If I had a dollar for every time a well meaning person has said to me “my family owned slaves, but we didn’t treat them badly” or “My family didn’t own slaves, we fought for the confederacy to protect ourselves from northern aggression” or “slavery wasn’t that bad, being an indentured servant like my Irish ancestors was much worse” I could probably pay back my students loans and buy a house.
Snopp Dogg did not want to watch Roots because it shows the violent oppression of Black folks in the US from the time of the Atlantic Slave trade through the post Civil War Era and beyond. He wants us to stop watching White Folks beat us down and instead focus on our many accomplishments as a people. I totally get his point. Watching Roots is a kind of re-traumatization. Psychologists, and other folks who study trauma and its effects on human beings have started to see that trauma is encoded in our DNA, we pass it down to our children. Black folks have been traumatized for centuries. Watching Roots is reliving the stories of our family in all their brutal detail. As I was watching the 2016 version, I remember thinking to myself, “I can feel this in my bones, and in the bones of my ancestors. I can literally feel it in my ancestors.” And it turns out, I was right. I can feel it in my ancestors. It hurts. It reminds me of the times that I, or someone I love, have been made to feel less than human because of race, gender, class, and sexuality. It is not easy to watch, but I felt the need to watch it for many reasons.
First of all, I wanted to support this show. I wanted the actors, producers, writers, techies and everyone else who worked on this beautifully painful story to get the praise that they deserve. Black folks and things about Black folks are not often praised. We have to work twice as hard to get half as much recognition. Therefore, I support the great works of Black folks as much as I can, and I hope others will join me.
Second of all, this is my history. This is the story of my people. I used to be ashamed of it. I used to want to hide it far away. I wanted to focus on that 1/16 Native American that I have been told is in my blood. I wanted to think about how my last name, Jennings, is British. I wanted to find my family crest. I wanted to celebrate the White parts of my heritage because maybe they were royal, maybe they were some of the first folks over here from the U.K. Maybe I am related to someone that is written about in history books. I wanted something neat to say when my mostly all White friends started talking about being descendants of George Washington, the first Kings of Scotland, or someone who came over on the Mayflower. All I had was slaves. I didn’t want to be seen as the child of slaves. I wanted to be seen as someone who has made a huge impact on the world. Someone who lived somewhere beautiful, dressed in beautiful clothes, and spent time with beautiful people. I didn’t care that the Whiteness in my blood came mostly from the rape of my foremothers.
I wanted to wear my little bit of Whiteness like a crown. I wanted a history and a culture that I could be proud of. I didn’t realize that I already had it. I needed to watch Roots because in the stories of the Kinte family, I found the pride that I was missing. I looked at their resiliency and their strength of character, and I saw the way they refused to be made slaves in their minds no matter how many chains were put on their bodies. I thought about the ways that my ancestors literally built this nation. Every famous home that I have visited in Virginia (my home state, and the coolest state) was built at least in part by enslaved people or their direct descendants. Their names are not written in books, but are written into the fabric of the nation. I thought about the men and women who served the United States in times of war. They served their country, a country that they did not ask for, a country that did not and still does not respect them. Some of them gave their all, their very lives for a nation they would never be free in.
Watching Roots helped me see these brave men and women whose blood runs in my veins. Roots gave me back a sense of pride in my people. I do come from a place with beautiful people, beautiful homes, beautiful clothing, it is just that a lot of my family’s history has been taken from me. I may never be able to find out where and from whom I have come.
Third of all, Roots is not just for Black folks. It is also very much for White folks. It is for every person who has said, “Slavery wasn’t that bad, my family didn’t own salves, and we treated our slaves like family” (Side note, calling someone “auntie” was only a term of endearment on your side of the story, not on ours. It did not make you family. Do you literally own any of your family members in the same way you own a dog? No. So stop saying this please.) When you watch the story of the Kinte family you feel their pain. They are human. They are humanized. They are people that you feel for. You can’t watch it and feel nothing for them unless you never feel anything for anyone, or you are deeply deeply deeply racist. Every time something tragic happens to a person that you come to love in this story, it breaks your heart and you start to think about the horrors of slavery.
Now this is the point where someone out there, you know who you are, will probably be saying something like this, “but this is a highly dramatized story. Things like this didn’t really happen all the time, and certainly not to people in one family. Also, this story is mostly made up and doesn’t stand up to genealogical and historical research.”
Ok, now stay with me. We know that every single one of the horrible things done to enslaved Black people and their descendants in this story happened to someone. Just because they did not all happen to the exact people that Alex Haley wrote about does not mean they never happened to anyone or even that many of these things did not happen in the same family or even to the same person. Rape, torture, living near starvation, having no legal rights, not being able to be educated, having no control over your own life, never being able to deicide your own future, being told you are property, being used as breeding stock then watching your children sold away, being sent to places with harsher work and harsher punishments if you did not obey, being chased down by dogs and then mutilated if you tried to escape, being whipped, beaten, inadequate health care, having every bit of your humanity and dignity stripped away, all of this is real. All of it happened. Some of it still does for the same reasons; economic greed, thirst for power, and racism.
If your family owned slaves, they treated people badly. To presume to own a person is to treat them badly. If your family did not own slaves, but did side with, or fight for to confederacy, hell, if they even were White and living in the South, they benefited from slavery. They may not have had privileges of class, or education, but they did have White privilege. They had the ability to be seen as human, and they had the benefit of not being the lowest on the pyramid either. Slavery was bad. It was more than just bad. It was monstrous. It took lives, and the repercussions are still with us. We can still feel it in our bones, in our DNA. Even if your family members came here as indentured servants, they were not owned. They knew when they would be free (usually). They were not seen as being property instead of human beings. We need to stop lying to ourselves about the past and our ancestor’s part in its brutality.
I watched Roots, and encourage other people to do so as well because there are folks who need to see it. There are people who need to stop denying the horror of being made less than human. We need to understand the ways in which generations of Black folks being treated this way has lead us to our current racial situation in this nation. There are folks who need to stop thinking about racism as a thing of the past, who need to see the far-reaching and multi-generational effects of this kind of pain. People who need to feel it in their ancestors, and who need to fess up about who their ancestors are. There are folks who need to stop denying that they had family that supported the system of slavery, and there are folks who need to stop denying how they support racism now. Stop apologizing for your ancestors and instead do something to help balance out the damage that they did. Be proud of the great things they accomplished, and be ashamed of the bad. Then use both of those feelings to do better. Teach your children, and teach each other that things like this have to stop and they we can stop them.
I watched Roots so that I could have the fuel that I needed to stand up and fight. Now with every successive wave of violent acts against minorities in this nation and around the world we need reminders of the past so that we stop repeating it. The United States now has a new record holder for number of people killed in a mass shooting. 50 people died. Most of them were LGBTQ+ people of color. What have we learned? Years from now when a new movie, show, or documentary comes out about the Pulse massacre, will we be able to look back and say we have remembered our past so that we can change our future? Or will we still be sitting on a pile of our privilege, that other people literally died for us to have, saying, “I don’t want to watch that.” ? Racism, heterosexism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and all the other ways that we hurt each other on a systemic and personal level are all things that can be changed. We made all of them and we can change all of them. For the folks who make up racial and sexual minorities, pride in our races, our sexual orientations, and our gender/sexual expressions is an act of subversion and defiance. We must tell our stories. We have to tell and retell stories like Roots, like Stonewall, and like what happened to Emmett Till, and now all the stories of the folks who died in Orlando. It is our responsibility to tell them, and to hear them so that we can help change the future for the better.