Roots: The Saga of an American Family“I’m sorry… what?”

I’m in an editorial meeting at ESSENCE. In my recollection, the room falls silent, and all the editors train their eyes on me. We’d been discussing how we should cover the 30th anniversary of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a momentous TV event. Each editor had thrown out an idea, except me. My Editor-in-Chief put me on the spot, and I told the truth: I never saw Roots.

I knew the highlights, or I thought I did. Based on Alex Haley’s bestselling book about his ancestry, it’s the tale of an African man sold into slavery and the many horrors that come to him and generations to come.

“Nope, I confirm to my EIC. “I’ve never seen it.”

I had a somewhat valid excuse, I thought: Roots originally aired before I was born. But then there were editors in the room with children younger than me, and they’d sat there brood down for an American history moment.   I am sufficiently shamed.

“Demetria,” a senior editor says sternly, “you must watch Roots.”

Five years later, I’ve finally fulfilled that duty. The Christmas release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie about slavery is here and it coincides — no coincidence, I’m sure — with the 35th anniversary of Roots. Over the weekend, BET began airing the entire Roots franchise. I had nothing better to do, so I bunkered down with delivered Thai food and watched.

Um … yeah. I couldn’t turn away from the start, not with Cicely Tyson screaming in agony as she birthed a baby, not thru the coming-of-age story of that baby, a boy, Kunta Kinte, turning into a man in 18th century Gambia. Riveting is an understatement.

But from the moment Kunta Kinte is captured by the white man, the “WTF?” moments never stopped coming. I now totally understand why my mother wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, watch it again.

After that ESSENCE meeting, I’d rushed back to my desk to call my mother at work. I had to know why she (and my father) had set me loose into the world without showing me Roots, a seeming African-American rite of passage.

She sighed heavy. “I probably should have, but …” she began. “I just couldn’t.”

Mum explains that, for me to watch as a child, she would have had to as well in order to explain it. And she just couldn’t do that to herself. Or me.

“It’s a hard movie. Like …” She pauses to search for the right words. “I watched it. It was hard to get up and go to work the next morning and deal with … people. But you should probably watch it anyway.”

Her calling it “hard” was an understatement. I’ll spare you the long list of scenes that made me pause the movie and sigh heavy just like my mother had at recalling it. Instead, I’ll give you the top three thoughts that ran through my head:

1. This. Is. F%^#ed. Up.

2. Ohhhh, so that’s where “that” came from.  *light bulb goes off*

3. The entire African-American race has got to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (… which turns out not to be a far-fetched thought. I looked it up and I’m late on that. All the people who arrived at that conclusion earlier probably saw Roots.)

As horrifying as Roots is, it’s still slavery-lite. But let’s go with Roots’ depiction. A human is captured by weird-looking people who separate the person from their family and tribe. Forever. This person is caged like an animal, then taken on a months-long journey across the Atlantic, in which the person is chained below deck for most of it. People are dying, and vomiting and pissing and defecating and they are living, literally, in it, for who knows how long. The person is poked and prodded like an animal on the auction block, then sold off to the highest bidder, separated from anyone they might have known from home or connected with on the God forsaken journey over.

Any one of these experiences alone would screw up the average person. But we’re still not done.

This person lands on a plantation, and is introduced to a “home”  of horrors where the threat of violence looms and folk that look like them have adopted the White Man’s version of what Africans are, and are in equal measure friends and enemies. As a means of survival, the Black people the person encounters have adapted to a f@#$ed up reality where submission, fear, silence, and you know, delivering your daughter to be raped by the overseer are par for the course.

This goes on for generations. People who have lived under tyranny, have adapted to bizarre modes, and been taught off-klter perceptions of the world and themselves. Overseers have been paid good money to break them so they “know their place.” Stories about Africa, a far off place where Black folk strut free are a distant memory or sound like a fantasy and ain’t nobody got time for that. Live. Die. Get your reward in the After Life. You cling to that either because you really believe it or it’s the only thing that keeps you from going crazier. Maybe both.

Freedom doesn’t suddenly make everything “Kumbaya.” All the trauma and screwy ways you’ve been taught to see and adapt to the world like putting white folks on pedestals (and walls in Black churches), fearing white folk, seeing yourself and people who look like you as less than, eating the sh!t white folk won’t touch, and placing a premium on light-skinned Negroes or Negroes of any color with white folks’ features, remain along with a whole lot of anger, depression, and bitterness.

In 19th Century America there’s no time (or money) for the masses of Black folk to work out all that with a therapist or have long conversations about feelings and collective Black self-esteem. Emotionally shot and physically damaged folk need to focus on survival for themselves and their brood. A hefty chunk of Black folk’s core dysfunctions that the world blames them for having don’t get treated. So their kids watch and do as they do, not as they say. Someone beat them, and they beat their kids, and then they beat their kids and the cycle doesn’t get broken because everyone it happened to says, “Hey, I turned out okay.” And there’s no end in sight for any of this to stop when 165 years after the abolition of slavery, in general, Black folks fear therapy more than they fear God.

A few weeks ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving and stayed for a week, perhaps the longest I’ve been home consecutively since I moved to New York at 23. I’m sitting at the kitchen table where the wi-fi signal is strongest watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead. My father wanders into the kitchen to forage for leftovers and engages me in conversation.

“What are you watching?” he asks.

“The Walking Dead.”

He opens the fridge.

He’s still tinkering around nearby by the time the show ends and I ask him out of genuine concern,  “Hey, do we have guns in the house?”

There’s a shotgun “probably from the late 1800s, I would guess,”  he says. “Doesn’t work. Why?”

“Just wanted to know if we were covered in case there’s ever a zombie apocalypse,” I say.

He decides to entertain me. “The shotgun was my father’s, father’s. He was born in 1862. You want to see it?”

Wayament. What?

“My great-grandfather was a slave?!” I shout.  I’m just now finding this out that just three-generations ago, my blood, literally mine as Type passes down on the Daddy’s side, was owned.  People talk about slavery like it was so long ago, but when people still living can talk about people they met that were enslaved, it ain’t that far back.

“He’s where we get our eyes from, I think,” my Dad says. “My Dad had them, his dad had them. We have them.”

That’s DNA passed down since slavery for sure, and I wonder how much else.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk

63 Comments

  1. Señorita

    When they first aired Roots on TV, I was in elementary school and recalled coming home after school every day to watch it and I’m hella glad I did, when I did. Plus i was fortunate to attend black schools (elem-college) that further discussed this part of our history. It is unfortunate that some of the the generations after me hadn’t been exposed (through conversations, studies, etc.) to these painful times in our history. Sometimes I wonder if parents exposed and talked to their children about our history and how our ancestors overcame obstacles, would that make an impact on how things are today. OAN: I’m glad the author was able to finally watch Roots…better late than never!

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    • sojourner4truth

      You bring back good memories… I was also educated in Black and Latino elementary school that was conscious and community rooted so Roots was all we talked about at school, in the lunchroom and at home for weeks. We have disconnect from the shame and look at our history from a place of empowerment. We have to tell our own stories to our children from birth. The mainstream society is constantly communicating our “deficiencies” They only thing that can dismantle the lies is telling our truth.

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  2. Nadell

    You are not alone. This is my 1st time watching “Roots” and I am 26.
    Initially I was ashamed to acknowledge that I had never watched the mini-series. As you know being black this movie is mandatory. The disgusted & puzzled looks I’d receive from folks who felt it blasphemy that I, a black woman – an African American, had not seen the film made me feel ashamed. Of course that was years ago. I remember recently discussing this with a white guy – he had asked if I had seen the movie and why did I tell him no?!?! He then informed me that he’d seen the movie and he’s white. He thought he had just received an access pass in the ‘black community’ because he had done something before a black person. I proceeded to ask him if he had seen ‘Steel Magnolias’ he said no – I told him I had seen the movie and I’m black. At that point he realized how asinine of a remark that was.

    I do understand the significance of ‘Roots’ and how poignant a film it is but I never understood why it is so required to be watched? And if you don’t, especially as a black person, then you are somehow a discredit…

    And like others I have self-educated & self-informed myself through research to discover much history of my ancestors that was excluded in school books. “Roots” has added much more to my knowledge and love of our history. Alex Haley’s passion for finding his roots is inspiring!
    Thanks BET!

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  3. *Notes the ties Clutch has with Essence*

    Sigh.

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    • Alisha

      They aren’t “ties,” per se. Demetria no longer works at Essence.

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    • Okay. Thanks, Alisha.

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  4. mary burrel

    Better late than never.

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  5. The ties? You mean writers? Writers gotta eat, so many of us freelance for SEVERAL mags to make the dream work. :)

    But just to be clear: CLUTCH is one of the few independently owned (i.e. no corporate ownership) major online mags for/by black women.

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    • Pseudonym

      I respect the hustle!

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    • Yeah, I know that Clutch is not corporate owned, Britni. And that’s a good thing. My concern is that there seems to be a pool of writers that make the rounds writing for most or a lot of the publications, both online and in print, that are aimed at Black women. And that sometimes leads to a sort of ‘group-think’. And not necessarily on purpose even. But it can still be problematic, to me anyway.

      Thanks.

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    • I hear you, Val. But like any other profession, writing is about who you know. It’s not just black pubs, though, everyone does it. It’s hard to get on an editor’s radar, so once they have a group of reliable writers, those are the folks who get assignments or get their pitches actually read.

      How to change/expand the pool? Writers who want to be in “mainstream” pubs should pitch their ideas, or network with those who are already there. Now, if they’d rather create/cultivate their own thing, that’s great too, but just know the pool is small because people rely on who they already know. Hell, I’m still on the fringes and even that was difficult to be apart of.

      Thanks for being a Clutch supporter, though. I skim the comments on a lot of posts and yours are always pretty thoughtful.

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    • Yep, I get that. I know it happens at mainstream publications as well. But, since we have many fewer outlets it’s much more noticeable. I appreciate your insight into it though, thanks.

      Oh and thanks. I try. Lol..

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    • No disrespect, Val, but this isn’t a new thing at all. It’s just probably more noticeable now that most of us are absorbing print media via the web + the relatively faster turnaround (thus more articles that writers have to pen).

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    • Dang, I didn’t read your follow up reply, Val. My bad!

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