I have finally finished the Roots saga (Original, Next Generations and The Gift) and all I can say is that I am happy that I have emerged from an emotional journey that took me through anger, sadness and elation. To be honest this is the first week in awhile that I feel that I have been fully present at work - since the beginning of the year. I started Roots on the first snow day in NYC of the year and I have learned a lot about American, slave, black, and media history in regards to race. Thus, I have a few perceptions that I have gained from the subtext of the miniseries (not a show nor a movie really).
While I would like to give anything away from this journey that I implore my colleagues to embark on before or after they also experience The Wire. The reason for this is that I think it is actually equally if not more important the message being displayed by The Wire. As such, I won't ruin any of the plot but I will express my thoughts on certain scenes, messages, or comparisons.
As one might know, Roots is the half-true story of Alex Haley tracing back his roots to Africa and the experiences his ancestors went through. The miniseries includes nearly every famous black actor from the 70s and early 80s and a few others, with the biggest being LeVarr Burton, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and James Earl Jones. There are other famous non-black actors as well, so that is a treat to see them often for the first time as villains which brings me to my first of several highlights of the Roots.
1. Whites as Villains. In the 70s, many audiences watched Dirty Harry movies/shows in which blacks were seen as evil villains. This is unlike nearly every Blaxploitation film that came out at that time to show whites as villains and blacks as heroes. Many networks worried about this perception of whites as villains, but it would prove to be worth it. I can't deny that I cheered or smiled every time a white villain was killed, outsmarted, humiliated or otherwise. Sure it's negative, but Roots showed all that blacks had to and still do endure.
2. Arguably the first accurate depiction of slavery in TV or film history. While many complain about the accuracy of the slavery times in the miniseries, I have to think after 12 Years a Slave and Fredrick Douglas's memoirs that it is pretty accurate into how life was back then. Let's place some things out there. Being whipped/punished until you accept that your name is not yours. Can you really fathom that depravity? Beaten until you mentally reshape your own heritage. Furthermore, the miniseries shows many discrepancies to how whites lived in luxury and with mental/spiritual acceptance that blacks were lesser beings. Whether it is clothing, education (hung for reading…you are smart so you should die?), and simple living conditions, the ideals are laid out. Roots also has the audacity to show how black and white children were often in agreement of the system and ideals that were in place. The Gift even shows how arduous the Underground Railroad was and the imminent danger both whites and blacks were in facilitating the feeling of being human - free. As such, if you ran away you were hung or probably dismembered so that you would no longer escape. Lastly, the miniseries also shows that no matter how high up in a hierarchy you were, house slave, the driver, hell even free black man, you were a boy who was lesser than whites… plain and simple.
3. The history of America. Roots also does a pretty good job of going historically throughout the late 1700s to the 1960s. While it highlights the large facts, American Revolution, slave trade, Civil War, The Great Depression and the World Wars it also discusses all the unexpected information. Thus, I will list all the extra highlights that the series features: the slave trade and the middle passage (those drawings aren't fake), Nat Turner's rebellion, British freedom, abolitionists, the Reconstruction era with carpetbaggers and the KKK, women's rights and Anti-Semitism, voting rights, biracial marriage, WEB DuBois v. Booker T Washington debates, Malcolm X, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, blacks in the military, Knoxville race riots and the Houston military police racial conflicts. As such, I ended up learning some new information while being pleased and surprised that some often looked over facts in historical pieces were well highlighted. Beyond the big events, the show also does a good a job in showing changes in set pieces whether its telegram v. the railroad or boy/slave to nigger/colored interpretations.
4. The metaphors/subtext. This is the largest part of the miniseries which fascinates me. There are a wide variety of connections to make between what can be see in the miniseries and what hasn't changed since then.
From the start Roots makes a metaphor from the cover of LeVar Burton in chains = handcuffs in present time - how many times do we have images of black men in chains?
The discussion of performance whether it is Fiddler playing a violin or hey that seems like a real strong/sturdy African = Please play music or a sport for us? Isn't that almost what our black women and men are primarily known for today?
The white people can always do what they want/a white man always tells what to do = Still bunked by the system, the cops and people still look at me a certain why and I only can go as far as the old white guys let me. Along with that, they influence their children who sometimes serve their boundless needs for power.
Our God made it so = brainwashed by religion or media. This is a good reason why I dislike BET and Tyler Perry. Who the hell are they to tell me what being black is? Who are they to show the rest of the country or world what blacks should be like? They don't know me and they never will. But the influence of the past has made us highly Christian in that I face judgment from not being religious in the South and that I face judgment if I don't entertain certain black customs that slave owners said was how it should be instead of the African way.
Vicious cycle/distrust = Paranoia of those with fairer skin, better jobs whatever it is the jealousy was created then don't trust him/her she wants to be free? I'm your mammy and I'll whip you, just like the overseer whipped us and now we use domestic violence to control our children because hey didn't that work on unruly slaves? Don't trust any white man because they all are against equals distrust of those very same people who help us in our daily lives, including my awesome coworkers.
House slave/Field slave = Blacks who know how to read those that don't = City negro v. country negro = College-educated working black v. black hustling on the streets. This creates a sea of dissent and assumptions. This comparison also increases the divide between these sets of people and the judgment is there even for myself who was honestly very lucky for what I've grown up with. It's a hidden discussion that truly exists and seeks to break up unity.
Jim Crow laws = any law that has ever prevented minorities from becoming successful whether that is entrance exams that have performance tasks that don't relate to the struggle, test taking classes that cost hundreds, voting laws and a variety of other bars.
Slave pen and overseers = Prison and guards, I don't think I need to explain that one. However if I push it further - Drill sergeants and soldiers = Coaches and the players (how many coaches are white? v. other minorities).
Sexualization of our women has not changed ever, the Jezabel. White men craved what they didn't know due to the curves and strength of African women. Has this changed? No we sexualize the women ourselves now - Big Pimpin? or hell even more recent Clappers video is how women have been treated v. the glorious and strong minds & bodies of our African women.
Fear of the savage = Fear of the black man in power, for the times I have been accused of being on parole, stealing my own car, and simply had white men pull their white girlfriends closer when I walk by. We can have ambition, but not too much lest we get out of our place.
Breaking up the family = What the hell do you expect in this day and age if it's been going on for 400 years. Vicious cycle here. Women as birthing machines for more work and labor, men in other ways or off to find freedom, the sanctity of a family unit is extremely important to blacks, but at the same time it is often broken for blacks because for years it rarely was even allowed to stay together; the auction scene in 12 years a slave is one of the worst feelings I've ever felt in my life.
Muslim v. Christianity = Now this has been debated for centuries and since I am not religious I can't say much on it, but Malcolm X's arguments have some validity to them.
Black best friend = not much has changed here, but how frequently will they get the limelight?
There's more I'm sure but I feel I should at least highlight several of the subtleties in the miniseries that exist today.
The obligatory second = There must always be more than one black person at "all-white"/charity/so-called liberal/intellectual party. Of course this has changed imo, but I have been that person so many times it's insane. That being said as much as I don't always do this, I almost always check in with the other minority girl/guy at the party - natural.
5. My experience with the show itself. This show was yet another catharsis for me similar to how The Wire or Invisible Man were. I cried and grew angry every single episode. Every episode, I felt at least one moment made me feel absolutely mortified at the devastation that we as humans brought upon each other. In some similar veins to my experience with The Wire, Invisible Man or some of my experiences Atlanta it seemed to highlight the slight black militant in me. At the same time, I agreed in that it also showed some truly kind and wonderful whites who helped slaves, blacks, colored, negroes through all their struggles.
Needless to say, the most surprised I was in how well it highlighted my sense of being biracial. Next Generations does a great job in highlighting some biracial thoughts.
For example, Ruby Dee's light skinned character that reflects the Brown Paper Bag Test and how blacks view & insult each other as if dark is an insult…so our origins are insulting? I find absolutely ebony skin beautiful, so it's unfortunate how much hate has built into this.
The biracial couple, who's child is a light-skinned doctor who can help his grandfather who will have nothing to do with it. Moreover, the sadness that the boy's grandma can't even say she's related to them. This is a line I wonder and have pushed to ask my parents more often than not as they have a multitude of experiences themselves i.e. my mom rarely if ever comes to the south, while my dad faced judgment from my mom's father who was always upset about the Portuguese being kicked out of Africa.
On the flip side, black judgment for a light-skinned black as Tom won't let his daughter be white a biracial man because he considers white tainted. This alludes to the duality of being judged as never white or black enough for the other, when really I'm just me.
Marlon Brando's character arguing that any black with intelligence has gained it from whatever white/biracial ancestors that occurred since we are not as dark as our truly African brothers/sisters. This hit so hard because my parents are intelligent in their own terms, but on paper my mom(Portuguese) has all the credentials prove it while my dad (black) has experiences. It downplays my father's intelligence and considers only a portion of mine.
Lastly, I cried and cried thinking that how could my ancestors, the Portuguese be so cruel as to start the slave trade with my other ancestors. As such, I think the next few countries after Thailand. Portugal, Brazil, and Ghana will give great insight into my biracial life as each three represent white, biracial and black respectively along with their own triangle of slave trade. Perhaps, I will have epiphanies on this journey or perhaps it won't be as groundbreaking as that; either way I know that I will experience a reaction to what I will capture with all five of my senses.
To wrap I would like to thank the variety of genders and minorities I have met in my life. Some of the best people, my coworker buddy, best friends from high school are white and I love them to death. Some of my best people, my best friends from elementary and middle school are biracial and I love them to death. Some of my best people, some women I've dated, my Atlanta and many teaching companions are black and I love them to death. At the same time, I think all of them should watch Roots to see where we've come and where we are now and how while we still have a lot of work to do; our friendships prove that progression is possible.