Forty years ago CBS aired the miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 bestseller in which he traced his own ancestors back to West Africa, followed them to the United States as slaves, and took them forward into freedom. For the first time, a massive audience—roughly half the country’s population—confronted slavery and its legacies through an African American perspective. Roots prompted Americans to search out their own ancestors, particularly in subsequent years as digitization and personal computing brought resources to searchers’ fingertips.Now genealogy’s popularity—attested by the success of ancestry.com and the television show Who Do You Think You Are—makes it tempting to forget that we often shape our ancestors ourselves, even at the expense of historical evidence. Professional historians, in fact, were quick to point out fictions within Roots, a charge Haley accepted by originally calling his book a work of “faction.” I (re)learned this lesson about historical memory myself when it almost derailed the project that became my book, Atlantic Bonds.
The outcome of this nineteenth-century emigration movement offers little comfort for those who would leave today. At least half of the African Americans who settled in West Africa perished of tropical diseases, while others struggled to eke out a living. And they were not welcome there. Though they called their colony Liberia and touted “the love of liberty” in their official motto, the settlers’ encounters with local Africans were marked by violence, condescension, and—ironically—conditions not unlike slavery.