Twenty-two years after the television show Roots dramatized slavery for the American public, public television aired a four-part, six-hour historical documentary on black people and slavery in the United States. The series, called Africans in America (10/19-22/98), builds upon the tremendous academic work that has been done recently in the fields of African-American and American history. It skillfully combines the eyewitness narratives of black and white people with seldom-heard facts about the history of slavery.
Though the series has generally received critical acclaim, it was the subject of a strained, perverse gripe from the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle (10/19/98). Ringle labeled the series an exercise in political correctness, in part because of its disproportionate focus on the downside of slavery. “While many [slaves] were whipped, chained, or worse, others were given guns for hunting, land for personal farming and almost every thing short of legal freedom,” Ringle writes, as if the series should have celebrated slaveholders who declined to mistreat their property.
Ringle wonders why the series did not include information of the role of the Portuguese or Arabs in the slave trade, or the hardships of slaves in Brazil–or even of British convicts sent to Australia. He seems to question the legitimacy of U.S. public broadcasting presenting a series whose focus is on slavery in the United States of America.
Finally, Ringle offers the critique that the series neglects to quote two specific historians, although he concedes that it does feature four other “unusually thoughtful” scholars. It’s silly enough to criticize a documentary for not including every expert you yourself would have chosen—but one of the two scholars he complains about being left out, Ira Berlin, actually appeared on the series’ radio supplement airing on NPR.
One is left with the feeling that Ringle’s animus against the series has nothing to do with facts–except for the fact that Ringle finds it uncomfortable to confront this country’s legacy of slavery.