Roots: The Saga of an American Family“I’m sorry… what?”

I’m in an editorial meeting at ESSENCE. In my recollection, the room falls silent, and all the editors train their eyes on me. We’d been discussing how we should cover the 30th anniversary of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a momentous TV event. Each editor had thrown out an idea, except me. My Editor-in-Chief put me on the spot, and I told the truth: I never saw Roots.

I knew the highlights, or I thought I did. Based on Alex Haley’s bestselling book about his ancestry, it’s the tale of an African man sold into slavery and the many horrors that come to him and generations to come.

“Nope, I confirm to my EIC. “I’ve never seen it.”

I had a somewhat valid excuse, I thought: Roots originally aired before I was born. But then there were editors in the room with children younger than me, and they’d sat there brood down for an American history moment.   I am sufficiently shamed.

“Demetria,” a senior editor says sternly, “you must watch Roots.”

Five years later, I’ve finally fulfilled that duty. The Christmas release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie about slavery is here and it coincides — no coincidence, I’m sure — with the 35th anniversary of Roots. Over the weekend, BET began airing the entire Roots franchise. I had nothing better to do, so I bunkered down with delivered Thai food and watched.

Um … yeah. I couldn’t turn away from the start, not with Cicely Tyson screaming in agony as she birthed a baby, not thru the coming-of-age story of that baby, a boy, Kunta Kinte, turning into a man in 18th century Gambia. Riveting is an understatement.

But from the moment Kunta Kinte is captured by the white man, the “WTF?” moments never stopped coming. I now totally understand why my mother wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, watch it again.

After that ESSENCE meeting, I’d rushed back to my desk to call my mother at work. I had to know why she (and my father) had set me loose into the world without showing me Roots, a seeming African-American rite of passage.

She sighed heavy. “I probably should have, but …” she began. “I just couldn’t.”

Mum explains that, for me to watch as a child, she would have had to as well in order to explain it. And she just couldn’t do that to herself. Or me.

“It’s a hard movie. Like …” She pauses to search for the right words. “I watched it. It was hard to get up and go to work the next morning and deal with … people. But you should probably watch it anyway.”

Her calling it “hard” was an understatement. I’ll spare you the long list of scenes that made me pause the movie and sigh heavy just like my mother had at recalling it. Instead, I’ll give you the top three thoughts that ran through my head:

1. This. Is. F%^#ed. Up.

2. Ohhhh, so that’s where “that” came from.  *light bulb goes off*

3. The entire African-American race has got to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (… which turns out not to be a far-fetched thought. I looked it up and I’m late on that. All the people who arrived at that conclusion earlier probably saw Roots.)

As horrifying as Roots is, it’s still slavery-lite. But let’s go with Roots’ depiction. A human is captured by weird-looking people who separate the person from their family and tribe. Forever. This person is caged like an animal, then taken on a months-long journey across the Atlantic, in which the person is chained below deck for most of it. People are dying, and vomiting and pissing and defecating and they are living, literally, in it, for who knows how long. The person is poked and prodded like an animal on the auction block, then sold off to the highest bidder, separated from anyone they might have known from home or connected with on the God forsaken journey over.

Any one of these experiences alone would screw up the average person. But we’re still not done.

This person lands on a plantation, and is introduced to a “home”  of horrors where the threat of violence looms and folk that look like them have adopted the White Man’s version of what Africans are, and are in equal measure friends and enemies. As a means of survival, the Black people the person encounters have adapted to a [email protected]#$ed up reality where submission, fear, silence, and you know, delivering your daughter to be raped by the overseer are par for the course.

This goes on for generations. People who have lived under tyranny, have adapted to bizarre modes, and been taught off-klter perceptions of the world and themselves. Overseers have been paid good money to break them so they “know their place.” Stories about Africa, a far off place where Black folk strut free are a distant memory or sound like a fantasy and ain’t nobody got time for that. Live. Die. Get your reward in the After Life. You cling to that either because you really believe it or it’s the only thing that keeps you from going crazier. Maybe both.

Freedom doesn’t suddenly make everything “Kumbaya.” All the trauma and screwy ways you’ve been taught to see and adapt to the world like putting white folks on pedestals (and walls in Black churches), fearing white folk, seeing yourself and people who look like you as less than, eating the sh!t white folk won’t touch, and placing a premium on light-skinned Negroes or Negroes of any color with white folks’ features, remain along with a whole lot of anger, depression, and bitterness.

In 19th Century America there’s no time (or money) for the masses of Black folk to work out all that with a therapist or have long conversations about feelings and collective Black self-esteem. Emotionally shot and physically damaged folk need to focus on survival for themselves and their brood. A hefty chunk of Black folk’s core dysfunctions that the world blames them for having don’t get treated. So their kids watch and do as they do, not as they say. Someone beat them, and they beat their kids, and then they beat their kids and the cycle doesn’t get broken because everyone it happened to says, “Hey, I turned out okay.” And there’s no end in sight for any of this to stop when 165 years after the abolition of slavery, in general, Black folks fear therapy more than they fear God.

A few weeks ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving and stayed for a week, perhaps the longest I’ve been home consecutively since I moved to New York at 23. I’m sitting at the kitchen table where the wi-fi signal is strongest watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead. My father wanders into the kitchen to forage for leftovers and engages me in conversation.

“What are you watching?” he asks.

“The Walking Dead.”

He opens the fridge.

He’s still tinkering around nearby by the time the show ends and I ask him out of genuine concern,  “Hey, do we have guns in the house?”

There’s a shotgun “probably from the late 1800s, I would guess,”  he says. “Doesn’t work. Why?”

“Just wanted to know if we were covered in case there’s ever a zombie apocalypse,” I say.

He decides to entertain me. “The shotgun was my father’s, father’s. He was born in 1862. You want to see it?”

Wayament. What?

“My great-grandfather was a slave?!” I shout.  I’m just now finding this out that just three-generations ago, my blood, literally mine as Type passes down on the Daddy’s side, was owned.  People talk about slavery like it was so long ago, but when people still living can talk about people they met that were enslaved, it ain’t that far back.

“He’s where we get our eyes from, I think,” my Dad says. “My Dad had them, his dad had them. We have them.”

That’s DNA passed down since slavery for sure, and I wonder how much else.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk

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  • I too was born a few years after Roots was aired, but I did watch it as a child: at home and in school. Here is is, well over 20 years later and I haven’t seen it since. Not for any other reason other than I just haven’t- and I’m not an avid tv watcher. No,traumatic. But Roots isn’t/wasn’t my (and shouldn’t be anyone’s) only platform to have learned the atrocities of slavery. I don’t think its a big deal you hadn’t watched the movie until later in life, but based on your tone it implies you never learned or were made aware of the full depths of the enslavement of Africans, or the possibility that yes only a few generations ago you would have ties to it.

    The people who tend to think or say that slavery was “so long ago” usually are not well educated on this part of American history or choose to ignore it. Anyone who doesn’t see that many of the problems faced by people of color, including upward mobility do themselves a disservice. Unfortunately school curriculum doesn’t delve deeply into our history, so I can see why many feel “Roots” should be watched to learn about it. But again, its a movie; some parys of it has been debunked (not the atrocities but Haley’s accounts of his own family) and is served as entertainment. When you want (and should) know more about your history, read non-fiction books, go to museums and speak to scholars on the matter.

    • Sue

      I don’t think it’s a big deal if one hasn’t watched “Roots”, there are other avenues to learn about black history. But like you, I do think it’s a big deal for one to not have been made aware of their history.
      I also want to point out that it’s not just U.S. schools that don’t delve deeply into black history, it also happens in Africa. I grew up learning how this explorer “discovered” this river or that mountain. This gives the impression that the land was empty, unoccupied when the colonizers came! I am only now realizing as an adult how the history has been misrepresented or distorted. Slavery was horrible, but colonialism was just as horrific but usually it’s glossed over and we are taught that the colonisers wanted to “civilize the natives” or simply to preach the Gospel. In school, they did not mention the abuses our grandparents suffered: some were raped, beaten, killed, castrated and tortured. The reasons for some of the problems people in Africa and the African diaspora face are becoming clearer. I rarely read non-fiction, but this year I have resolved to make an effort to read about these subjects. This is information that every black person should learn regardless of where they live. So, I would also add that whatever you learn, share it with your family and friends.

  • Roots is one of those movies that should be a requirement for AA to see. Its disappointing to see people walking around ignorant of their history but its a whole other thing to have that knowledge accessible to you and it is not taught or sought after. That’s how a people stayed screwed up.

    • Pseudonym

      You can learn a lot about black American history without watching “Roots.” I wouldn’t consider not seeing that movie a black card revokable [eye roll] offense. I do agree, however, that it is important for black Americans to know their history. It’ll help you see through a lot of the b.s. anti-black propaganda perpetuated by U.S. society.

  • The Other Jess

    Revoked! LOL, but i gotta say, parts of this article are genius – thanks!

  • Ky

    I watched Roots for the first time this weekend as well…so Thank You BET it’s been a long time since you have done something this monumental for a generation.
    Nevertheless I was captivated by Roots. I am so obsessed over AA history and culture. I see so much similarities in modern society to the times of slavery and as a black woman I am not proud of that. A huge reason Blacks are so ignorant is because we don’t take the time to learn our history, we don’t visit the Schomburg museum in Harlem, we don’t pick up a historical book to see and understand the hardship that our ancestors went through. Some of us just take advantage of many of the opportunities that we are allotted including something as simple as knowing how to read or better yet receiving an education.Watching Roots at 23 years old is not something that I am ashamed of because there are plenty of resources that I have utilized to learn and understand my history. However unlike many others I will not shy away from watching this movie again and again because I enjoyed it, yes some parts are imprinted in my head and not in a good way esp. the rape but we need our history to stay prevalent.

  • EST. 1986

    I haven’t seen that movie in years.