The late Alex Haley’s Roots television series is now airing on the A&E network and History Channel. It is a re-make of the original series that came out in 1977 when I was a student in high school. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind at the moment.
I agree that Roots should be mandatory viewing for our youth, millennials especially as they might otherwise ignore it, not sensing or seeing off the bat how it all connects to today. All should also read Alex Haley's book by that same title—and also Haley's other classic text, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley.
For us college professors and high school teachers, many of us need to find the time and space in our teaching to share these and other important texts in our classrooms. Another excellent volume that comes to mind is Dr. Theresa Perry's Teaching Malcolm X: Popular Culture and Literacy.
It has been 40 years since the original movie came out and it had a lasting impact on me. I feel confident that Roots will positively impact a new generation in terms of the development of their critical consciousness of which knowing about one's roots as an individual and as a nation are a crucial part.
Another suggestion. Check out the hashtags #Roots, #KuntaKinte and #RootsSeries to see how folks on Twitter are reacting, with moving, poignant and profound commentary.
Arizona State University Associate Professor Matthew Delmont, authored a book titled, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (due out on August 2016) is also blogging on this. What an awesome opportunity to write a book on the making of the movie.
Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar's reflections on the remake appear on this American History Blog (see below) that you may wish to continue visiting.
We didn't have Twitter, Facebook, or blogs back in 1977 and so we didn't have the benefit of grasping people's sentiments in real time. It's different today and although there is a lot of hating and hatred in the Twittersphere on #Roots, I am seeing an awful lot of thoughtful, important commentary that you can see for yourselves.
There is no reason why our children should be kept in the dark about the truth of slavery and all other forms of war, genocide, and atrocities that are an outflow of the myth of white supremacy and that finds regular expression today in the form of white privilege—as well as other forms like class, gender, documented status, skin color, and heterosexual privilege.
My final recommendation this evening is a Vimeo titled, Deconstructing White Privilege with Dr. Robin Di Angelo.
Dr. Di Angelo does one of the best jobs I have come across in explaining exactly what White Privilege is.
Lastly, do watch the series. It's outstanding. Hope folks find this helpful.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Professor of Black
Studies and History at the University of Delaware, and she directs the
program in African American history at the Library Company of
Philadelphia. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Her forthcoming book, Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ Runaway Slave, will be published early next year.
Hollywood is onto something.
Historians, including myself, don’t usually make this kind of
comment. Typically we tear Hollywood apart, calling out the historical
inaccuracies of television shows and flailing against overdramatized
films. But tonight, America was reintroduced to a television phenomenon
that restored a bit of my faith in the film industry. On May 30, a new
version of the epic television series Roots began airing on the
History channel, A&E network, and those of us who study the
institution of slavery in America, well, we were captivated.
At the recent conference, “The Future of the African American Past,”
the renowned historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed prompted
everyone in the room to think about the influence of recent events on
the way we write history. The killings in places like Sanford, Florida;
Ferguson, Missouri; and Charleston, South Carolina have had a deep and
profound impact on historians, writers, and, so it seems, directors and
producers. Older narratives about African American history are no rdnger
acceptable to a younger generation of viewers and readers. Fortunately
for them, we have more than forty years of groundbreaking scholarship
that has changed everything. A new era of film and television now
presents shows like Underground, Roots, and soon The Birth of a Nation. The terms have been reset for how we interpret and represent the lives of the enslaved.
The first episode of Roots begins on the Middle Passage, the
journey that took untold numbers of kidnapped Africans to early and
demonic deaths in the sugar cane and coffee fields of the Caribbean. A
young Kunta Kinte from Juffureh, West Africa, appears chained, fearful,
and ferociously angry. Just like millions of other Africans, Kinte was
the victim of an African internal slave trade that spiraled out of
control with the involvement of Europeans. The barbarity of his
kidnapping, abuse, and branding with the infamous stamp of the
Lloyd’s of London offer gut-wrenching attention to Africa’s internal
warfare. Scholars such as Stephanie Smallwood, Daina Ramey Berry, Edna
Greene Medford, and Lucy Duran steered the series’ directors and
producers in the right direction, correcting many historical
inaccuracies while adding depth to the lives of West Africans. The first
episode clearly demonstrates how increasingly difficult it was to hold
onto freedom when it was perched precariously next to enslavement. I
imagine that this will be a theme that is touched on throughout the
What I found most powerful in the first episode was its attention to
slave resistance. Kunta Kinte’s training as a Mandinka warrior could not
overpower the might of European slavery, but it prepared him to fight
slavery at every turn. He constantly tries to escape and to fight his
captors, and he is unafraid to use deadly force. The new Kinte reminds
viewers of the strength and courage of African people, appropriately
challenging the stereotypes of docile and timid slaves. No matter how
degrading the situation, the enslaved did not lack humanity, nor were
they traumatized beyond dignity—a dated myth that is eviscerated in the
first episode. Kinte is reminded of this during his horrific Atlantic
crossing when a countryman declares, “The shame is not ours!” The blame
of slavery is placed squarely on greed and white racism.
I can’t wait for tomorrow night.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s comments on each episode will appear following the East Coast broadcast each night.
Dunbar and colleagues Kellie Carter Jackson, Daina Berry, and Jessica Millward will also participate in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) at Reddit’s AskHistorians forum on Friday,
June 3, aiming to field questions about the history of American
slavery, the slave trade, and the representations of slavery.