In the movie Sankofa, Haile Gerima does not hesitate to show the audience the horrors of slavery. Not only does he show the brutal and humiliating practices used by slaveholders to subjugate slaves but he also shows how slaveholders used Christianity to control and manipulate slaves. He demonstrates the huge impact of slavery on today’s society and the importance of looking back to slavery to understand the present. Traditionally, history textbooks have hesitated to talk about any of these aspects of slavery. Present history books have begun to describe the brutalities of slavery but still refuse to explain slavery’s impact or to mention Christianity’s role in slavery. There are three main reasons for this hesitance to be truthful about all aspects of slavery when writing history textbooks. These are patriotism for the United States, cultural bias towards the white race, and a bias towards Christianity.
 When scholars and historians write history books, they are usually limited by their sense of nationalism or patriotism. They hesitate (or avoid altogether) to write about events or institutions that make the United States look bad. As James Loewen points out, history textbooks "...leave out anything that might reflect badly [on] our national character" (2). Most citizens of the United States are proud of the United States, its history, and its present role in the world’s affairs. They do not want to write or read about wrongs and injustices that the United States government or state governments have allowed or even encouraged. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, mentioned in a show called "Who Owns History", that the founding fathers considered slavery when writing the constitution and that the constitution strengthened the institution of slavery, by giving slaveholders more power. Most people have never heard of this because the constitution was always heralded as an incredible piece of writing that created a fair and balanced government. Historians avoided mentioning that the constitution strengthened slavery because that would taint the legacy of the constitution and the United States as a whole. History that we learn in school is not an unbiased narration of facts; it is molded and interpreted by the historians who write about it. Historians are constantly influenced by national pride and the desire to make our nation look good. Loewen explains that "…textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism" (3).
 Partly because of this national pride, history books always avoid describing the horrors of slavery or the Middle Passage. They usually try to make slavery seem less evil by mentioning that there were many nice slaveholders who did not beat or whip their slaves and were kind to them. As Haile Gerima pointed out in an interview, "Everybody’s trying to find out who was the more humane slave owner" (Gerima & Woolford 91). However, there is no such thing as a nice slaveholder—all slaveholders held the slaves against their will, preventing them from having the freedom to practice their own religion, to chose what they want to eat or wear, to learn to read, etc. Nancy Otter explains this concept well when she says,
[I]t is the fact of enslavement, not just its specific conditions, however brutal or innocuous they may be, that makes it abhorrent.... [D]enial of self, of dignity, of self-determination, and the inability even to name oneself or one's children were the constants, and the deepest insults of enslavement.... Brutality is only one of the ways these insults are reinforced (Otter).
Therefore to say that many slaveholders were not brutal and abusive does not justify slavery or relieve those slaveholders of any guilt. It may make the historians feel better about their race or their country but it does not erase the fact that all forms of slavery were injustices towards blacks; it only makes it more difficult to find the truth about slavery.
 This hesitance to talk about slavery exists in Africa as well. Haile Gerima had never heard of the American slave trade until he came to America. He says, "I couldn’t believe we had been denied the knowledge of the slave trade in Africa. Even in the U.S., it was very, very covered up, and you have to dig to go underneath to find what has taken place. Everybody has collaborated to cover up an African Holocaust" (Fahizah). It is unfortunate that is so difficult to find information on slavery. The whole world seems to be in denial about the American slavery system.
 Historians also try to reassert national pride and cover up the injustice of slavery by saying that slavery was such an integral part of the Southern economy and lifestyle, and that the South could not exist without this institution. They give the impression that the South had no choice but to keep the institution of slavery. When writing about the aftermath of the Civil War, historians and filmmakers try to arouse sympathy for the white slaveholders who had lost their luxurious way of life due to the emancipation of their slaves. They also insist that slaves preferred slavery to freedom and were better off in slavery. The famous film Gone with the Wind is a great example of how filmmakers wanted American citizens to feel pity for the plight of slaveholders after the Civil War.
 Modern history textbooks have improved in that, unlike past history books, they describe the horrors of slavery. However, according to Loewen, instead of using this knowledge to better understand the impact of slavery on our society, history books just insert slavery as a small mishap in an otherwise forward progress. He states:
[Textbook authors] shoehorn their improved and more accurate portrait of slavery into the old 'progress as usual' story line. In this saga, the United States is always intrinsically and increasingly democratic, and slaveholding is merely a temporary aberration, not part of the big picture (135).
Loewen goes on to explain that describing the horrors of slavery is easy for textbook authors since the institution of slavery is dead and the United States has moved beyond this. However textbooks do not discuss the impact of slavery on modern American society. Loewen explains that the two major impacts of slavery are "...the social and economic inferiority it conferred on blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites" (136). Because European and later American slavery was based solely on race, in order to reassure themselves that they were good people, whites started insisting that they were superior to blacks, and this concept continues to exist today in the form of racism. Without examining the cause of racism, one cannot adequately fight it. Therefore Loewen advocates teaching students the "...dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as an idea system" (136).
 Haile Gerima demonstrates the impact of past slavery on present racism in Sankofa; the impact is evident in the parallels between Mona being victimized by the photographer and Shola being victimized by the slaveholder. He also emphasizes the importance of examining the impact of past slavery on present racism by constantly insisting that one must go back to one’s past to understand one’s present.
 When we read history from a history textbook, what we are reading is primarily the history of the white Americans, descendants from Europe who colonized America. History books ignore the history of blacks or the history of Native Americans except for a few pages about the Native Americans and few pages about slavery and blacks. This omission of other races when describing American History can be explained by the fact that most authors of history books are white. Therefore when they try to decide what is most important to write about in United States history, the first thing that comes to mind is the white experience.
 This emphasis on the history of the white experience alienates minority students according to Loewen. He states that "African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike. They also learn history especially poorly" (1). He explains that minority students do only slightly worse than white students in mathematics, but perform much more worse than white students in history (1).
 History books constantly talk about a "melting pot" of various races and ethnicities but hesitate to analyze the interactions of these races in as much depth as is needed. The reason for this is that they are afraid to find the truth, which is that the history of the United States is the history of white domination and subjugation of other races. This history of white domination is the source of racism. As Loewen points out, "racism in the Western world stems primarily from two related historical processes: taking land from and destroying indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans to work that land" (136). History books do not emphasize these aspects of history because it tarnishes the reputations of whites. So even though history books describe the history of white Americans, they manage to leave out any part of that history that puts whites in an unfavorable light. Therefore textbooks never discuss the fact that slavery made our foreign policy "more sympathetic with imperialism than with self-determination." (Loewen 145). The reason for the omission of this information, according to Loewen, is that "Textbooks cannot show the influence of slavery on our foreign policy if they are unwilling to talk about ideas like racism that might make whites look bad" (145).
 Even though history textbooks do not deal with the history of whites subjugating blacks through the institution of slavery they exaggerate the role of whites in freeing slaves. Haile Gerima points out that "Whites wrote a history of Whites having freed Black people, which makes Black people people who never freed themselves" (Gerima & Woolford 93). He also indicates that in some history books, slaves are portrayed as not desiring their own freedom; slaves are said to have been content to be slaves and therefore opposed those who tried to free them (Gerima & Woolford 93)). Haile Gerima wanted Sankofa to show that the reality was not as history books portrayed it. In Sankofa, the free slaves living in the hills meet with slaves from the Lafayette plantation to help free the slaves one by one. Whites were not involved in every successful slavery escape, as is suggested by whites. "We'll take you one by one...'Til we all get together in the hills where you are free" (Sankofa). Haile Gerima explains:
Africans fought slavery, making all the compromises human beings do, but they were responsible for breaking their own chains, fundamentally, with the support of other progressive people. The thought that "Other people freed Black people" still prevails among little kids growing up now, in this country, because that’s the information that’s fed to them (Gerima & Woolford 94).
This illusion of whites freeing blacks from slavery is instilled in children at a young age and as a result, influences how black children view themselves in relation to whites.
 The hesitance to make whites look bad also results in distorted portrayal of the Reconstruction after the civil war. Textbooks say that blacks, not whites were the problem; they say that it was difficult to integrate blacks into American society. In the words of one textbook, The American Way, "But the South was ruined and the Blacks had to be brought into a working society" (Loewen 150). Somehow the author of textbook didn’t consider what blacks had been doing in slavery as work. This misconception that blacks were not accustomed to working is the root of modern stereotypes of blacks. As Loewen explains:
The archetype of African Americans as dependent on others begins here, in the textbook treatments of Reconstruction. It continues to the present, when many white Americans believe blacks work less than whites, even though census data show they work more (151).
Therefore by rewriting history to make it more favorable towards whites, textbook authors have reinforced certain stereotypes about African Americans and therefore strengthened racism.
 There is a strong bias towards Christianity in most Western history books. Western scholars try to protect the reputation of Christianity by failing to address Christianity’s role in exploiting and controlling slaves. Historians rarely mention the fact that Catholic colonies forced slaves to convert to the Catholic religion because they felt it was a moral justification for slavery (Diouf 50). Since most western scholars follow the Christian religion, they are hesitant to admit that at one point in history, the religion was used a means of attempting to dominate and manipulate slaves. This bias towards Christianity on the part of the historians prevents us from learning the truth about the role of Christianity in slavery. In addition to ignoring the role of Christianity in controlling slaves, historians also overemphasize the importance of Christianity in the daily lives of slaves. They give the impression that Christianity was the religion that slaves turned to for comfort and relief when in reality, this was not true. Most slaves did not follow Christianity, they followed traditional African religions instead (Diouf 204). Most slaves continued to follow the various traditional African religions that they practiced back in Africa. (For information on some of the various traditional African religions, see the TCNJ African Diaspora web site.) In addition to traditional African religions, many slaves also followed Islam. In her book, Servants of Allah: African Muslims in America, Sylviane Diouf talks about the impact of African Muslims on slave culture and modern African American culture as well. (For more information on this book see the powerpoint presentation at the TCNJ African Diaspora web site.) She explains that even though Islam is not mentioned often in relation to slavery, it was an important influence on slaves, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Muslims were usually the most opposed to converting to Christianity and were also the ones that were the more resistant to slavery in general. Muslims were involved in the organization and execution of many of the major slave rebellions.
 Sankofa demonstrates how Christianity was used to manipulate the mixed slave, Joe, by convincing him that his mother and his fellow slaves were following heathen religions and that if he associated with them, he would be led astray too. The priest goes as far as to say that Joe’s mother is the devil because she doesn’t follow Christianity and causes Joe to murder his mother as a way of destroying the devil and preventing her from influencing him. Only once she is dead does he realize how he had been manipulated by Christianity. He sees that by becoming obsessed with Christianity and with doing what the priest tells him to do, he destroys a person who was a source of love, comfort and goodness to him—a person who loved him despite his hatred for her. He realizes that she was much more of a saint than any of the saints he has learned about from the priest. (To hear Joe's speech click here.)
 Sankofa gives a completely different perspective on traditional African religions. It shows how traditional African religions, not the Christian religion, were a source of comfort and relief from the abuses of slavery. Most of the slaves followed traditional African religions and spent a great deal of their free time participating in religious ceremonies. Shola originally follows the Christian religion but then turns to traditional African practices when she realizes that her faith in Christianity fails to save her from the abuses of slavery. She points out that the more she prayed to God, the more often one of the slaveholders raped her. (To hear Shola's realization, click here.) She truly abandons Christianity altogether when the slaveholder and the priest whip her in order to force her to reaffirm her faith in Christianity and threaten her with death if she associates with the heathen slaves. It is then that she truly realizes that Christianity is just used to justify all the raping, whipping, and other abuses provided to her and the other slaves.
 The manner in which history books are written is influenced heavily by politics. History textbooks are made with the intention of building loyal American citizens who find very little wrong with the United States or with any aspects of its history. They want to build citizens who will fight for the United States, no matter what, even if one does not agree with the cause. In order to do this history textbooks refrain from relating events or institutions that give the United States a bad reputation. By doing this it deprives its readers from learning the truth about slavery and instills inaccurate stereotypes and expectations about blacks, both in blacks and whites. This maintains the strained relationship between blacks and whites. In order to try to decrease this racial tension, one must be honest and accurate when telling history of slavery, even if aspects of that history may reflect badly on the United States or the white races. Haile Gerima put it nicely when he said, "[H]armony comes from facts, not delusions….I think healing can only come out of truth and reality. Stronger people face certain facts; they become stronger nations" (Gerima & Woolford 92).
copyright (c) 2001 by Tasmia Shariff Undergraduate at The College of New Jersey