Alex Haley’s saga Roots transformed our nation with its vivid account of a man who traced his family back to their pre-enslavement lives in Gambia. By the time researchers challenged the book, Kunta Kinte was already an integral part of American lore. The real Kunta Kinte lived much later, and we now know that his fellow Gambians were also slave traders, but that does not diminish the power of the story. The 2016 Roots remake did not apologize for what Haley called “faction,” but had Laurence Fishburne, who plays Haley in the new series, say, “The truth can never be known. It can only be told in a story.”
Every dramatization of a historical event is a story, but how far may it stray from the facts? Today’s historians are more concerned with factual accounts, but want them to come alive in narrative. Nate Parker’s much anticipated film about the Southampton rebellion goes deeper than The Confessions of Nat Turner, confessions fully and voluntarily made to a lawyer named Thomas R. Gray — a white man with a drinking problem and heavy gambling debts — while Turner awaited his own execution
Ladies in waiting
To encourage historical research, the Library Company of Philadelphia hosts a program in African American history. This year’s guest scholar was Dr. Vanessa Holden, an African Americanist researching the role of women in the rebellion. She has visited, mapped, and walked the route of the rebels, and even paced the floors of one of the houses whose owner was killed. The house has a kitchen downstairs and an upper loft where Lavinia Francis, the owner’s pregnant wife, hid herself in a crawlspace so hot she fainted.
After reviving, she came down to the kitchen to find Esther and Charlotte, two enslaved women who thought the rebels killed their mistress, going through Lavinia’s trousseau. And here, the historian begins to speculate about kitchen knives. All three women were handy with this tool and could wield it adeptly. Did Charlotte raise the knife to kill Lavinia and did Esther stay her hand? We know Lavinia escaped death and gave birth to her child a month later. How do we determine what happened?
Dr. Holden’s historical method is to absorb every detail she can find and then allow the story to unfold. She is a gifted teacher, asking her audience to draw conclusions while spinning an irresistible tale. But her tale will be based on fact.
The making of an icon
Alex Haley made his Autobiography of Malcolm X fit his personal weltanschauung and it was perhaps because of Haley’s positive spin on the very formidable black leader that the book became a standard text for African American studies. In the 2011 book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, author Manning Marable said, “Malcolm’s later-day metamorphosis from angry black militant into a multicultural American icon was the product of the extraordinary success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored by the writer Alex Haley and released nine months after the assassination.” By the time Spike Lee directed Malcolm X in 1992, his hero status had been cemented. By 1999, he was honored on a United States postage stamp. How much of this hero came from fact and how much from Alex Haley’s pen?
The new Birth of a Nation has been created with care. Parker, in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, said “I knew when I started research on this film that it wasn't a film designed for commerce; it was designed to have an impact.” He wants to tell a story that inspires empathy.
Historical research is a continual process of seeking truth, yet stories always reflect the times in which they are told. Haley’s Roots, in its time, gave an entire nation new empathy for the enslaved. The story of a fictitious group of sex-crazed enslaved blacks from Thomas Dixon, Jr’s book, The Clansman (later adapted into Griffith’s horrible 1915 film Birth of a Nation, whose title Parker cleverly cribs) instigated racism and hatred.
Historical accuracy is coming into vogue in the cinema. The producers of The Free State of Jones, about a rebellion during the Civil War, have put notes on the historical background of the events portrayed in the film on the web.
I am grateful for this dedication to accuracy and to institutions like the Library Company of Philadelphia and scholars like Dr. Vanessa Holden and Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar for leading the way in their quest for historical truth.