Roots: Real American History

Roots. The impact it still has on me cannot be measured. Every time I hear that theme music, I get chills. I plan on viewing the new History Channel miniseries based on Alex Haley's acclaimed book, Roots. I am well aware that many people are not pleased that there is this updated version of the truly groundbreaking original. I want to give it a chance as well as support the telling of this important chapter in American history. 

I remember watching the original version back in the 1970's. They often repeated the miniseries on ABC in the years that followed the original airing, and I was watching a repeat showing one morning with my grandmother. While she was combing my hair, I watched one of the pivotal moments of the miniseries that revolved around the concept of identity. The sheer brutality of this scene led me to cry. My grandmother became annoyed, which would not be surprising to those who knew her. She thought my tears had to do with her combing of my hair. Although my grandmother did comb my hair with what can only be described as vengeance, it was not her intense combing that sparked my tears. I asked her how could people be so cruel.  Roots did not shy away from the viciousness of slavery. I don't remember my grandmother's response, but I do remember the impact Roots had on me as a young Black male. It was eye-opening. It was disturbing and frightening. But, it also showed me examples of real strength and courage, while helping me develop a sense of pride in my Blackness. Someday soon, I will share Roots with my daughter and help her navigate through her feelings as my mother and grandmother did for me.

Thinking about Roots also brings to mind an incident from nearly fifteen years ago. I was teaching 8th grade American history for the very first time. One of the reasons why I accepted this position a year earlier was because I wanted to teach an American history class that reflected broader perspectives. I thought a good way to start was by creating a specific unit on slavery. When my class moved into this unit, I was so pleased to see such interest and passion from my students. Our classes had some truly amazing discussions. To this day, I remain impressed by the maturity and intelligence displayed by these young women and men. Unfortunately, not everyone was on board.

I was approached by the parent of one of my White students. This mother had a question I will never forget. "When will you go back to teaching real American history?" I look at her stunned. Educators fear these moments when a parent might confront you on aspects of your curriculum. Thankfully, I was able to think quickly and respond. "But, slavery is an important part of American history. It might be dark and disturbing, but we need to discuss it to avoid repeating it." And then, I walked away. It took so much to stay composed in that moment. I was so angry and didn't want to accidentally say something rude or insulting. A comment like this is one of the reasons why I will be watching Roots. My hope is that if this version of Roots is successful, it might lead to a genuine increase in Black-themed stories of resilience being told. There are upcoming films that will tell the stories of Nat Turner (The Birth of a Nation) and the Loving Family (Loving). And, it looks as if Viola Davis is working on a Harriet Tubman biopic. Tubman was a real action hero, and it's a shame it's taken so long to properly put her story on film. So, let's give this new Roots a chance, but more importantly, continue to push for the inclusion of more diverse perspectives in film and on television, because children like my daughter need to see faces like hers included in the narrative of American history.

Additional reading: In Its Retelling, 'Roots' Is Powerful, Must-See Television

Additional viewing: Roots: The Power of Identity.

Posted on May 27, 2016 and filed under Roots, Black History, American History.