I’ve read the book. I saw the original series – but only two or three years ago . . . and I do this work about the history and legacy of slavery, about finding the descendants of enslaved people . . . so of course, I wanted to watch Roots. Alright, “wanted” may not be the right word. I felt it important to watch Roots.
My husband told me he wanted to watch it with me, and so at 9pm, we sat down together on the couch and began with Kunta Kinte’s birth. . .
I could meditate on the superb actor playing Kunta or the powerful use of setting to convey both beauty in Kunta’s home village or horror in the slave ship. I could let my literature analysis-training lead my mind here into a study of the use of dialogue or the powerful effects of the close-up camera angles. But none of that matters in the face of the power of the story . . . not one bit of it.
I cannot – will not – watch Roots with my mind first. I will not allow mental calculations or cold analysis to mediate this already very mediated experience for me. No, I let my heart move forward first in this viewing. I smiled as Jinna danced for Kunta. I ached when his father urged him to take the Mandinka way seriously instead of dreaming of school. I gasped when they slavers caught him. I wept in the belly of that ship.
Too much we look at slavery coldly, with the rational distance of academic lenses. Too much we use leapings of mind to rationalize horror.
You know, they enslaved their own people.
Some black people owned slaves.
They had food and water and shelter. They had it pretty good.
These are all things people have said to me when we have talked about the reality of slavery. These are all things people use to distance themselves from the massive, systemic horror that happened to millions of individual human beings. These are the mind-wrought lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to feel the horror of enslavement . . . and so we don’t have to own up to its legacy in 2016.
Philip and I watched until Kunta reached Annapolis, and then we hit record to watch it the rest later. Together. . . our family is committed to witnessing this horror. Not because we are good people, good white people, but because in the very least, we as white people owe our black brothers and sisters the respect of paying attention to the stories of their ancestors. In the very least, we can sit and gasp without rationalizing what happened.
At the very least, I can sit and imagine my great-grandfather Emmanuel as Kunta, picture him laying in the belly of that ship on the passage from Angola to Jamestown . . . and I can pray while I weep.
Are you watching Roots? Why or why not?
Two of my dear friends have written about why they are watching Roots. I encourage you to visit their blogs at the links below.