While I always felt somewhat conflicted about the need for a special month to celebrate the history of African Americans in this country, I always took full advantage of it. My youngest daughter, grown now, can attest to that with many years of mandatory viewing: "Eyes on the Prize" (which for some reason she positively hated and still does), other shows and specials and, of course, "Roots".
Roots - that marvelous and only serious treatment ever produced of the chattel slavery system as it existed in 18th and 19th century America. I was a young man when I saw it for the first time, and to say that it moved me greatly is an understatement, a huge understatement. The image of Levar Burton's Kunta being whipped out of his native tongue will be with me always. I'm not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two.
When later critics challenged both its authenticity and authorship I cursed them. Alex Haley had become a hero of mine. Still is, whatever the facts. Sometimes emotion runs deeper than facts and/or logic.
There is one criticism of "Roots" which took hold however. Surprisingly, prior to seeing it I had no idea of how my West African ancestors came to be slaves, and "Roots" presented an all too believable picture of white marauders rampaging through the countryside snatching up people left and right with the help of their traitorous African allies. Problem is... it's not true. Not even a little.
White slave traders were sea captains and businessmen, not marauders. They stayed on the shore, far away from any jungle, without so much as ruffling their puffed sleeves. They did business with other Africans who had no problem acquiring their countrymen to sell to them. This is how the vast majority of West Africans who found themselves in the new world actually became slaves: at the hands of their brethren, and that's the true horror.
"Roots" missed a bet in ignoring this reality. To my mind, this horrific act of betrayal is as bad if not worse than anything white slave traders did. I'm reminded of a line from the movie "Aliens". Those of you familiar with the film will remember the moment when the beleaguered humans realize they've been betrayed. "I don't know who's worse," Ripley (the main character) says to the traitor about him and the monstrous creatures about to descend upon them. "You don't see them selling each other out for a percentage."... Exactly.
While it might have been comforting to point the finger at others, the story would have been better served by the awful truth. It also would have been a wonderful opportunity to enlighten young African Americans about their true African heritage. In the past (and perhaps even now) some activists claimed that the African slave traders didn't know what they were doing. While admitting that slavery has a long history in Africa, they contend the institution was far different, so different that had they only known... yada, yada, yada. Nonsense!
Before being sold the captives were held in nightmarish conditions in coastal fortresses such as the infamous Elmina Castle in what is now Ghana. After they were sold they were placed in the holds of strange ships and whisked away to distant destinations unknown to the traitors. One thing they did know however: the poor wretches aboard those ships were gone forever, never to see their kin or homeland again. Ignorant? Nah. They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew.
My ancestors may have come from that sad place, but my homeland?... I think not.