Dunbar on Episode 4 of Roots: “The Ones I’m Missing” | @ProcessHistory

Erica Armstrong Dunbar writes:

“Episode four once again transports viewers across the Atlantic, but this time we travel to England. In an interesting departure from the original miniseries, we arrive in Hampshire in 1849 to find an older Chicken George, still immersed in the sport of cockfighting. Sold to an Englishman to cover a gambling debt, George has been stripped from his family, enduring the same pain as his mother and grandfather had before him. While I appreciate the director’s attempt at exposing the use of enslaved labor across Europe and the world, there is a glaring historical inaccuracy in the setting of this episode that made me wince. After George wins another cockfight, his owner tells him that he will be released from slavery and given his freedom papers in due time. But as historians know, slavery in England and its Caribbean colonies had drawn to a close by 1838. Under British law George would have been set free shortly after his arrival in England and it’s doubtful that this information could have been kept from him for more than a decade. George refines his literacy in England and made it his business to know everything and to outwit everyone. If freedom had been an option, he would have taken it.


“Despite the inaccurate chronology, the new series complicates the vague explanation of George’s disappearance in the original Roots. Viewers follow George on his reverse trip back to America, a journey that places his freedom in constant jeopardy. His desire to reunite with his family outweighs this serious risk. Arriving in North Carolina at the height of sectional tension before the Civil War, George discovers that his mother has died and his wife and children have been sold. Calling upon his superior performance skills, George tricks his previous owner, and father, Tom Lea, into revealing the location of his family. This encounter between enslaved person and former owner is powerfully symbolic. In 1860, the newly freed Black man possessed an unwavering sense of empowerment while the slave owner was close to extinction, as was the institution of slavery in America. An independent, wise, and unstoppable George confronts a downtrodden, sickly, and aged Lea. George’s wrathful parting words to his former owner are commanding: “Your whole damn life, you was a slave too, you just didn’t know it.” He leaves the farm and the man that had claimed many years of his life, but not before taking Lea’s gun—another symbolic gesture of a transfer of power…”

Read it all: “The Ones I’m Missing”: Roots, Episode 4 – Process

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