When We Can’t Watch Roots

When We Can't Watch RootsLast night, I didn’t sleep much. Most of my dreams were about a black man, lean and strong, moving through dark, wooded places with speed and stealth. Or sometimes, he was tied down on a board in a basement or the cabin of a yacht. Or he was carrying huge logs by the end across yards.  He was never smiling.

I had watched two hours of Roots before I went to bed, and Kunta’s vestige was haunting my dreams. . . as it should.

In the past week, I’ve had a few conversations with folks about the powerful mini-series Roots, a series I am watching because I believe it is my obligation to do so. Some of these folks are not watching the series because it is too much for them – too much violence, too much stimulus in the form of images.  Some other folks are not watching because “it’s just too sad.”

I’m trying very, very hard to find my way to compassion with those of us who feel this way, but honestly, I’m not doing so hot at that.

On one hand, I do understand. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, so when I see (or particularly read) about violence or painful stories, they linger with me – sometimes for days.  I have to monitor how much of that intense experience I take in because I – by nature – relate to it fiercely and can debilitate myself if I’m not careful.  Me crying in a ball on my bed isn’t helpful to anyone.

On the other hand, I don’t understand.  Part of me wants to dismiss these ideas as selfish, to charge out accusations about how “enslaved people didn’t have a choice not to live it, and you can’t bear to watch a recreation of it?”  But accusations aren’t helpful either.  They just push people away and build walls.

So today, I’m choosing to listen and asking this fundamental question:

Is our refusal to watch/read/listen to painful stories of the oppressed truly a way to be wise about our needs, or is it merely an avoidance and, thus, an exercise of our privilege to turn away? 

Some further questions for us to consider.

  • How do we come to understand oppression if we are highly sensitive people? What means can we use to delve deep into the experience of the oppressed without losing ourselves and our ability to act in the pain?
  • What options are available for people to bear witness? Films? Books? Listening to first-person accounts?
  • How can we call out the irresponsible use of privilege when we see it without alienating the people for whom this need to turn away is about health and self-preservation and not about avoidance?
  • How do we hold space for people to come to these experiences and this oppression in a variety of ways, ways that allow for all the ways we as people operate in the world while also calling out white supremacy and working to eliminate white privilege?

I don’t have any real answers to these questions here, and I welcome your thoughts on any of them.

Always in love, folks.  Always in love.



  • Lisa Bailey

    Thank you for writing about this issue. I have twice typed a pm to you and then deleted it. ..I was ashamed. I have never been able to watch Roots. I am ashamed. I am also a highly sensitive person. It disturbs me for some time to watch a violent movie, etc. I feel obliged to watch it. I feel myself taking on the guilt and shame of a slave owner, abuser,etc. I believe that is the essence of my passion to research, understand, pay homage, etc to slaves. ..I am trying to make right the wrongs that I witnessed. I wrestle with this topic every day. Thank you for the venue to openly discuss and confess my thoughts and feelings.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Shame, oh, Lisa. Please don’t let that feeling overtake you. It’s of no use to you or to enslaved people. Shame is what keeps people from delving into this work, and you are already in. So battle that back my friend. And please don’t own the responsibility for racism as your personal responsibility – it is the responsibility of every white person to dismantle these systems of oppression, but you cannot right the wrongs that you did not commit. That’s simply not possible.

      Instead, pour yourself into learning – as I know you are doing. Go deep with understanding. Listen wide. Hold yourself open even when it hurts – and care for yourself all the while. This is not easy work. Not ever.

      And don’t watch Roots if it’s too much. Maybe, instead, read the book. It’s a powerful story.

      Love you.

  • Sue Reading

    This is a tough dilemma because we are not inside the heads and hearts of those who say they can’t watch this violence. When someone says that, I consider a few possible reasons. Maybe there are more, but these are the ones that come to me.
    1. Something equally traumatic has happened to them and they are protecting themselves from the trauma of reliving it. They already know (and we hope they acknowledge) the pain of the slaves.
    2. They have a pretty low emotional pain threshold and honestly don’t believe they can tolerate the violence they imagine is in the film.
    3. They are people of privilege, who are not necessarily The Enemy but are on another plane and need to have their consciousness raised about the important struggles that are going on. Somehow we have to reach these people and help them out of their oblivion.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Sue, this is so astute. When I hear people of color talk about not watching, I imagine – but as you say, I can’t know – that they are experiencing #1, and I understand that.

      And #3 is the one where I get stuck – or more precisely, the difference between #2 and #3. Thanks for helping me think through this.

  • Fantastic read. You inspire me. Your perspective and thought provoking articles are dead on. I am sensitive as well. I also watched this new roots series as well as the old and read the book. As painful as it is to experience and learn about the tragic facts concerning slavery, it also provides the ability to understand ourselves, our ancestors and history better. I digest these facts as it relates to my ancestors with the realization that We all come from a broken society. We can not address or attempt to fix what we choose not to acknowledge. Most importantly, to deny learning about what happened, segways into denying those who suffered. I am a product of those who suffered and those who profited from that sufferage. Both sides. In my opinion Ignoring that fact, based soley on discomfort is not an option. In order for me to find my ancestors and learn more about where I come from, the good and the bad are a package deal in the form of a truth that takes strengh to face. I personally take great pride in learning through tears, broken heartness, pride, anger, and pain. It is a privlage and honor to recognize and acknowledge those who came before us as part of the process necessary in order to evolve as a people. Some people would prefer not to go to the Doctor when they get sick, with the notion that if something catastrophic is wrong, they would rather not know about it. By not taking the steps required to identfy the source of the sickness, one can not diagnose the problem, which results in the inability to fix the problem. In avoiding the pain of our past, I find that much more destructive. How do we evolve as a race of people if we dont acknowledge the pain? How do we understand eachother if we only acknowledge what we are comfortable digesting? In ignoring the truth, how are we being honest with ourselves and with others? The emotions we experience in conjuntion with however we digest different facests of slavery are symptoms. If you choose not to address these symptoms, you will never heal, or evolve. And by default you remain in a holding pattern which contributes to your personal prison. I choose to be honest with myself by exploring the reality rather than deny myself the truth. In my case, the privladge of being able to turn my head the other way, is not helpful to my evolution. In taking responsibility for myself, its a hard task, but very necessary and important to get from where i am at to who I want to be….. I hope that I make my ancestors proud, and that by doing what I do, they are honered in a way that they were not in their lifetimes…..

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thanks for sharing all of that, Kelly.