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Watching Roots

 

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.

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“I’ll help you, Mommy!”

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.

Norah Olivia and me

Mom and Olivia

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.

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Cricket is worried about “everything.”

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!

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The girls are still grumpy that they didn’t get to go.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

60 responses »

  1. Yes, if we can de-humanize people, we can treat them any way we want. It’s been like that throughout history. So terribly sad and tragic. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Well, I must say that Cricket and Ellie pout adorably! I am so happy to hear that the book signing went well. I was thinking about you, Rachel. Looking forward to next week’s post.

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  3. Powerful post. Well written.

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  4. I am very grateful America is still the land of the free and the home of the brave. I am glad the signing went well!

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  5. You are a very courageous person. I have mostly stopped watching horrifying things — I’ve learned in agonizing detail about slavery and about the Holocaust. More recently I have found out about the routine torture in America’s prisons.

    I’m convinced, I act, and I stop re-traumatizing myself. But the stories need to be told, and the young need to see and understand.

    Looking forward to next week’s post.

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  6. Roots is stunning. Remember watching it as a family years ago. Love the dog photos – so cute. I am so pleased things are going so well with the book.

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  7. Roots was remarkable – good for you for watching it as our country continues to process challenges of race without resolution of those same challenges that made the woman jump off the ship in the middle of the ocean.
    I’m glad your signing went well and look forward to hearing about it!

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    • Watching Roots reminded me of the value of having only a few tv stations. When they decided to air Roots on one of those few channels they created a national event, and reckoning. I’m not sure if that’s possible today.

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  8. Rachael, nicely written article. And I haven’t seen this series, but will surely spare some time to watch it.

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  9. I haven’t watched Roots since the 70’s, and I don’t think I could watch it again. It is quite an experience, though.

    Congratulations on the success of your book signing!

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  10. Someone else has already made this observation, but I must reiterate it: this s a powerful, well-crafted post.

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  11. Really moving post. I remember watching it as a child in rural England and how much it affected me. The first time I really heard about slavery and racism.

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  12. Glad the book signing went well.

    I remember Roots. It was an excellent series, and I cried a lot.

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  13. Well done for such an excellent write up. Everyone should watch this series, however harrowing it is to view. The prejudices and injustices still remain today.

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  14. I watched this the first time around, when it was serialised on the BBC. I remember how it seemed to be unflinching in its portrayal, powerful for the time, and it was one of the most-watched programmes that year here.
    Glad to hear the book-signing went well! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  15. “Roots” was part of an American awakening to its past sins. Many of these wrongs have not yet been resolved.

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  16. It’s a rough one to watch, but well worth it. Congrats on your book signing.

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  17. I never watched Roots. I was in junior high when it was on and everybody else seemed to, so I heard about it. I had read the book, abridged in Reader’s Digest, and we learned about the horrors of slavery in 8th grade social studies (minus the rapes, as I recall). I honor you for sitting through it when it was so difficult for you. You are a sensitive soul. Take care of yourself. And pet your adorable pooches for me.

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  18. Hello Rachel!! I never watched Roots either. One of these snowy days I am going to have to. Your fur babies are absolutely adorable. Hope all is well! If I’ll probably be traveling down to Long Island in April and I’m hoping I can catch one of your book signing events!!

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  19. I missed it first time around, too. Maybe this is something I need to watch with our teens.

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  20. I watched it when it came out. It is important to know how totally groundbreaking it was. There had never been anything remotely like it on American tv. The reality that enslaved people came from somewhere, that they had histories worth remembering was revolutionary. So many black citizens(not yet calling themselves African American)had no felt connection to Africa. That changed with this series.

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  21. So glad you took the time to watch it–it’s one of those shows that stands the test of time. It was HUGE back when it came out . . .

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  22. “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?”
    You may be right, but I am 73 years old and I have never heard rape discussed even remotely like this. I do think that it may be more difficult for men to understand the depths of this gross violation of human dignity, but going back to biblical times we find men avenging the rape of their loved one by murdering the perpetrator, so it has always been taken quite seriously in many or most instances. Of course rape continues to occur by people who are in the grips of evil or possibly delusion, and war seems to deaden the moral sensitivities of many, but I wonder if even rapists take rape lightly.
    Of course, Roots takes place in the context of slavery, when, incredibly to most people today, an entire group of people was essentially considered to be less than human, and it didn’t matter what was done to them for most of those with this mindset. I think Roots was instrumental in exposing the depths of this historical horror.

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  23. YAY!!! SO GLAD TO HEAR THE BOOK SIGNING EVENT WENT WELL! (Yes, I am shouting in excitement!) I can’t wait to read all about it!

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  24. I can’t imagine watching Roots as it was difficult enough to read it!

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  25. Well written write up on Roots Rachel . I have watched it quite a while ago now, and still have VHS tapes. A lot of this has not changed sad to say. You refreshed my mind and will have to carry on watching the story un fold .
    Best Wishes
    Hugs to the girls xx

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  26. I haven’t watched Roots yet, but it’s been on my list of “I know I should watch it and I’ll get around to it… someday.” Thanks for the write up – it has moved up a little higher in my priority.

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  27. Thanks for visiting my blog!

    Reply
  28. Nice Post

    Reply

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