The History Channel will air the four-part Roots series, and I’ll be watching. The re-airing will probably evoke conversations and Twitter wars between TeamYouShouldWatchRoots and TeamWhyCantWeJustGetOverIt. For the record, I’m on TeamYouShouldWatchRoots. Getting over It isn’t anything to be gotten over, because the story follows the evolution of a family and the nation. It is our national identity — and identity is something that sticks with you from the cradle to the grave.
“But we’re past that now; it’s ancient history,” TeamWhyCantWeJustGetOverIt will argue. Getting over It would be akin to erasing state boundary lines simply because they were drawn so long ago.
As for me, It was a big thing when I watched the original series as a child. Back then, It encompassed a myriad of ideals my young self couldn’t quite completely process, but I knew It was more than one thing.
It was African
Names, clothes, black skin, broad noses, short kinky hair and full lips. They were all counterintuitive concepts during a time that glorified all things European — from names to fair skin, to silky hair and facial features. I was a little black girl with kinky hair and full lips, fascinated that actors would allow themselves to be on national television with un-pressed hair, without makeup that minimized their lips and glistening ebony skin. They looked like me, but looking African — like me — in the 1970s was wrong. And I was embarrassed.
It’s taken nearly a lifetime for me to understand and really see the beauty that is African in all its shades, hues and textures. Now, I’ll be looking for it and unashamedly embracing it when I watch Roots this time around.
It was the Middle Passage, slavery and cruelty
There was unspeakable cruelties along the Middle Passage: packing people like cargo, rapings, beatings, tossing the dead overboard for shark food. As a child, it was painful to watch the portrayal, and I could practically smell the ship’s filth on which Kunte and other people sailed to America. Then later, there were scenes of people being whipped and having their babies sold away to other families as if they were puppies. My young mind understood the cruelty and the inhumanity, but like children blame themselves when their parents divorce, someplace in my head I wondered if maybe the slaves had done something differently — were more compliant, worked harder — as if they earned everything that happened, things could have been different.
Of course, I now understand they — and their masters — and this country were built on a system where cruelty was the lynchpin holding together the economic livelihood and social status of everyone who was not a person held in bondage. I’ll watch Roots with fresh eyes and with a deeper understanding of how our country continues to reel from that peculiar institution of so long ago.
It was resilience
It’s estimated that roughly 12 percent of black people today are descended from people held as slaves. Given the portrayal of just one family surviving the Middle Passage, learning a second language without the convenience of Rosetta Stone software, then enduring generations of living as someone’s property without rights or recourse, plying trades, and then grasping education and finally telling their story and the story of America… well, I’d say that is resilience. Triumph.
I didn’t just understood that as a kid — I felt it in my gut. And I want to feel it again when I watch Roots again.
It is something I don’t want to ever get over.