One day in February, the Sundance Channel advertised that it would be replaying the original miniseries version of Roots, for Black History Month, and I realized that I’d never actually seen it. I’d seen little clips here and there, but I was too young to watch it the first time around, and I’d never made a point of finding it on video or DVD later on. So I set the DVR to tape every episode, and then made sure that the episodes wouldn’t be erased until I erased them (the DVR generally saves things for two weeks and then they magically disappear), because I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get through all of it.
I knew Roots would be hard to watch, but Mom’s good friend from high school, Olivia Cole, won an Emmy for her role in Roots, and I’d watched everything else Olivia had done on TV, but not this. Mom, of course, had seen Roots when it ran the first time, but she was ready to see it again, if only as a tribute to Olivia, who died a little more than a year ago.
We watched an hour at a time, because I couldn’t handle any more than that, especially when Kunta Kinte was on the slave ship travelling to America. I felt like I was being beaten, and I could almost smell the crowded bowels of the ship, and feel the chains on my wrists and ankles, and chains, like a yoke, around my neck. I felt powerless and triggered and complicit, as if just by watching the horror on the screen I was making it happen. Even more awful was listening to the language of the white men as they discussed their “cargo,” as if the young men were animals. Words like “herd” and “buck” were used constantly. And of course, the “N” word. They talked about the girls as “belly warmers” for the crew to take to bed overnight. I watched one girl jump off the ship, in the middle of the ocean, rather than remain in that dehumanizing world. I wanted to jump with her.
I forced myself to keep watching, though, taking a day or two off between each hour, partly because I needed to see Olivia in her role, and that came later in the series, but also because I needed to watch all of the minutes before and after Olivia, to understand where she fit in.
The moment that shows up in all of the clips is of Levar Burton, as a young Kunta Kinte, being whipped, and refusing to call himself by his “new” name, Toby. The scene was even more powerful in context, because it was clear that the intention was to take his self away from him, not only his language, his home, or his freedom, but his sense of himself as an individual with his own thoughts and his own name.
It took me two weeks to make my way through the whole miniseries, because each time there was a seeming respite from pain, some damned white person had to go and screw it up. There were some elements to the story that felt too easy, too perfect: characters made out to be too noble to be human, or events working out Forest-Gump-like so that this one family experienced all of the highs and lows known at the time about slavery. But the hardest parts, for me, were the endless rapes.
Some men seem to take rape lightly, and I use the present tense advisedly, despite the #MeToo movement and the wisps of awakening that came with it. She’s not dead. You can’t even see any bruises. So why is it such a big deal? But the people who made Roots in the 1970s seemed to understand. Rape is the soul destroyer. It’s the violence that goes past your skin and invades your body so that there’s no safe place even inside of yourself.
I keep thinking back to the early episodes of the miniseries, on the slave ship, when the young black men fought to be free, risking their lives against their captors, but the one woman who escaped her chains jumped over the side of the ship, in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of survival. She wasn’t fighting to survive; she was fighting to make it stop, to make the violation stop, and to take back the only thing she had left: her life.
Olivia was wonderful, by the way. She played Mathilda, the wife of Chicken George, Kunta Kinte’s grandson. She had an oracle-like quality to her in the miniseries, and in real life too: the straight-backed wise woman who knows when to pause for dramatic effect. It’s interesting that her character was never raped, or at least it wasn’t told as part of her story, because she was able to maintain her sense of self in a way that other women through the course of the saga were not, and that rings true.
The hopeful ending to the story, when Kunta Kinte’s descendants ride their wagons to a piece of land of their own, is iconic: this is an American family, a family of pioneers discovering their own land and building their lives from scratch. All through the miniseries, the voice overs introducing each episode made it clear that this was the story of an American family, rather than a story of slavery. That message resonates at this moment in our history as a country, when we need to be reminded that being American is not about where we came from, or the color of our skin, but about the freedom to start over and make a new life, despite everything.
We tend to focus on the freedom, instead of on the “everything” that still needs to be overcome, individually and communally. There are so many more stories to be told, about the “everything” that we all need help to overcome.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.
p.s. The Book signing event went well, and I will tell you more about it next week!