American History A thru X... Featuring the Quest for Love


Miniseries, 1977

Roots: The Next Generations
Miniseries, 1979

The TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots has loomed large in the background of my psyche ever since I saw it as a child in 1977.  I subconsciously expect everyone to have seen it and integrated it into their view of American history, and it sometimes shocks me when I realize that I'm talking to someone who doesn't understand the less-than-idyllic perspective of this country that Roots makes clear.

Roots and Roots: The Next Generations (henceforth to be referred to collectively as "Roots" unless otherwise specified) tells the story of one branch of author Alex Haley's American family, from "the African" Kunta Kinte, brought to America as a slave before the Revolutionary War, on up to Haley's publication of Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976.  Haley has always called the book a work of "faction," being based on what facts he could glean from oral family history and surviving records, with gaps filled in by the general truth of African-American history and out-and-out fictive storytelling to make the whole pastiche tell a story.

The Saga of an American Family

The long, long journey begins with Kunta Kinte, a young African tribesman in the area now known as Gambia.  One day in the 1760s, he was out looking for a tree to carve into a drum when he was captured by white slavers and packed like merchandise into a ship's hold for delivery to the American Colonies, enduring the horrors that we now understand such a journey to have entailed.  Kunta, we are shown, resists more than most and ultimately suffers the consequences for his untamed spirit.  He's whipped severely and eventually has half of one foot cut off to keep him from running away again.

In addition to a general desire for freedom, part of Kunta's motivation for running away is to see another slave from the ship that he has fallen in love with, but he eventually "jumps the broom" with Belle, a born and bred American slave.  They have a daughter whom he names "Kizzy," a word from his tribe meaning to "stay put."

But Kizzy doesn't stay put.  She grew up alongside her owner's daughter, who thought it would be funny to teach her to read and write.  When Kizzy gets older, she forges some travelling papers for a fellow slave she had fallen in love with.  This leads her owner to sell her to a much less "gentlemanly" farmer, who has a particular fondness for the sexual company of young slave girls.

Kizzy has a son by him named George.  He grows to become an expert cock-fighter, gaining the title Chicken George.  Unlike his mother and grandfather, George is not a born runner.  His prowess with the roosters grants him something of an elevated status, though less than that of a "house" slave.  It's only later his life, when he grows in his perspective of his owner's abuses and betrayals that he sets his sights more and more on freedom.  George marries Matilda and they have a son, Tom.  When their owner falls on hard times, he hires out Chicken George to a wealthier man who can still afford high stakes cock-fighting, promising George his freedom when he returns in three years (a promise he has betrayed before).

Three years turns into significantly more, but as promised, George is granted his freedom when he returns.  Unfortunately, free blacks are not allowed to live in the county where Matilda and Tom are owned, so George is absent from their lives for years at a time.  They are finally reunited when the Civil War frees them all.  This, roughly, constitutes the arc of the original Roots miniseries.

In The Next Generations, Tom takes the stage, leading the family out of slavery and the abuses of sharecropping. Tom is able to carry over a marketable skill from slavery and earns what is for a freed slave, a respectable income as a blacksmith.  This puts him in a leadership position in the negro community, which in turn sees him courted by white politicians.  When the Klan becomes active, he starts notching a code into the horseshoes of suspected white men, thus revealing their identities.  Turning them in backfires on him, and race relations in town go from antipathy to antagonism.

This places him on the front line of political betrayal as politicians lobby for their support as voters, while competing to be the biggest racist available for the white vote.  When the whites conclude that it would just be easier to deny blacks the vote, it's Tom who bears the humiliation of literacy testing and insulting denial of his rights with measured dignity.

Tom's daughter Cynthia courts and eventually married Will Palmer.  Will has had the good sense to see an opportunity for stable work and proved himself to the owner of the lumber yard.  He keeps the business running despite the aging, unreliable, alcoholic owner and eventually the community leaders (including the bank that holds the mortgage) ask him to take over operation of this essential community function.  The Palmer family grows into the middle class, which naturally begets resentment from ignorant white farmers.

Will is able to send his daughter Bertha to college where she falls in love with Simon Haley, the son of a poor sharecropper.  Simon's father decides he can't afford any more useless schooling for his son, but Simon is committed -- not just to elevating himself, but the race.  He spends a summer working as a Pullman coach porter.  He experiences the betrayals of corporate America and witnesses the traps set for the working negro -- both the external; such as company spies trying to shake loose potential union agitators, and the internal; such as gambling addiction.  He dedicates himself to sticking it out, and in a chance encounter demonstrates dignified customer service and thoughtful humanity to a patron who turns out to be the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post.  When he shows the faith to return to school without being sure where he's going to get the rest of his tuition, he finds that the publisher has already paid it, provided that Simon had the will to take a chance on himself.

No sooner than Simon has completed his bachelor's degree (literally no sooner, in fact, on the very day), he joins the army to serve in World War I, with ideas of elevating the image and position of American negroes through service.  The negro soldiers are given the worst jobs and treated as cannon fodder, but he survives.  He returns to an America where news photos of black soldiers with guns have paranoid racists terrified beyond reason, and Simon and his friends are caught up in the Knoxville race riots of 1919.

After that, Simon and Bertha are finally able to get on with their life together.  Simon earns a Master's Degree in agriculture and goes to work helping farmers to get the most from their land without sucking it dry.  As you might expect, poor white farmers react adversely to an educated black man suggesting what they should or should not grow on their land -- or in most cases, the landowner's land.  When a landowner tries to swindle a black sharecropper, Simon is literally caught in the crossfire.  Simon and Bertha have three sons, including Alex Haley.

Alex is resistant to his father's plans for him, dropping out of college at 17 and ending up in the Coast Guard, at Simon's insistence that military service would do him good (seemingly forgetting the Hell that it was for him).  While serving in perpetual kitchen duty in the Guard, World War II breaks out.  At a church-sponsored dance for servicemen, Alex meets Nan, whom he courts chastely over the course of several dances, and eventually marries, apparently on the crest of teenage hormones.

During the war, Alex develops a talent -- and a cottage industry -- for writing love letters on the behalf of his shipmates to their girls.  This begins to pull writing into focus as his passion.  After the war, he's so committed to writing that he ignores his wife and children, and they eventually leave him.  He continues to struggle to get work and scrapes by writing for magazines.  Magazine assignments include interviews with the George Lincoln Rockwell; head of the American Nazi party, and Malcolm X.  The latter turns into a full book length autobiography, which was Haley's first high-profile work.

Following this, he begins to take more and more of an interest in the family's oral history of "The Old African" Kunta Kinte and the generations that flowed from him.  Again, he becomes obsessed with his work, neglecting his relationship with his then girlfriend.  He follows the threads of history through what few records remain, and finally talks a publisher into funding a trip to Gambia to complete his research.  In Gambia, he is introduced to a griot (storyteller) from the Mandinka tribe, who tells him the story of the tribe, including the capture of Kunta Kinte.  The circle is complete.

Now, there's obviously a lot more to the story than this, and I did a deliberately incomplete job of summarizing it, but I felt it was necessary to provide some framework for the considerations to follow.  I left out a lot of the horrible treatment perpetrated against Haley and his ancestors, and I also left out most of the occurrences of white conscience, but they are there in the series.

The Goods

As a production, Roots is showing its age, much in the way that Kunta Kinte showed his age by turning from a young LeVar Burton to a middle-aged John Amos in the space of six years.  It didn't have the highest production values to begin with, being a television production of the 1970s.  Many scenes look like the product of the Universal back lot.

The performances, in particular, have not aged with the greatest of grace.  Many of the actors are suited to the tastes of another age and there are some over-the-top, stagey, or just -- ahem -- not-so-good moments in the acting.  It plays as melodrama more than drama in places.  Then again, there are still plenty of powerful and touching moments.  These things will matter more to some than others.  We're living in an age where naturalism is a given expectation for many, and yet Halle Barry and Renee Zellweger have both won Oscars, so there's that.

For film buffs, it's fun to watch just for the stars bursting from the seams.  From Ed Asner and LeVar Burton to James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando with most of the black actors of the 70s, Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in between.

One of the weaker links in the series is the music.  There are many times when it seems really inappropriate in tone.  This is owed largely to a lot of aw-shucksy good-ol'-times-in-Dixie banjo in awkward places.  The variations on the primary Roots theme, however, maintain a sense of consistency as one family thread weaves through time.

That being said, the narrative remains powerful, creating an engaging emotional link between the viewer and the characters that threads throughout the history of the United States.  Where something like (the perfectly good) 12 Years a Slave presents us with an isolated story of one black man who was made a slave, Roots gives us a greater context for this experience.  We see it from different angles, in different times, with a broader inclusion of the families it involved.  And then we see that history evolve as America evolved, and the lineage of one family connected, generation by generation into a time and America that we more closely recognize as our own.  It takes it out of isolation and makes it ours.  It disallows us from treating our history as something separate from our world today.  This is still one of the most important things to have ever run on broadcast television and it's a shame that it isn't run more often.  It ought to be part of the curriculum in American schools, public or otherwise.

Fact, Fiction, "Faction," Factions and Truth

As I mentioned earlier, Haley calls Roots a work of "faction," which is to say that it a blending of fact and fiction.  It's a given that he wasn't present for two hundred year old conversations, but as it turns out, some of the presumed facts were not necessarily so.  Shortly after the miniseries aired on television, Haley was sued for plagiarism by another author, and settled with him, admitting that certain parts of Kunta Kinte's story had been inspired by a book called The African by Harold Courlander.  Furthermore, not all of the details about Kunta square up with historical records.  On top of this, it is alleged that the Mandinka griot Haley met may not have been a griot at all, but told the story he believed Haley wanted to hear.

Because of these inconsistencies, you will find some people on the internet declaring the entire work a lie and a scam.  Racist organizations and individuals use these elements to discount the entire narrative because, frankly, it makes them and their racist pappy and grandpappies look bad.  Poor them.

Roots may not be entirely factual, but it is TRUE, and in a way, that's better for all of us.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as black cultural awareness was exploding, the concept of digging into one's familial roots was fostered, but not originated by Alex Haley's Roots.  It's fairly normal human behavior for one to want their family to have a significant heritage, a qualitative pedigree.  Look at the Mormon obsession with genealogy or the importance many Southerners and Midwesterners place on "blood kin."  Whole swaths of the Bible are dedicated to who allegedly begat whom.  All over the world, we have people who are unable to let go of centuries-old ethic divides that fall somewhere in the range of irrelevant-to-outright-destructive.

Everyone wants to feel good about the place they come from, because for much of the world, this is what tells them who they are.  It's normal.  It might not be the healthiest thing for us, moving into a much smaller, much more fluid world, but that's normal human behavior.  No sane person ever said that humans were sane people.

For African Americans, the pursuit of this knowledge and the desire to make peace with who and where they came from is much, much more reasonable than most.  They had that stolen from them.  They had the fact of their birth treated as a kind of sin, to be punished in the harshest possible way by the most extreme of possible hypocrites.

Not only do we look to our heritages for identity, but also for validation.  We have a latent impression left over from everything from tribal to monarchical culture that our ancestors make us special.  I am by no means letting the United States off the hook with this behavior.  The sense of entitlement exercised by the wealthy is just as stupid and sick as any inbred prince (see: Romney, Mitt; Bush, George W. ad nauseum).  Speaking from my own experience; while I never had much interest in my own family's lineage (outside of Cherokee connections), there were exactly 2 points of interest for me pertaining to my family tree.  One; that on my mother's side, we are alleged to have descended from Peter, the "Little Dutch Boy" who stuck his finger in the dike to hold back the flood.  Two; that on my father's side, my Oklahoman grandmother's research showed that we were descended from Godwin, Earl of Wessex.  The reason that I, as a young person, took an interest in these two particular points in my lineage was that they seemed special, which meant that I could be special; that I was heir to bravery and nobility.  (It's perhaps befitting the disappointments of adulthood to now discover that The Little Dutch Boy isn't even a Dutch story and it seems that Godwin managed to back both sides of the Battle of Hastings still come out a loser.)

I'm hardly alone in this behavior.  And again, it makes a lot of sense that African Americans, who for so long had been treated as less-than-human might want, like any of us, to have that general desire to belong as much as any human, and that personal desire to be special -- especially a writer like Alex Haley who had a hard time just feeling accepted by his own father, who had achieved so much in other fields.

Normal.  Understandable.

So when Haley began filling in the gaps of his family history, it's both normal and understandable that he would fill it in with things like the bravery of Kunta Kinte in resisting the slavers, and the dignity with which he endeavored to keep the language of his people alive in his bloodline.  We don't know the facts of his case, but we DO know for a fact that someone resisted, and paid the price, and that someone struggled to keep a sense of identity alive, not necessarily in Haley's lineage, but in the totality of the African American experience throughout 400 years of slavery.

That it's not necessarily true of Haley makes it essentially true for all who share in the legacy of black slavery.  The collective narrative is enriched.  While it may matter to Alex Haley to connect his family to various important moments in Black American History, what matters to everyone else is that the history of black people in America is part of ALL Americans' history.

This is also, by the way, why "Black History Month" robs us all.  What we are really talking about is American History, with a focus on the contributions of Black Americans.  There was once a time when it made sense to make it more proprietary and pride based, but it's time that it was folded into ALL our histories the same way that we should ALL be folded into an equitable society.

When we couch things in the context of "sides," we rob ourselves and others of the truth, and in so doing, we are further robbed of the opportunity to grow from it.

And Now a Word About THAT Word...

The word is "nigger," and now I'm done using it.*

Roots, however, uses it a lot.

That is not a valid reason to avoid Roots or to hide children away from it, because when Roots uses it, it uses it in context.

Context is the single biggest thing missing in our national sort-of-discussion-but-really-just-reactionary-agenda-pushing about "The N Word."  When I used it, just about, I used it in the context of discussing the word.  That is something that a thoughtful person in a free society is allowed to do.  I didn't use it in the context of a person or even a race, but in the context of the word itself.

Roots -- or rather the characters IN Roots -- use it in its traditional historical context, and in our modern context, we see it with a new perspective and meaning.  When it's used by one character against another in Roots, it is intended as the deepest of debasements.  It's use is intended to rob human beings of their humanity, to indicate that their purpose is limited and subject to the whims of others.

When, however, we hear that use in our time, it has a meaning that goes beyond the intention.  When it's used now, it means that the speaker wants to mean the old meaning, which really tells us about the user.  So the stigma that has been placed on using the word is not a law, is not a threat, but is the burden of the implications of its use.  No one is (or should be) telling others that they cannot legally use the word.  However, using the word as a debasement tells all of the rest of us that YOU, sir or madam, are a racist piece of shit.  THAT is the meaning of the word in a modern context.  Being racist is not okay.  We know this now, and those who resist knowing that have made the CHOICE to be WRONG.  Not wrong like a bad answer, but wrong as a state of being.  Where the words say "You can't say that," the meaning is "You can't say that... if you want to be seen as a decent human being."

For those who are feeling like arguing with me about the application of context right now, consider the following two scenarios:
  • A Tea Party Congressperson uses the word in an email.
  • Ice Cube uses the word in song.
Yeah, not exactly the same thing, are they?  I'm not exactly comfortable with either use, but I accept that context colors the meaning and the level of offense.  Once we accept this, then we can move on to some finer distinctions.

So, when Roots uses it -- and it used it a shocking amount for something I watched on network television as a child (to my current perspective) -- it uses it in context.  The white characters use it as a debasement.  The show does not.  The black characters use it as victims of said debasement.  When Quentin Tarantino uses it in his screenplays, he also uses it in context.  In Django Unchained, he used it in exactly the same context as Roots, and in exactly the same context as 12 Years a Slave.  Accusing Tarantino of being racist for writing the words into a racist character's mouth is like accusing Steven Spielberg of the Holocaust for writing it into Schindler's List.  So yeah, we're done bitching about Quentin.

I'm not going to get into the hair-splitting finer points of how the word is used within the African American community today.  Contextually, I've seen about 3 or 4 different uses & meanings for it, but that ain't my particular cross to bear.  Instead, I'll simply offer this story...

One day, when I was working as a paraeducator for disabled and/or behaviorally challenged students, I got hoodwinked into serving as a school bus monitor on one of the short busses.  These were kids whose histories of behavior made it untenable for them to remain in an ordinary neighborhood school.  Because I had been sandbagged with bus duty and they did not know me, they decided to stir shit with me just because they didn't know how not to.  The ringleader of the group was a chunky black boy, probably around 12 years old.  Having worked with plenty of these kids by that point, I took a position of eye-rolling semi-amusement, and I volleyed his impotent and illogical insults back at him by turning his words around and giving them back.  When he saw that he wasn't getting the kind of reaction he wanted, he made a comment about "what kind of nigger" he was (*okay, done using it NOW).  Now me, I don't use the word unless I'm discussing it in context because I hate what it says about both the subject of its use and the user themselves.

As soon as I stopped responding, he crowed with victory, knowing that if I had used it, it would mean my job, and if I hadn't, it meant he won the volley.  In either case, this was a kid who had learned to take even smallest cheating victory, because there was very little victory of any other kind in his life.

How tragic, I thought, that he would accept a word that debased him and his people as a shortcut to petty victory.  How much sadder then, to think that this was certainly not a tactic that he had invented himself, but picked up from the polarized behavior of an American culture that prizes reactionary legalism over the truth gathered from widening our perspectives.

And that's all that I have to say about how it's used in the black community.

Now, the way that it's used by whites is a godforsaken disgrace.

I will sum this up in a brief discussion of not-a-doctor Laura Schlessinger, who DID use the word, repeatedly and on the air, with a black caller.  The "point" she was trying to make by hijacking a discussion about the caller's interracial marital problems was why she wasn't allowed to use it when many black people were still able to.  This is hardly a unique complain amongst conservative culture trolls, and it's as wrong-headed as pretty much everything else about them, but more pointedly so.

First of all, the question itself is false.  No one is saying that she CAN'T use it.  Constitutionally, she can and there is no law on the books anywhere in the nation that says she can't.  What not-a-doctor Laura is REALLY saying is "Why can't I use it without bearing the responsibility of how its use defines me?"  She wants to be racist without being seen as "a racist."  This vehement resistance to the meaning of words is pretty hilarious (you know, the pathetic kind of hilarity) when you consider these are the same people who claim the world will end if the word "marriage" is redefined.

Sidebar: My definition of "marriage" has changed several times, just as
a matter of living my life and learning more about myself and others.
Are you sure you really mean to be saying what you're saying about
yourself when you fret about about what it means in the lives of
people who are not you, because it's pretty brave of you, admitting
that you're that craven, weak & stupid.

Could go on.  Won't.  The incident led to the end of her awful career of being shitty to people and telling them how to ruin their lives by accepting her version of morality, as it should have.  She can say it all she wants in the privacy of her own personal hell.

Anyway, that was the roundabout way of saying, yes, Roots has THAT WORD in it, and yes, THAT WORD is offensive, but Roots uses it in its appropriate context.

It should be offensive.  

A large part of American history is.

The question is what we choose to learn from it, and we're not learning if we're not talking about it.