A new “Roots” recently debuted on the History channel, Lifetime and four A&E channels. The classic 1977 series, based on Alex Haley’s book, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” was blockbuster television viewing for millions.
“Roots” changed lives. It followed the life of Kunta Kinte from his African village to a slave ship, to his descendants in plantation slavery in America, through the Civil War. (Mario Van Peebles directed the final episode). The series, ending with the Emancipation Proclamation, will be repeated if you missed it.
“Roots” increased awareness of African Americans’ heritage. It also tweaked interest of other groups to explore their own ethnic origins. A deeper knowledge and increased pride of one’s self and of contributions made by forebears was the result. It will not be surprising if much the same positive result will be stimulated by the new series.
LaVar Burton was the original Kunta Kinte. He was stolen by slavers, fathering a lineage leading to author Haley himself. Burton advised and was Co-Executive Producer of “Roots.” It featured formidable actors—Forest Whitaker as “Fiddler,” Laurence Fishburn as Haley—and fresh, strikingly handsome newer actors, including Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte. There was suspicion at first, as there often is of many re-makes. There was carping.
Snoop Dogg let loose with an expletives-included diatribe; perhaps he hopes we forget his film, “Soul Plane,” full of racist stereotypes. Strange bed-fellow film critic, Armond White, of the right wing “National Review,” opined the re-make was not necessary. Apparently, as he and right-wing Supreme Court justices see it, “racism is over.”
Most reviewers raved: “powerfully impressive and still relevant;” “universally acclaimed,” said Metacritic. The average citizen—Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American—cannot help but be moved by solid, emotional performances and the impact of a compelling story, based on scholarly accurate research and university advisors.
Newer technology in movie-making, gorgeous colors and historically accurate music (plus sensitive new musical themes by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) enhance the appreciation. Questlove, in explaining why he joined the bold venture, confessed “the story is too important not to be a part of it.”
“Roots” (of America, not just of Black Americans) run deep. They inform us of “who we are.” They reify our names and our sense of belonging to the earth. In the story, each child in the family is presented to God and to the Universe: “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself”! Only the most callous viewer cannot find a brother or sister with whom to identify. The remaining mission is to extend that identification to current day life and politics.
Black Americans, in current day life and politics, continue to struggle. The harshness of slavery is gone but the remnants of institutional racism (and old-fashioned bigotry and violence) remain. Other strange anomalies remain: a major candidate for the presidency (guess who) accepts the blessing of the Ku Klux Klan. Then Trump pretends he “never knew” former “Wizard,” David Duke. Due to this high level racist threat (or because of it) African Americans continue to organize. Mexican Americans heed the call as Trump trashes their ethnic origins. Ethnic minorities are rising up to defend themselves by voting their interests.
African Americans are somewhat ahead in this endeavor. They have long survived and strived to “overcome.” You could say their political struggle in Texas began on “Juneteenth” (a Portmanteau, or conjunction of the month and date). Juneteenth, June 19th, 1865, is celebrated by African Americans—Texans especially—as the day when General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston and issued General Order #3, stating “all slaves are free.”
It (and the Emancipation Proclamation) were limited in scope and application (and immediately opposed by Texas and other previously slave-holding states of the southern Confederacy). Yet, the order began a long history of re-alignment. It is ironic today to think Lincoln’s Republican Party gave the order.
Today, Blacks are engaging in a rebirth of systemic re-organizing; such efforts diminished since the assassination of Dr. King (“Nation,” 16 May 2016). The 30 percent Black population of Texas at that time is no more. But the current 12 percent (state and approximate nation-wide) is a force to be reckoned with. It will be taken for granted by any political party at the risk of major electoral disaster.
African Americans know who are their friends and enemies. Black collective memory in Texas includes the “Black Codes” designed to continue involuntary servitude. A poll tax (pay to vote) was imposed in the 1890s. It was not removed until 1963 (NOT voluntarily, but by order of the Supreme Court and the national—Democratic—Congress).
Objections to repeal in the State Legislature centered on the alarming fear “minorities would flood the polls.” Blacks could not legally serve on juries nor hold public office. They could not marry whom they loved (if of another ethnic group). The infamous “White Primary” was added, completing disenfranchisement. Conservative Republicans even called themselves openly the “Lily Whites.” Perhaps they should be so honest today?
Today is a new day. Blacks, who had voted Republican (when they could, under the first Reconstruction) now vote Democratic. They are the most loyal ethnic group (81 percent) and their voter turn-out last election cycle was 66 percent (vs Whites, 64 percent). Their support, especially in key states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, is crucial to Democrats.
Black support will be sorely needed this year. Typically, “elections to replace a two-term president are very close” (Amy Walter and Paul Wasserman, “African American Voters: Overlooked Key,” Cook Political Report, 2015). African Americans are especially incensed by voter suppression in Texas and 16 other southern states. They feel the impact of the continuation by White Republicans of the Civil War most others thought long over.
Responsible Black citizens and other reasonable people have seen the Republican Congress refuse to grant the first African American President his appointments or policies. Republicans even refuse to act to help control the Zika virus in Latin America and, now, in the U.S. Their candidate for president has not mentioned this pandemic. We are no longer talking about political rights alone, but about rights to life and medical care.
Even the Civil Rights of the 1960s, led by JFK, LBJ, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and civic leaders, failed to eradicate the decades of denial of rights totally. Hence, the fight continues. In Texas, valiant Black leaders such as former and current Congressional Representatives Barbara Jordon, Mickey Leland, Craig Washington, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Sheila Jackson Lee and others symbolize the sophistication, determination and influence of African Americans.
But even before the rise of such luminaries, unsung Black heroes existed: Buffalo Soldiers; Black Seminole Scouts; legendary Black Texas entertainers such as “blues” singer, Blind Lemon Jefferson. They and many others had left their mark on the general culture. The political landscape would not be as fertile without the guidance and memories of those who came before.
Many African Americans—historically and today—are proud of their name (or found a new, self-inspiring name, from Africa or elsewhere). They were nourished by their own family’s Kunta Kinte. They were inspired by their rise to action since Juneteenth. They continue the struggle, knowing the “only thing greater” than their sacred soul is God and the Universe.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows British actor Malachi Kirby playing Kunta Kinte in the new “Roots.” Photo credit: Casey Crafford.