Why We Must Continue to Revisit Slavery

I admit, I was a little skeptical about the Roots remake when I first heard about it. I love the original series, and I wondered whether a rebooted Roots would do the original miniseries justice. Still, news of the new Roots piqued my curiosity, and I knew I would at least watch the first episode before making a final judgement.

Now that I have had a chance to watch the whole series, I must confess that I still prefer the original miniseries. Still, I think the remake is valuable. And despite his protests, I would encourage Snoop Dogg to watch the series. Contrary to his opinion, revisiting themes like slavery can have a positive impact on black uplift.

Snoop Dogg earned national attention when he publicly lambasted the new Roots. He said that he was sick of hearing stories about slavery and thought that Hollywood needed to focus on contemporary projects which highlighted black progress. To him, rehashing slavery themes in projects like Roots and 12 Years a Slave kept blacks from progressing.

I, too, think that it is important to show images of successful blacks and to tell contemporary stories of black life. I applaud Snoop Dogg for wanting to focus on black progress. However, he is wrong on a number of fronts. Roots does not wallow in victimhood; and understanding slavery, especially in the way that Alex Haley personalized it in his own family, actually promotes black progress.

First, Snoop Dogg's comments betray a unidimensional reaction to slavery: slavery was bad, so we should not talk about bad things. I suspect that if someone were to use that same logic to talk about modern racism ("Jim Crow has ended...Barack Obama was elected president...Let's not talk about racism"), Snoop Dogg would reject the argument. We cannot understand modern racism or even the symbolic importance of Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House (remember that Michelle Obama is the descendant of slaves) unless we reckon with the fact that slavery played a significant role in our country's founding. In order to understand (and fix) the present, we have to grapple with the past; and in America, that means you have to understand how slavery has influenced the structure of our governmental institutions and shaped our economy, both inside and outside the slaveholding states, from the founding to the present.

In addition, I do not view figures like Kunta Kinte or Solomon Northrup as victims. These were incredible men who endured unspeakable horrors and in their own ways emerged victorious. Northrup eventually won back his freedom, and Kinte passed on a rich heritage to his descendants.

The oral traditions that were passed down in the Haley family served to anchor them and make them resilient. If there is one thing that Roots conveys, it is that the Haley family was proud of their ancestors, and proud of the African traditions that many people thought blacks had lost in the Middle Passage. They may have found themselves in horrific circumstances, but they stood up for their humanity and figured out how to survive and later thrive.

My colleagues Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush have studied this idea of resilience within a familial context. They examined the impact of passing down family history from parents to children. They found that kids who knew their family histories displayed higher levels of resilience than those who did not know much about their families.

I see the same type of resilience in Kunta Kinte's descendants as described in Roots. When things got tough, they drew on the stories of their ancestors for inspiration and in their own way, succeeded. In addition, through the commercial success of the book and the original miniseries, Roots inspired countless African Americans to explore their genealogies, enabling them to take pride in their heritage in new and meaningful ways.

In saying this, I neither begrudge Snoop Dogg's opinion nor question his desire for black progress. However, I think his statements were misguided. The path to the progress he so desperately wants requires that we reckon with the past--not to wallow in victimhood, but to give us clues about how to overcome and to provide inspiration from those who endured worse things than we face and still found ways to resist and to be resilient.

I hope that Snoop Dogg and other like-minded people reconsider their position and check out Roots when it airs in reruns in the next week. And as a professor, I hope that students who have the opportunity to study slavery in depth take advantage of such courses. The history that one learns in such classes can inform a tremendous amount of future progress.