Do Slave Narratives Such as ‘Roots’ Have a Role in Today’s Conversations?
How do we tell the stories rooted in slavery, and should we tell them at all? And what about the narratives of Black people that predated slavery and speak to our rich cultural heritage?
The airing of the reboot of “Roots”— which premiered Monday night on A&E Networks as part of a four-night, eight-hour miniseries — provides an opportunity to reflect on the role that slave narratives should play in the present day. There are disagreements within the Black community on which approach we should take.
Rapper and actor Snoop Dog provided a poignant example of those who believe we should not look to the past.
“I’m sick of this. … How the (expletive) they gonna put Roots on Memorial Day?” Snoop Dogg asked in a selfie video posted on Instagram. “They just going to keep beating that (expletive) into our heads as to how they did us, huh?”
Snoop had choice words not only for “Roots,” but for other slave narratives in the media such as “12 Years A Slave” and “Underground” as well.
“I don’t understand America. They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But guess what? We’re taking the same abuse,” he added. “Think about that part. When you all going to make a (expletive) series about the success that black folks is having. The only success we have is ‘Roots’ and ‘12 Years A Slave?’”
“Let’s create our own (expletive) based on today. How we live and how we inspire people today. Black is what’s real,” he said.
Meanwhile, others believe it is necessary to focus on our stories rooted in slavery — not as a shameful defeat, but as an act of rebellion, a revolutionary act and a victory against oppression. This narrative, however, is one that comes from Black people. And while white folks surely are implicated in terms of perpetuating a brutal, multi-generational institution of kidnap, rape and mass theft, this time the narrative has no white saviors to rescue the Black people. The story of survival and triumph over our captors — from the floating dungeons of the Middle Passage to the prison plantations and the slave patrols or “paddyrollers” — resonates with the #BlackLivesMatter generation.
If you think about it, Americans spent 1865-1977 either pining for, washing their hands of or palliating slavery. Then #Roots happened.
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) May 31, 2016
I am the descendent of the enslaved . We survived THIS . Ain’t a GOD DAMN THING about it shameful #roots
— OriginalRudeGyal (@Blackamazon) May 31, 2016
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) May 31, 2016
They fought, y’all. They fought, even though they knew they might lose. They fought anyway. Because: WE WILL ALWAYS FIGHT. #ROOTS
— Awesomely Luvvie (@Luvvie) May 31, 2016
— Black Girl Nerds (@BlackGirlNerds) May 31, 2016
Watching #Roots reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Rosewood.
— dr.* deray mckesson (@deray) May 31, 2016
— April (@ReignOfApril) May 31, 2016
— Lovely Sun Glitter (@AquafarE) May 31, 2016
One cannot understand the present or the future without grappling with the past. The psychic and physical trauma Black people experience today is a direct result of the experiences from slavery. Further, the myriad of racial disparities, the inequities, the institutional discrimination, deprivation and indignities people of African descent must endure all stem from that badge of slavery. A system of wealth was built on the backs of Black people. Often, that history is not taught in the schools, so Black children grow up not appreciating who they are and what those before them have done to get us where we are today. And white children are taught to believe the Civil War was a purely economic dispute, with slavery as an obscure side issue.
Others agree that the stories of what happened during slavery should be told, but it must not stop there. There are thousands of years of African civilization that must be accounted for and reclaimed.
Young people need to see #Roots but when do they learn about Mansa Musa and the Empires of West Africa??
— Jon Snow Ebro (@oldmanebro) May 31, 2016
Black history did not begin with slavery. Part of the beauty of the first night of “Roots” was that it showed African people and their highly developed culture, with long-established empires. After all, Kunta Kinte, as portrayed in the series, had dreams of studying at the University of Timbuktu.
Malachi Kirby, who played Kunta Kinte in “Roots,” told The Huffington Post that the main takeaway of the series is “that our history does not begin at slavery.”
“That is the main message that I would like the young black man to get from this,” he said. “To be proud of his ancestry. To not feel that it’s a negative thing to be African. And to also understand that those people who were enslaved were not weak. Those were strong people. And they survived.”