Tag Archives: African American history

Recovering Southern Women: A Report from the OAH

In recent weeks, activists have spotlighted the disappearance of numerous young women of color from the District of Columbia and its environs—a reality, they allege, that was long underreported by public functionaries and local media.[1] Intentionally or neglectfully, these women’s voices and those of their communities were long silenced. As a roundtable of leading scholars convened at the Organization of American Historians 2017 Annual Meeting noted, such silencing is not a recent phenomenon. The session, entitled “Pioneers and New Scholarship on Women in the Pre-Civil War South,” argued that until relatively recently, historical condescension, lack of interest, and unquestioned assumptions regarding archival limitations collectively suppressed the historical voices, stories, and lived experiences of African-American women. Only in the last few decades have scholars deployed new and rigorous research methodologies to find their voices amidst this silence and begun to recover them; in doing so, they have reiterated with every discovery that black women’s lives did and do matter, that their names must be said, and that their voices must be heard.

The starting point for this roundtable—comprised of Drs. Deborah Gray White, Catherine Clinton, Jennifer Morgan, Daina Ramey Berry, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, and chaired by Dr. Brenda Stevenson—was Deborah Gray White’s groundbreaking Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton, 1985). White (currently the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University) informed the audience that when she began the project, she was told it could not be done because the requisite sources for a history of enslaved women simply did not exist: a refrain that became all too familiar as the session proceeded. To the degree that black women appeared in prior histories of slavery, White argued, they were bit players in a historical drama that emphasized black masculinity amidst the historical, social, and political debates swirling during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they were often reduced to sexual points of contention between white and black men. Lacking language for what we would now term intersectionality, early scholars of enslaved women laid the groundwork for those who would come after by opening new archives and indicating voids yet to be filled. Catherine Clinton, Denman Endowed Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of (among many others) The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (Pantheon. 1982) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown & Co., 2004), largely affirmed White’s retrospective. Scholarship on black women produced during the late 1970s primarily emphasized their sexuality, whether as a factor in the construction of black masculinity or as a means of understanding the white plantation household—and further explorations were widely discouraged.

The roundtable’s other scholars reflected on the ways in which they had taken up White’s call for closer scrutiny of claims that the archive was truly devoid of black women. Jennifer Morgan, a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery (Pennsylvania, 2004), recalled also having been met with skepticism regarding the possibility that her dissertation could even be written; nevertheless, she found rich new sources that placed women—and particularly the reproductive labor of enslaved women—at the center of the colonial experience in the New World. Morgan affirmed that historical inquiries can and should be rooted in the archives, but called for historians to be critical of the power dynamics and historical oppressions on which archives are constructed (a call reminiscent of those by Kathryn Burns, Yael Sternhell, and Marisa Fuentes to look at the archive as well as in it, and to give particular emphasis to those places where there are pronounced silences).[2]

Daina Ramey Berry (Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin) reflected on how the need to read archival sources afresh (and skeptically) proved fruitful in her work. She emphasized that in Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Illinois, 2007), she chose to go where enslaved women were in the archives rather than where others expected her to go, and in doing so found women’s own assessments and valuations of their work as well as the values masters placed on their unique laboring capacities—particularly in reproduction. More recently, her The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), studiously juxtaposed enslaved voices and their self-determined soul values with the commodification forced on them by their masters.

Finally Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California-Berkeley, whose forthcoming book, Mistresses of the Market: White Women and the Economy of American Slavery (under contract with Yale) examines the role of women in the business of slavery, recounted her own experiences pursuing female voices overlooked and disregarded in the archive. Historians long assumed that while women participated in the slave system, their involvement was largely limited to household management and domestic economy. Jones-Rogers’s research recovered the myriad ways in which they engaged in all aspects of antebellum slave commerce, and in doing so she advanced the inclusion of women in the story of the slavery’s expansion during the antebellum period.

The assembled scholars celebrated strides made over the last thirty years in recovering voices long assumed to be lost, applauding the ways in which careful observation and reading sources against the grain have populated scholarship on the antebellum South with unprecedented numbers of women—and particularly black women. They also provided instructive cautionary tales. Popular depictions of the enslaved, Clinton and White argued, have not kept pace with scholarship; while White compared Lupita Nyong’o’s exemplary portrayal of Patsey in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave to 2016’s Birth of a Nation’s retrograde use of black women’s sexuality as a foil for black masculinity, Clinton cited a request that she consult on a reality show recalling the plantation South. Berry’s experience on the 2016 remake of Roots suggested that many shows wish to incorporate cutting-edge scholarship, a positive step that must be set alongside arguments Clinton recalled, witnessing against Harriet Tubman’s inclusion on the twenty dollar bill. Popular mythmaking, the panelists concurred, can inaccurately shape scholars’ expectations about what they might find in the archive (many cited the elusive “Mammy” figure—long assumed to be a prominent part of the enslaved experience, but absent from the sources). Rather, historians must enter the archive and write what they find there: acknowledging historically created silences and lacunae, recovering and deploying the voices of the enslaved, expanding access to the archives for all, and encouraging deeper exploration of them by the next generation of scholars—all of which will allow new voices to resound out of present silences.

[1] Laura Jarrett, Samantha Reyes, and David Shortell, “Missing Black Girls in DC Spark Outrage, Prompt Calls for Federal Help,” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/24/us/missing-black-girls-washington-dc/ (accessed April 14, 2017); Shaun King, “It’s No Accident That We Hear So Little About Missing Black Girls In This Country,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-no-accident-hear-missing-black-girls-article-1.3005609 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[2] Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Yael Sternhell, “The Afterlives of a Confederate Archive: Civil War Documents and the Making of Sectional Reconciliation” Journal of American History 102, no. 4 (March 2016): 1025-1050; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His dissertation, "The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South," examines the ways in which the domestic slave trade shaped the course of the Civil War and the experience of emancipation. You can follow him on Twitter, @rkdcolby86.

Violence After Victory: Reconstruction Scholarship at the OAH

The streets, sidewalks, and facades of New Orleans’ famous Canal Street repeatedly bore witness to terrible outbursts of violence throughout the Reconstruction Era, as ex-Confederates tried to overturn the egalitarian reforms of Reconstruction through bloodshed and intimidation. Several of the most important massacres and street battles in the history of Reconstruction happened within walking distance of the Marriott, this year’s venue for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre of 1866, which Philip Sheridan famously termed “an absolute massacre by the police” of supporters of black suffrage, took place just four blocks up Canal Street from the conference.[1] In this sense, the OAH was a fitting venue for Sunday’s panel, “Democratizing Violence in the Post-Civil War South.”

The panel explored the role of violence in shaping Reconstruction and the meaning of the Confederate defeat. Two of the speakers, David Williard and Carin Peller-Semmens, employed a bottom-up perspective to gauge the impact of vigilantism on the parameters of Reconstruction, while the third, Bradley Proctor, examined the ideology behind acts of white supremacist violence. Despite the different methodologies, the panelists made a single, collective assertion that the wave of postwar violence carries significant implications for our understandings of the arc of Reconstruction, its design, and its possibilities.

Peller-Semmens makes perhaps the most recognizable claim about postwar violence: that white vigilantism constituted an important political tool through which former Confederates regained local control after the war. Her essay, “‘The Creatures Do Not Respect Their Creator’: The Unifying Power of Violent White Supremacy in Northwest Louisiana,” argues persuasively that ex-Confederates in northwestern Louisiana used violence as a tool to overthrow the Republican Party in the Red River region of the state. Peller-Semmens examines the correspondence and political origins of three massacres in the region–at Shady Grove, Colfax, and Coushatta–finding that vigilantes tortured and killed local Republicans in grisly spectacles to permanently disable the party.

Where previous narratives of violence in northwest Louisiana tend to discuss postwar violence within its immediate context, Peller-Semmens provides a more detailed and sophisticated framework by alluding to antebellum systems of power.[2] She finds that “violence supplanted mastery as the means of subjugating freedpeople” after the war, cutting across class lines and prior party affiliation as part of a popularized struggle in ways slavery never could. This widespread white vigilantism in northwest Louisiana helped institutionalize white power and citizenship at the expense of African Americans while repositioning the remembered antebellum plantation regime to align more closely with the rhetoric white solidarity than property. In short, vigilantism rendered white southern politics participatory.

Williard likewise argues compellingly in “The Violent Creation of Confederate Veteranhood” that ex-Confederates’ acts of vigilantism in the immediate aftermath of the war indicate real changes to southern social and political hierarchies. Williard’s argument finds poignant illustration in his telling of an attack on a formerly enslaved man in Mississippi by a group of Confederate veterans. The victim, whose name was sadly omitted in the records, carried a pass from his enslaver-turned-employer to visit another plantation. Rather than respect the authority conveyed by the pass, however, the ex-Confederates declared “we don’t give a damn for that” and brutally assaulted the bearer. For Williard, widespread incidents like this indicate that the nature of citizenship itself had been altered during the war and its aftermath. White violence transformed the antebellum hierarchy predicated on the fetishization of enslavers’ property-in-persons to one based on white men’s “capacity to weild force… [as] the basis for standing within their communities.” These vigilantes acted to make sense of their Confederate service and challenge the classist version of white supremacy that characterized the region in the antebellum period.

Williard and Peller-Semmens’s more granular analyses of the role of violence in shaping the course of Reconstruction pair well with Proctor’s larger ideological framework in “The Mind of the Klan: An Intellectual History of White Supremacy during Reconstruction.” Proctor notes that though the antebellum order had been thoroughly upended by the war and emancipation, the nature of its replacement was still very much in doubt during Reconstruction. This uncertainty, for Proctor, helped inspire the Klan to pursue violence. In this sense, as with Williard and Peller-Semmens, postwar white vigilantism represents more of a response to changes brought by emancipation than an urge to maintain the prewar regime of plantation violence.

Proctor weaves examples of Klan violence into this ideological narrative to illustrate its connection to material systems of power. He finds that over half of the local officials and politicians they assaulted were white, and that Klansmen also attacked planters whose terms of employment seemed to favorable to freedpeople, representing a significant breach with the property-oriented, elite-friendly antebellum system. Proctor likewise argues that Klansmen espoused a specific vision of the post-emancipation household and regularly assailed “white or black, who seemingly challenged strict familial or sexual boundaries of race.” As a result, he observes, two thirds of the women attacked by Klansmen were single, versus only about one tenth of men.

The overarching vision of the panel indicates the richness of the “Dark Turn” in studies of the Civil War era.[3] Although violence alone falls flat as an analytical construct (as chair and commenter Greg Downs rightly noted), the renewed emphasis on violence provides an opportunity to better understand the workings of local government and its relationship to white supremacy. Indeed, one of the most significant and unfortunate achievements of Reconstruction was embedding white supremacy in state and local systems of power at the very moment when it might have finally been vanquished. Placing a greater emphasis on acts of violence also allows historians of the period to locate white northerners within the workings of white supremacy. Did they tacitly condone these acts, actively participate, or accept them as the price for Reunion? Despite the innovative work of Edward Blum, Chandra Manning, Elaine Parsons, and others in this direction, there is still much we do not know about the northern role in Reconstruction violence.[4] And if the many panels examining the legal implications of Reconstruction are any indication, the project of outlining the material and cultural limits of Radical reforms within the context of white supremacy and vigilantism will remain important for the foreseeable future.

[1] James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 44.

[2] Gilles Vandal provides by far the best survey of postwar violence in Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002).

[3] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/.

[4] Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005). Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007). Elaine Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015).

William Horne

William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University and editor at The Activist History Review, http://www.activisthistory.com. His research explores the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. Mr. Horne’s dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted at horne.activisthistory@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

Aiming for Accuracy: Free State of Jones, Contingency, and the Meaning of Freedom

Early in Free State of Jones a Confederate soldier proclaims he is not fighting for slavery but rather “for honor.” His comrades, including poor Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), needle him. Considering the “Twenty Negro Law,” Conscription Act, and tax-in-kind law, they point out that their blood only helps slaveholders get richer. After deserting, Knight leads poor farmers and former slaves against conscription, taxation, and re-enslavement. Against a shared enemy, the Confederacy, he brings black and white fugitives together. But when Knight and his black comrades-in-arms attempt to move from the bullet to the ballot box, white allies fade away and white supremacists rise up.

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.
At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote. Image from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Beginning at the Battle of Corinth in 1862, Free State of Jones is about a long Reconstruction. It uniquely explores African Americans’ struggle for political and economic rights in the face of white power. Here, emancipation has an asterisk. Slavery ends with the war, but freedom does not follow. After former Confederates return to power and reassert slavery’s white hierarchy, political organizer and ex-slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) captures the reality for black Americans: “We free and we ain’t free.” Unlike other films, Free State of Jones illuminates the contingency of black freedom in the South after the Civil War in the face of white supremacist violence, northern Republican abandonment, and insufficient federal troops. After the battle scenes, the Federal troops are entirely absent.

Throughout the film, class, race, and gender overlap and challenge the assumptions of viewers and characters. Women and men, black and white, resist, fight, and survive together. When a white member of Knight’s company tries to deny Moses food because he is black and a fugitive, Moses responds, “How you ain’t?” How, if both are fugitives from compulsory service to slaveholders in a cotton field or on a battlefield, are they different? Through spirituality and experience, Knight considers this equality of the oppressed to be self-evident. McConaughey’s portrayal of Knight suggests Nathaniel Bacon and John Brown: a natural leader wild-eyed for solidarity and justice in the face of economic and racial oppression. Director Gary Ross highlights the many methods of resistance employed by fugitive slaves and enslaved people: fleeing to the wilderness, like Moses; remaining on plantations but assisting runaways, like Rachel (Gugu-Mbatha-Raw); remembering, like Moses’ wife (Kesha Bullard Lewis) and son Isaiah (LaJessie Smith). White characters resist Confederate authority similarly, but Ross also delineates the differences in experience. Rachel’s and Moses’s bodies bear witness to their physical and psychological torture, scars that mark the limits of white abilities to fathom black experiences.

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Free State of Jones. Image from IMDb.

Committed to historical authenticity, Ross consulted historians Martha Hodes, Eric Foner, Margaret Storey, and Victoria Bynum, whose book 2001 The Free State of Jones was optioned for the screen. He also published extensive footnotes for the film that are available online, perhaps unprecedented in Hollywood. Does it suggest a trend towards fact over fiction in historical movies? Only the box office will tell.

Matthew McConaughey as in Newton Knight. Image from IMDb.

Free State of Jones stands out for exploring Reconstruction, but it is not perfect.   Few characters are developed beyond Knight. This is a missed opportunity considering the depth Mbatha-Raw and Ali bring to Rachel and Moses, respectively, and the reality that, while Knight leads, he joins a preexisting fugitive slave network. The story of the 1948 Mississippi miscegenation trial of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight is all elbows. The pacing disorients, but while this hurts the narrative it strengthens the history.   Familiar Civil War and Reconstruction benchmarks are absent, leaving audiences open to surprise when scenes or subtitles challenge assumptions. In one scene, dozens of African Americans pick cotton in a field under the supervision of white overseers when the words “One year after emancipation” appear as a subtitle. “What changed? What was freedom?” perplexed viewers may ask. An apt question, then and now. In Reconstruction, conditions changed both essentially and unnoticably, quickly and slowly, permanently and temporarily. The film unintentionally mimics this.

Free State of Jones emphasizes the inherent inequality of the Confederacy, the violence of white supremacists, and the broken promises of Reconstruction at a poignant moment in our national discourse. Many will find the ending unsatisfying, abrupt, and unfinished. But maybe historicity should get in the way of a happy ending, especially when it reminds us that racial injustice today has deep roots in America’s slaveholding past. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but it bends towards justice.” By bringing one story of Reconstruction to the silver screen, maybe Free State of Jones will recruit a few more hands to reshape a more just ending to this American tale.

Image from IMDb.

Tom Foley

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com.

Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!

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“Roots, 1977 Promotional Poster,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

In the last several decades, African Americans have become avid genealogists, turning eagerly to Ancestry.com and DNA testing, joining clubs and traveling to the National Archives in an effort to fill in their family trees. Henry Louis Gates credits the original 1977 television series, Roots, for initiating this interest, saying that after watching the series, African Americans were stricken by a massive case of Roots envy.”

This week on Muster, Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson and Dr. Erica L. Ball, authors of the upcoming book, Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017) talk about history, slavery, and black genealogy in anticipation of The History Channel’s May 31st premiere of a four-part remake of Alex Haley’s 1977 classic series, Roots. After the first episode of Roots, stay tuned for The Roots of Our History, a documentary about the series.

What do you recall about the original 1977 Roots series?

Prof. Jackson: I remember watching the 1977 Roots for the first time when I was about eight years old. I am one of seven children and we grew up in mostly white communities, so my parents insisted that we read or watch the latest contributions to African American history. Together, we all sat around the television and watched Roots as a family. At age eight, I was sort of traumatized by it! But as I look back, I realized how it and books I read influenced the way I valued American history and my history in particular.

Prof Ball: I remember being quite taken with the 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. I loved watching James Earl Jones as Alex Haley conducting his search for his family history! Those scenes remained very vivid for me over the years. Roots may well have influenced my decision to pursue this type of work myself. Who knew?

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“Alex Haley,” Image courtesy of the Alex Haley Museum, 2013.

How would you describe the research Alex Haley did in researching his ancestors’ stories in Roots?

Prof. Jackson: This summer, Matthew Delmont’s new book, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated will debut. His book tells the long, remarkable, and complicated story of how Roots came to be. Delmont explains how Haley’s research was years in the making. I’m excited about Delmont’s work and the understanding it will give to many people who wonder, “how did Haley do it?”

Assuming he managed to get past the scandal surrounding plagiarism accusations, if Alex Haley were doing genealogy work today, I imagine he would have a show on PBS where, like Henry Louis Gates, he would employ the use of DNA testing, census data, and local archives to conduct his work.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the original 1977 mini-series?

Prof. Ball: [T]he greatest strength of the original Roots was its success at representing people of African descent as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, etc., rather than an undifferentiated mass of slaves. While earlier popular representations of slavery invariably characterized black people as happy with their lot, Roots made it clear that black men and women asserted their humanity and resisted and negotiated the institution [of slavery] as best they could. This was a profoundly important achievement.

The original series’ deficiencies really tell us about the historical moment in which the series was produced. For example, a number of scholars critiqued the original series for creating white characters who were not in Haley’s book, in an effort to draw in more white viewers and make them feel comfortable watching a show with a majority black cast. What is interesting to me is how these all these new white characters were positioned on a spectrum from pro-slavery, like the Reynolds plantation master’s niece Missy Anne, to conflicted about slavery (slave ship Captain Thomas Davies), to pro-racial equality (impoverished couple George and Martha Johnson). It’s a remarkable snapshot of white American racial attitudes in the late 1970s.

What conversations did the 1977 Roots mini-series generate? How do you imagine today’s viewers will take to the remake?

Prof. Jackson: The original Roots made television history in igniting and sustaining the conversation on racism, genealogy, identity, belonging, heritage, and so on. When Roots debuted, critic James Baldwin argued, “It can be said that we know the rest of the story–how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country.” The exact same thing could be said today. This year we are facing the end of an Obama presidency, a contentious national election, and a Black Lives Matter Movement. My hope is that viewers will watch and then take it further by beginning the long and hard work of facing our national past, present, and future.

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“LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

The 1977 Roots series was commended for its honest treatment of slavery. How do you hope to see slavery portrayed in future media? What work remains to be done in television and films about slavery?

Prof. Jackson: I am completely taken by WGN’s new series Underground, which tells the story of several runaway slaves and the dangerous path they embark on to obtain freedom. Shows such as Mercy Street, the YouTube series Ask a Slave, and Nate Parker’s highly anticipated Birth of a Nation tell the story of American slavery in new and exciting ways. The study of slavery in America and the Atlantic world cannot be exhausted. It is completely possible to create complicated, multidimensional characters that operate outside of our expectations. There are many stories to be told, stories that involve pain, loss, and violence, but also stories that emphasize resistance, humanity, survival, love, and if done right, even laughter.

Professor Ball, you have written about African American manhood. How did the original Roots reflect gender and masculinity, particularly LeVar Burton’s portrayal of Kunta Kinte? Like African American history, scholarship on gender is in a very different place than it was in 1977. How do you anticipate this being reflected in in the upcoming 2016 series?

Prof. Ball: The original series was very much about black masculinity. The black male characters are multifaceted and complex and they embrace their roles as members of black families and communities. And both LeVar Burton and John Amos invested the role of Kunta Kinte with such depth, humanity and inner strength. All of the key male characters fulfill their roles as strong but caring heads of households who do the best they can to protect their families under the most difficult of circumstances.

The trailer suggests that the 2016 version will move beyond the family circle to incorporate other stories. For example, I noticed clips about a black Union soldier on the battlefield. This is very important, as that story doesn’t often get portrayed on screen.

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“Cicely Tyson as Binta and Maya Angelou as Yaisa in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

What role, if any, did slave narratives play in the creation of the 1977 Roots? Has more historical awareness been brought to this historical source in recent decades?

Prof. Ball: We know that Haley read voraciously. And although I don’t have any evidence for this, I would not be surprised if he had read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, first published in London in 1789. Equiano’s narrative includes a gripping account of the middle passage that details his confusion and horror, the stench of the hold, the violence and the suffering of those being forcibly transported from Africa to be sold in the Americas. Roots does a wonderful job of capturing that experience and presenting it to the modern public.

The trailer suggests that the producers will make use of the all of the wonderful new studies of slavery that have appeared over the past forty years. Thanks to work by scholars such as Deborah Gray White, Stephanie Camp, and Jennifer Morgan, historians know much more about the experiences of enslaved women than they did in the 1970s. And thanks to Jean Fagan Yellin’s success in authenticating the work, Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860/1861) is now a standard text in African American history and literature courses. I hope that this new body of scholarship will inform depictions of women in the 2016 Roots. From the looks of the trailer, women exercise a bit more agency and exhibit more complexity than in the 1977 version.

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“Leslie Uggams as Kizzy in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

Education plays an important role in the ep. IV of the 1977 series, when Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy secretly learns to read. Can you comment on the role of education in Roots?

Prof. Ball: The original Roots certainly characterizes education as something that has radical possibilities. Education is so radical that Kizzy is ultimately sold away from her parents for possessing this forbidden knowledge and using it to help the young man she loves try to escape. But Kizzy doesn’t just know how to read and write. She also knows a few Mandinka words she had been taught by her father, Kunta Kinte. These words are passed down through generations until, as Alex Haley tells it, they were passed on to him. This story – whether fact or fiction – offers an important lesson about the importance of remembering that we all have a history worth knowing and preserving for future generations. This, I think, is a lesson worth repeating.

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“Roots Promotional Poster Featuring Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of The History Channel, 2016.

The new mini-series features an all-star cast, including Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls). The lead role of Kunte Kinte is played by Malachi Kirby (EastEnders).

KCJ Headshot hair down
“Kellie Carter Jackson,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Kellie Carter Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Hunter College, CUNY. Carter Jackson’s research focuses on slavery and abolition, historical film, and black women’s history. Her manuscript, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, is the first book-length project to address the politics of violence and black leadership before the American Civil War.

“Erica L. Ball,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Erica L. Ball is a Professor of American Studies and Chair of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her work interrogates the connections between African American expressive culture, gender and class formation and popular representations of slavery.


Baldwin, James. “How One Black Man Came to be an American: A Review of ‘Roots’.” New York Times. September 26, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-roots.html

Ball, Erica L. To Live An Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Middle Class. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Ball, Erica L. “To Train Them for the Work: Manhood, Morality, and Black Conduct Discourse in Antebellum New York.” In Timothy Buckner and Peter Caster, eds. Fathers, Preachers, Rebels, Men: Black Masculinity in U.S. History and Literature, 1790-1945. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011: 60-79.

Delmont, Matthew. Making Roots: A Nation Captivated. Oakland: University of Cailfornia Press, 2016. https://mattdelmont.com/2015/09/08/new-book-making-roots/

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. London: Middlesex Hospital, 1789. Documenting the American South Database. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/equiano1.html

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of An American Family. New York: Dell, 1976.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “There’s No Reason to Compare Anything in Modern-Day America to Slavery.” Quartz. May 29, 2015. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/414794/slavery/

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “Why American History Should Begin with Slavery.” Quartz. September 8, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/261193/why-american-history-should-begin-with-slavery/

Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley: And the Books that Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 161, 206.

NPR Staff. “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots.” NPR Talk of the Nation. May 8, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/08/152273032/henry-louis-gates-jr-a-life-spent-tracing-roots
Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. Warner Brothers, 1977.

Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. The History Channel, 2016.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, ed. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, with “A True Tale of Slavery” by John S. Jacobs. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2009.