Unearthing the Roots of Our Collective Racial History and Identity
Stories have the power to create empathy. When we read a book or watch a movie we become united with the protagonist. We find ourselves wanting what they want, cheering for their triumphs, lamenting their losses. Stories help us to see what we otherwise cannot see, to walk in the shoes of those unlike us.
There is nothing like a story to bridge a divide. Or to leave an impression. Or to shape a view. While cold, hard facts and statistics have their place, it is story that impacts the heart.
That’s why I had my 10, 12, and 14 year old daughters watch all eight hours of “Roots” in observance of Black History Month. The television mini-series from 2016 is based on Alex Haley’s historical novel, first published in 1976. It is the story of Haley’s own family, traced back to the kidnapping of his ancestor in Africa and his enslavement here in the United States in the late 1700s. The story follows the family of Kunte Kinte for 200 years and four generations.
American chattel slavery is not distant history for us. It’s something that perhaps my great-great grandparents witnessed (and maybe even participated in). It began in 1619 and ended in 1865, and it was followed by segregation and Jim Crow laws until 1954—when my own parents were already young teens. Legally, blacks have only been counted equal for the last 64 years. And most will tell you that equality is in name only, but not their actual experience.
Slavery and segregation comprise 335 years of our history, while “equality” totals 64. This history has left a mark that we are still reeling from. We cannot pretend that our black friends have not been shaped by the recent 335 years of brutality. And we cannot pretend that we white Americans have not benefitted from the same number of years of power and authority and oppression. It’s not that far back. It has shaped our current circumstances. It’s the hidden root of our current racial strife. It’s below the surface, but not that far.
I want my girls to know the reality of slavery in America. I want them to know the roots of their white privilege. I want them to understand why their black friends see the world differently—why their friends kneel during the anthem, why their friends’ moms worry so, why their friends’ dads grieve and are enraged by each murder of a black man (boy!) at the hands of a police officer.
The roots of slavery are recent. The realities are near. The wounds are deep and still bleeding. The descendants of slaves still suffer. And the descendants of slave holders (and those who share their skin color) still prosper from it.
My dear friend who is black told me she watched the original “Roots” twelve times while growing up. Twelve. Clearly, she had a hunger to know the truth about the history of people of color in the US. I, too, watched the original “Roots” as a child. It was in my fifth grade classroom in Denver. My teacher was black and many of my classmates were black. Teaching these truths was a priority in my racially rich elementary school. And I’m so grateful. But I fear it was not and is not a priority in most majority culture settings.
Watching “Roots” as a child shaped me. I have vivid memories of much of the movie. It seared my soul, my conscience, my understanding of where my friends’ families had come from—and where my own family had come from—the generations of freedom and autonomy and privilege that I did not earn, but did enjoy.
And so, I felt compelled to show the newer version of the film to my girls, as well. I’m not sure there’s a more effective way to tell the story of the roots of our current racial divide. I actually feel it should be required viewing for all children of all colors in the United States today.
Here are just a handful of brief reflections after viewing the four-night film:
- First, the production quality of the mini-series is excellent. Really, it could not be better. It won four Emmys and was nominated for 50.
- Secondly, the story is deeply moving. I sobbed soul-deep, anguish-filled tears through most of it.
- Third, it’s very, very violent. The filmmakers do not shy away from historical truth. My girls and I had to cover our eyes often and I always had the remote in hand to turn down the sounds of bloodshed and cruelty.
- Fourth, I’m still not sure I should have shown the movie to my youngest daughter. It may have been too heavy for her. I really don’t know. We paused the movie often to talk about what was happening and process our emotions.
- Fifth, the film teaches so much more than just history. It conveyed the various ways slaves responded to slavery, the various ways slave owners exploited their slaves (from brutality to “friendship”), the spectrum of white behavior and the spectrum of black behavior, and also the balance required by black men in exerting strength, while also pleasing and submitting to their masters. We paused many times to talk about how various behaviors were required for survival (both then and, sadly, now). The story really tells story upon story.
- Finally, as I said above, I do think this should be required viewing for all Americans. Slavery and segregation and racial division comprise a significant portion of our collective history and our current identity. While viewing it is indeed very painful, it’s worth it to foster empathy within us and understanding between us. I encourage parents to practice viewer discretion and personal discernment, but to seriously consider watching this film with their children (at least their older ones).
Stories create empathy. I think we all agree we could use more of that in America today.