusively invaders. This too is incredbly false.

  8. How convenient to club Middle East with Asia just because both lie to the East of your country. By that logic, for Indians, Middle East is Middle West because it lies to their West, and that therefore proves that slavery is a Western racket. Can’t you use some brains?

  9. So, your claim is that China and India, two countries I mentioned did indeed have slavery, are not in the east? Or did you only see that I mentioned the Middle East (which is in fact part of the East, the middle part of the East), then stop reading? Also, in addition to China and India using slaves (which you somehow ignored in my comment), Japan and Russia both used slavery in their (ancient) past. Thus, again proving your assertion that “[s]lavery has been non-existent in the East.”

    Are you really so bad at reading? I all ready know you are bad at knowing history and using logic, but I assumed you could read half a dozen clearly written sentences. Live and learn, right?

  10. India and China had slavery? Are you smoking something? Do you have anything to prove this (and I mean not crap generated by your fantastic missionaries). Second, as I said, get out of this East-West hocus pocus. Middle East may be east for you, it is west for us. Is it hard to understand? Why should whole geography be dictated by keeping your crappy countries in the center?

  11. A simple google search can show you that those countries did in fact have slavery. Archeologic, as well as simple ancient scholarship shows, those countries did have slavery. For example, in China, under the Shang dynasty, about 5% of the population was enslaved. As for India, people like you hide behind the ambiguities in language translation, particularly the pretty passages of religious texts. However, when actually studying the physical lives, rather than reading ambiguously translated texts (that is due to the ambiguity of many ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, as well as the hifiluten language that fills many of those texts that bear little to no resemblence to actual reality), it is clear that some groups, such as the dasas were in fact slaves.

  12. So you cant refute the truth that slavery did exist in the east. Your only retort is condescending derogatory comments.

  13. Abraham Lincoln called for passage of the Corwin Amendment, in his inaugural address, as a ploy to keep the South from seceding. It would have made slavery forever legal in the South. But it failed to stop the South from seceding, for slavery was far from the only reason to secede. The South was paying the great majority of federal revenue via the tariff. Yet it had a much smaller population.

  14. you left out the Jews, who were heavily involved in the trade

  15. Yes … mostly as enslaved people. There were too many expensive legalities to observe for most Jews to be able to afford to own slaves outside the very richest of the rich.

  16. So false. A much higher proportion of American Jews owned slaves than Christian Americans.

  17. Civil war was about Washington invading the south. Burning the farms, raping the women, stealing livestock and anything of value.. It was a way for once and for all to take away States Rights and have Washington the sole Authority over the States…slavery was the excuse…..

  18. Hog wash….

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