Young, Black, and Watching Roots

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in <em>Roots</em>.
Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in Roots. Photo: Casey Crawford/A&E Networks

Roots, the novel by Alex Haley, appeared on bookstore shelves in 1976; the mini-series debuted to record audiences a year later. Unflinchingly honest, it launched a necessary discourse on the brutality of slavery and the way its repercussions continue to shape the lives of black Americans.

The 2016 remake debuted Monday night to a very different audience — one that’s increasingly more vocal about injustices. But while the viewership has changed, the issues Roots approaches have not. Below, two Cut editors discuss why the mini-series is required viewing, its depiction of women, and how the loss of one’s identity and power hit so close to home.

Ashley Weatherford: Let’s start with our perspective on Roots as a whole. Have you read Alex Haley’s novel or watched the original mini-series?

Lindsay Peoples: I haven’t read the book, but I’ve watched bits and pieces of the original series, along with countless other movies about slavery. I always wonder what our ancestors would think of us now, and if they ever thought that their story would be told in so many ways.

Ashley: I haven’t read the book, but I did watch the entire mini-series in my fifth-grade history class. It was a watershed moment for me. Up until that point, the atrocities of slavery seemed so abstract. Of course I was aware that slavery was a sweeping evil legacy of the U.S., and as a young black girl, I was acutely aware of the institution’s residual effects. But I’d never fully wrapped my mind around the scope — the enormity of the brutality and the mental and emotional destruction of an entire race.

What would you say this revamp of Roots means to us (as individuals and as a nation)?

Lindsay: It’s very hard for me to watch this and continue talking to people in a normal way. It’s even harder to see white people the next day and try to act completely normal, because you don’t feel normal after watching such brutality. I think it’s necessary. I know that a lot of people have said, “Not another film or TV show about slavery!,” and the article “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies” on Jezebel does have some valid points. However, slavery was roughly 250 years of American history. We can’t glaze over it or just move on. I recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates article “The Case for Reparations,” and you quickly realize that after slavery, Jim Crow, and separate-but-equal laws that lasted for decades that black people have never fully recovered from slavery. And while Snoop Dogg was having his own protest on Instagram, asking for the media to talk more about our accomplishments than history, this part of history is the key to our future.

Not to speak for the majority, but there isn’t a feeling of healing that I sense in our nation. It’s a lot to unpack — from the physicality of the brutality of slavery to the colorism that it’s caused in the black community.

Ashley: I get the argument that Hollywood makes too many slave franchises. We need more diversity when depicting black life on film and TV. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of movies and television events like Roots. I think Americans need reminders of what slavery did to us, where we came from, and how far we need to go. Roots helps connect the dots of how we are still afflicted by the legacy of slavery.

Lindsay: What are our thoughts on the way women were presented in the first episode?

Ashley: Roots, for everything good that the mini-series and book is known for, always seems to fall short when it comes to how women are portrayed. This new one is no exception. Part of me gets it. This is the narrative of a specific man and his family, and not a woman. But if you look at the women we’ve encountered so far — Kunta’s mother; his love interest Jinna; a woman aboard the slave ship who is raped routinely by the captain; and Elizabeth, the plantation owner’s wife — their roles in the story feel one-dimensional. One part in particular bothered me. As Kunta is acclimating to life on the plantation, out of nowhere another slave approaches him and offers herself to Kunta. “If you want me, you can have me,” she says. Who is this woman? Why is she giving herself to Kunta like this? We never know because this scene passes in the flash of an eye, and we don’t see her for the remainder of part one. We don’t know her story, her struggle, or the reasoning behind her actions because, as we see over and over again, Roots is the story of a man, not a woman.

Roots. Photo: Steve Dietl/History Channel

Ashley: Let’s talk about how Roots depicts ways the institution of slavery made conscious efforts to reduce a sense of power, entitlement, and, to a certain extent, masculinity in black men.

Lindsay: The toughest moment for me was seeing the escaping slave shot in the back, as many black men — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, and countless more — have also become part of this pattern of tragedy. Kunta Kinte’s father’s words “The two most important days in a man’s life are the day he was born and the day he understands why” stuck with me after watching. Seeing something as brutal as Roots makes me try to reason with how human beings could be filled with that much hate and greed to try to destroy such a beautiful people. The only solace I personally found was to think of one of my favorite old proverbs that says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Ashley: That Roots illustrates the life Kunta led before he was enslaved is so important. The narrative of black history in America rarely, if ever, sheds light on African life before slavery. Or worse yet, the narrative is rife with stereotypes and depictions of African life through the narrow lens of a conquering Western perspective. A strong point in Roots is that you see Kunta as a young warrior, as someone who dreams of going to university, and as a child who is supported by the strength of his mother and father. The disenfranchisement of blacks is a uniquely American development. You see the seeds of the reduction of Kunta’s inherent sense of power and authority in this first installment of Roots. From the agony of the middle passage to the very end, when he is literally beaten into acknowledging his new name, the fruit of white suppression of black rights and privilege is rotten to its core.

Much of this is still relevant today. Maybe Roots will help people understand why even now it stings when white America strips us of our achievements. Why when a Harvard professor is arrested outside of his home it hurts like hell. Why when we are reduced to entertainers purely for white consumption it burns. Why so many young black men struggle to show emotions because an institution pelted into their brain that their pain was never worthy of avowal.

Lindsay: Was there any particular theme in Roots that really struck a chord with you?

Roots. Photo: Casey Crafford/A+E Networks

Ashley: The use of song was very powerful. This of course was not a new concept to me — go to any black church in America and the lyrics to the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” are perched in at least one pew. But I’m happy that a wider audience is able to witness the pull of song and music in the account of black history. You see the use of song in the beginning of the episode in Gambia in a celebratory manner, as well as a call to action. On the boat in the middle passage, it’s used both as a source of derision when the slaves were forced to dance, and as a unifier when Kunta and the other slaves used song to communicate and orchestrate a coup. Once Kunta reaches Virginia, you see music played out much differently. There it’s a reminder of the past and, at one point, a tool to find freedom.

Lindsay: I don’t think I’ve fully wrapped my head around the slaves’ loss of identity, but it’s hard to talk about it and be okay around people in a normal setting after watching Kunta Kinte’s transition. I don’t know much about my own ancestors before my great-great-grandparents, but to know that they were probably in the same situation, facing the same pain every day and somehow found the will to keep on, just baffles me. I’m not one to get mad often, but there’s a sense of rage that rises up in watching Roots.

Seeing his home, where he is from, his culture, his people, his journey to becoming a Mandika warrior — all these things — get erased when he’s sold into slavery is extremely powerful.

The scene where Kunta Kinte refuses to eat whatever concoction the slave owners were giving him, and they said, “Kunta Kinte, you will not live if you do not eat,” and Kunta Kinte said, “Let me die,” felt incredibly visceral and finite. When he realized that he was no longer a warrior with freedom, and that, even though they outnumbered the slave owners, he no longer had brothers because he was in a new land where slaves were full of fear, that was all too real for me.

And then there’s the scene where they tied him to the pole and whipped him for what seemed like an eternity, and they say they won’t whip him if he says his name is Toby, and he says, “I am Kunta Kinte.” He doesn’t want to lose his heritage, and that means more than any moment of torture he had to endure. This was probably the most famous moment in the original Roots, and it’s just as powerful in the update.

Ashley: So you’ll be watching the rest? Or do you think it’s too hard to take?

Lindsay: I was halfway watching with my eyes closed at certain points, but I feel like I should for the sake of knowledge and understanding parts about my history that I may not even know yet. 

Young, Black, and Watching Roots