In reading James Baldwin’s review “How One Black Man Came To Be an American: A Review of ‘Roots”’ in the New York Times, I got to thinking that because of Roots’ success Hollywood and TV began a forty-year love affair with the slave narrative. It was an easy thing for Hollywood to do. Slavery is in America’s DNA and Hollywood and TV readily tap into that vein. It is the perfect formulaic narrative of the status quo: defeat for the people of color, empathy from a “good white master,” and a white savior.
I was angry after I read the review, not at Baldwin, who is one of the greatest most eloquent writers ever, but I was mad at Alex Haley. Baldwin in the way that only Baldwin could, talked about the courage and imagination Haley used to craft the story about the African village. I was mad because two years after Roots, Haley was sued and lost a plagiarism lawsuit in federal court to the author Harold Courlander who nine years earlier wrote The African. Baldwin’s assessment was spot on, but Haley, by stealing this narrative, misled one of the most thoughtful and honest writers in history.
The disappointment I felt was deep. In 1976, I was a teenager and like the rest of America I was held spellbound by Roots on TV, a history that was familiar to me, but I had never seen it portrayed in such a riveting way.
If Roots as Baldwin says is “a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one–the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time” then the new narrative must be something more than this: it must end the constant retelling of the slave narrative. And it must include historic black initiatives and accomplishments.
In the slave narrative, whites need blacks to love and care about them. Think how true this is today. Today we call it cultural appropriation. Many white people (and especially in the entertainment industry) imitate black people and culture. If they didn’t copy our music, hairstyles, dress, speech, athletic ability, food, etc., would we pay much attention to them? The slave narrative is a way for Hollywood to take us back to a time when white people (really, white men) were more important to us than today.
We need to inject the “study of continuities, of consequences” of the new narrative into the veins of American history just like Roots did in 1976. It will serve as an antidote to the slave narrative. The new narrative of the one in nine: free people of color.
Before the Civil War, one in nine people of color were free. Hollywood and TV will need to find the courage and imagination to share their narrative with an American public that wants to move the conversation on race relations forward but also yearns for new information about our complicated history of race.
When Baldwin wrote about Roots, he described the moments that moved him so deeply. The fiddler saves his money for 30 years so he can buy his freedom and when he has the money and approaches his “good master” his master tells him that the price of slaves has risen so much that “he would be cheating himself” by selling him his freedom at that price. Bitter salt is added to the wound when this “good master” sells the fiddler’s daughter as punishment for helping a runaway slave.
A new narrative is a dangerous and scary proposition for white America. They have to let go of the fantasy that people of color love and care about them, the arrogant fantasy that they are the center of the universe. They will have to acknowledge that they were responsible for and continue to be responsible for the disaster of slavery and Jim Crow. They will have to let go of the fantasy that their sacrifices during slavery and the Civil War were proportional to the sacrifices made by people of color. This is the only way we can leave the slave narrative behind and move to a new narrative. Hollywood and TV will have to help them.
They will need to acknowledge new facts. For example, a group of 1,000 free men from New Orleans was pushing for full voting rights for the soon-to-be-free slaves before the end of the Civil War. And it was a committee of their descendants who challenged segregation in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case 30 years later. Many of the one in nine free people of color were activists at the forefront of the creation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
In the new narrative of free people of color, especially in Louisiana, whites struggled to take what people of color owned and created, not the other way around. Eighty percent of the black people lynched after the Civil War were activists, and land and business owners. The slew of white-initiated riots that destroyed prosperous black neighborhoods enabled white people to move in, seize land or buy it for pennies on the dollar. These facts need to come out. The retelling of the slave narrative and black exceptionalism will not suffice.
Only by confronting the facts of the complicated history of the new narrative can we move America forward like Roots did so many years ago. Americans yearn for the facts of the new narrative and today Hollywood and TV are perfectly placed to deliver it. Let’s encourage them to do so.