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 am a Gambian immigrant living in England, I watched roots when I was in my early teens, if I recall it was shown on national tv in my country making me keenly aware of wanting to know more about the history of slavery. I don’t think you need to watch it to understand black history, you can read the history books and do the research, but personally from an African’s perspective watching it triggered an interest helped me see and understand slavery in a way no other history book could and ensured that I read every history book I could about AA history and British history.

  • Dave

    “Slavery-lite” was exactly the feeling I had when I watched Roots (also a recent first timer). To be frank, it has aged and is in need of a contemporary update. The funny thing is, if my parents reacted that heavily to the original I don’t think most anyone in this country could tolerate a more accurate, less network television-friendly depiction of slavery.

    • Señorita

      I’m just curious….how can you give the history of slavery a “contemporary update”?

    • Dave

      Your’re not giving the histoty of slavery an update, your giving its depiction an update. Sort of like how Saving Private Ryan put all previous war films to shame.

  • Kae

    Your not the only! I’ve never seen it either and am not ready to! I’ll sit down one day and watch it!

  • GlowBelle

    Actually I was glad BET was showing Roots because people do need to see the movie and not act like slavery didn’t happen. Yes, slavery is ugly, but it is a part of our history, and we need to know that. Though I would have rather had BET show it earlier this year (I’m sorry, it is the holidays and I need my comedies and slushy rom-coms), it’s probably the smartest thing BET has done all year. I actually saw Roots while in school, back in middle school and it captivated me and got me interested further in Black history. I just wish that more people would see it. It has aged in its look, but the story remains the same and is as powerful as ever.

    “Roots” also provoked me to learn about my families history, and I still think that Black people need to start researching their families and finding their own “roots”. True, it is difficult to do considering how records were destroyed and lost, but it can still be done with all the ancestry websites they have and some of them are free too and use mainly accessible census records. I know my mom and I found our ancestors all the way to the 18th century, and it was pretty fascinating stuff. Also take advantage of your elders, because a lot of the stuff I learned about my ancestors came straight from my grandmother.

    • This! I am getting flashbacks from my childhood I remember watching Roots, North and South, Shaka Zulu, etc. with my parents. Personally I took Roots for what it was someone telling their story…a much needed story that needed to be told then and now. That’s why I loved the show…”who do you think you are?” especially when it had black guests on it. Being born and raised in the south my parents made me well aware of my history from both sides from the good, bad and down roght ugly and trust me when you learn the truth or be aware of YOUR history/legacy it isn’t an easy feeling/journey but it is one we all need to take. Again why do you think TPTB in this country try so hard to deny, cliff note our contribution and history so much within this country…it’s another form of oppression. Roots may not be everybody ideal or too lite for some but it serves as a passage for more knowledge and dialogue especially for younger kids. As the old saying goes…You don’t know where you are going until you know where you been….

  • I’ve never seen the movie mainly because I don’t think I’ve ever had to and after reading this article, it’s everything I’ve assumed it would be. It would just be hard for me to watch. Of course, we’ve never been faced with those circumstances, but to know then see my ancestors (even though it’s just a movie) get beat and treated like animals in the zoo is unsettling. I just can’t. I think I would be more angry towards the “others” than anything if I watched it. I’ll watch it one of these days….I just couldn’t do it during BET’s 3-day marathon.