It’s not like Alex Haley pictured it. At best the "Roots" portrait is incomplete. At worst the book and TV mini-series is mendacious.
I’m talking about the not-so-peculiar institution of slavery. The rest of the story (and the more accurate story) can be found in the extended essay, "The Real History of Slavery," in Thomas Sowell’s provocatively-titled book, BLACK REDNECKS
AND WHITE LIBERALS.
That fuller perspective may not come as a total surprise. Most of us have memories of ancient Greek and Roman society in the recesses of our minds--civilizations suffused with human bondage. Others may recall the Barbary pirates. What is surprising, however, is how most of our front-burner thoughts on the topic are at odds with this larger perspective.
Ideas that seldom inform top-of-the-head ruminations include the following: Slavery existed worldwide and throughout the history of civilization. Slavery wasn’t founded on racial differences but on disparities of power. Throughout most of history whites enslaved whites, blacks enslaved blacks, and other groups enslaved vulnerable neighbors. (The very word "slave" derives from "Slav"--an ethnic group subject to raids from various directions.) The British, more than any other national group, were responsible for outlawing slavery around the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, those English imperial efforts were met with great resistance in the Ottoman Empire and in parts of Africa.
These ideas are not the ones that typically spring to mind when the word "slavery" is mentioned. Instead, the Roots picture of white slavers going ashore in Africa and rounding up vulnerable natives is typical. This image is itself implausible. In
most cases slavers acquired their cargo from African tribes that, like peoples around the world, captured and sold neighbors who were not powerful enough to fend off adversaries. Indeed, Sowell notes that slavery flourished in the West African area from which Kunta Kinte was presumably abducted.
The "problem" with such facts is that they don’t conform to the "black and white" Hollywood paradigm that is required if one wants to use history as a political weapon. Having Africans enslave other Africans--only some of whom were sold to merchants docked at the shore--isn’t a stirring myth. Race-based indignation is further undermined by accounts that depict black slaveowners who supported the Confederacy or managed plantations in the Caribbean.
Also unhelpful for contemporary purposes is the fact that the British expended decades of effort and approximately 5% of their GNP in an effort to eradicate a practice that most nations accepted without question. (Even Thomas More’s Utopia included slavery in its vision of perfection.) Most disconcerting of all, at least for some contemporary groups, is the fact that Quakers and evangelical Anglicans like William Wilberforce provided the spiritual impetus that made his island nation willing to pay a steep price in lives and treasure for a cause whose reward was largely intangible.
Sowell’s discussion of the black family delivers another blow to conventional wisdom. The author points out that between 1890 and 1940 African-Americans actually had slightly higher marriage rates than whites--a distinction that, since 1960, has more than disappeared. These facts suggest the implausibility of using the "legacy of slavery" to explain social pathologies that only emerged a century after the fact.
History is what it is--warts and all. If major kudos go to the British for eliminating slavery, so be it--no matter how grating that fact might be for those who equate Western civilization with racism. More importantly, as Sowell notes, the shame and guilt that often poison race relations are actually mitigated by looking the facts about slavery square in the face. The truth, he believes, will set us free.