Like millions of other viewers last week, I was in the thick of watching the reboot of this gut wrenching story of a time and place not as far away as we tend to think. Roots is not just a story about the devastation of slavery, but also a story of American pain and triumph. It's a story that needs to be told and remembered for as long as we can.
While some Black people chose not to watch the mini-series because it represents yet another depiction of helpless Blacks at the mercy of their merciless slaveowners. I choose not to look away. Why? Simply put, I need this story to explain me, my family and the world around me. When you are at your wits' end of internalizing the narrative of African American dysfunction, having a clear explanation is more than helpful. Roots, more than anything, is that explanation. For this, I am thankful.
You see, I chose to move to the heart of inner-city Chicago. Spike Lee called it Chiraq, but many of the residents know it as ground zero for the grandest display of PTSD- post traumatic slavery disorder. Though I have the privilege of being able to move at will, my education and access to resources often places me in circles where I feel compelled to defend why dysfunctional Black America exists. I've been asked questions like, "Why are Black men pimps?" and "Why do Black people fight so much?" or "Why can't Black men be fathers to their children?" I was even told by a white co-worker once that the fact that I breast-fed my child would not make my child smarter than hers, but rather my low-income status would probably relegate my child to the lower rungs of society no matter what. Wow, how should I even interpret that?
I'm not going to lie, at times I found it difficult to answer these questions. The inane, oft cited tropes would echo in my own mind, "Slavery was ages ago, just get over it" or " Lil' Ray-ray just needs to stop being lazy and get a job." I'd hear stories of 2nd or 3rd generation American immigrants separate themselves proudly from the American negro by their own perseverance and accounts of bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. I'd wonder, "Why can't that be us?"
I'm just being transparent and if we are all honest, I think we've had thoughts like this about our own race more than a few times. Don't tell me you've never watched the news in disgust and thought, "Really, that's who they picked to tell the story?" We are even experts at putting a clear line between us and "them." They are ghetto, we are not. I have news for you: we are all Black. Yes, we are all Black and all in this together- from the lowest income to the highest tax bracket.
This is where a story like Roots comes in. Without knowing the calculated brutality of the slave industry, it's almost impossible to understand the psychology of the dysfunction that persists in Black. Watching this saga afresh helped me see that much of the present-day effects of slavery are here and they are real. They didn't go away with the Emancipation Proclamation or when Jim Crow was outlawed. The vestiges of oppression are all around, alive and well.
Imagine a child who is beat, underfed and kept in the basement for the first 15 years of his life. Now, ask that child to go out, take the ACT and get a job and have a functional life. It's not impossible, but will be an uphill battle sprinkled with both triumph and defeat- but probably more of the latter. Black America is that neglected child whose rearing in the basement is never completely explained much less given a full visual exhibition replete with gory details. I appreciate Roots because so many people still don't know the full magnitude of what was involved in the institution of slavery. Yeah, we heard it. Yeah, we know we were slaves, the lowest of the low, yada yada yada. But do we know the story. Do we really know intricacy and extent of the slave experience? Do we really? When I say we, I mean America, not just Blacks.
Roots helped me remember and understand so many things anew. Watching made me realizing why the Black father is seemingly ever-absent at worse or aloofly detached from his family at best. Imagine being an enslaved male during those days. Perhaps you were directed to "breed" with a number of women, not really allowed to take anyone as a wife anyway. But let's say you do get to take a wife. You are fortunate enough to spend 10 or 15 years of your life with her and have a few kids. Then what?
The master (and maybe 5 of his friends on the same night) decides he wants to rape her and now she's pregnant with his seed. That's your wife, but that's his property. Maybe you get sold. Maybe your family gets sold. Maybe you are lynched for some petty act. Maybe your children are killed or kidnapped for something minor or no reason at all other than you are a slave with no rights. Maybe you are so used to no one staying put in your life that you ultimately conclude, what's the use in getting close to anyone? Why get attached to any family member? Why form any bond with anyone if a loved one can be snatched away at any moment?
In these scenarios, families were literally torn apart year after year. If family is the foundation for a strong community, I can see clearly why we still struggle. For what could anyone or any people do without the support of a functional, strong family?
Furthermore, what can someone do without faith, hope or courage? I mean, how many risks would you take if you knew it might mean the death of not only yourself but also your loved ones? I can see this as a reason that many dreams in the Black community have been squelched due to extreme risk aversion. Why start a business? Why try something new? Risk = death is the equation indelibly seared in our collective conscious.
It's hard to read the commentary of faceless people online (both black and white) who really hate the resurgence of the movie and the painful subject matter of slavery. From the comments, I surmise that Black people think it's unnecessarily demeaning, while whites believe it to be another liberal scheme to accuse them of something they had no part in many years ago. I think it's a needed tool to bring understanding to racism and systematic oppression in a new light.
In fact, I watched the movie with a white friend with surprising feelings emerging on both ends: I was not overly angry (as I thought I would be) and she didn't feel overly guilty. That's not the point in this. Instead, we both lamented and discussed what happened in healthy way. We were both like, "Wow, I see now. I understand."
The sooner we realize that the Black "problem" is a really an American problem with very deeps roots, the sooner we can walk towards true healing. My hope is that America can get to that place where anger is dissolved, guilt is assuaged and real, healthy and purposeful conversations emerge with positive, tangible effects for everyone- both oppressed and oppressor.