Last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement notes the comments of British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on how Alex Haley’s book Roots was such a curative agent in helping African Americans cope with the lingering trauma of slavery. Mr. Prescott was speaking to The Guardian newspaper and the TLS goes on to quote the paper telling us that members of the evangelical Christian group Lifeline have been touring the globe in chains, wearing T-shirts with the logo “So sorry”. Lifeline members have “apologized to the vice-president of the Gambia and to a descendant of Kunta Kinte, the slave made famous in the Alex Haley epic Roots” (Guardian, March 24).
The TLS finds it all a bit dodgy and not really serving anybody’s interests that a book like Haley’s should be used as a basis for anything. “Haley’s non-fiction saga, at the end of which the author travels to the Gambian village of Juffure to be reunited in spirit with Kunta Kinte, has long since been exposed as fraudulent. In 1978, Haley paid $650,000 in damages to Harold Courlander, having admitted that large passages of Roots were copied from his book, The African. Allegations that the genealogy linking him to Kunta Kinte was false were never rebutted by Haley, who died in 1992, nor were suggestions that the African griot who outlined the family tree had been coached.”“The case for a retrospective ‘apology’ for an abhorrent trade that ended 200 years ago is not bolstered by being backed up by a dodgy book,” the TLS commentator concludes.
Indeed. What we need is good history and with the honesty which good history will reveal in all of us there will be no need for these spurious apologies. However, there is a bigger problem here than a dodgy book. We regret the sins of our fathers but we are not responsible for them. We should learn from them – as we have – but to apologise for them is meaningless. This year in Ireland we commemorate an event in 1607 known as the Flight of the Earls, when some of my ancestors, having been defeated in the war they launched against the English to try to preserve their Gaelic culture, fled to the continent to avoid their final humiliation. We are not looking for any apologies – I hope. It is sufficient that the truth be recalled.
Today’s New York Times carries a feature on what it calls “the climate divide” in which it observes that there is a growing consensus that the first world owes the third world a climate debt. Of course it does. But it owes it on the basis of our common humanity. To seek to generate this sense of indebtedness on the basis of a guilt which all do not accept in the first place is to undermine the truth which should be the basis for the powerful actions we need to take.
These two examples of guilt-inducement – one using a dodgy book, the other using a shaky scientific theory on the causes of global warming – will do nothing to restore the balance which humanity needs. Spurious apologies and false guilt will only blunt true consicence and dull the motives for right action.