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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.


“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.


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!


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



According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

Oivia & Mom stacked

Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.


Norah Olivia and me

Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.


bird in the fabric closet 2

Olivia and Dina


Olivia Cole was one of my mom’s good friends in high school. They were both in the theatre group, at their girls’ only school in the city. There were girls of every shade and religion there and none of that mattered. I got the sense that they were in a safe haven in that school, where the limitations placed on other girls in the fifties just didn’t apply to them.

Mom went off to film school in California after that, and Olivia went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then Mom went on to work as a film editor, and got married, and had kids, and found that film work was not on the right schedule for parenting two little kids, and one big one. And Olivia moved out to Los Angeles, married, divorced and won an Emmy.


Olivia wins an Emmy!

I’d seen Olivia’s picture in the yearbook and heard her name, but I’d never met her myself. And then North and South, the miniseries, came on TV, and I was busily watching Patrick Swayze and listening to southern accents when I saw Olivia. I started screaming and calling for my Mom – Is that her?! And it was. I knew (of) someone who was on TV!

When I was in seventh grade, I got to see her on stage in A Raisin in the Sun, and then I saw her in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and a miniseries with Oprah Winfrey. But all of this time I still didn’t know her. I saw her in another play a few years later and she came out to meet us, and I was shy, and she smiled and called me “A tall drink of water” or was it “long” drink of water. Not sure. But she was still a stranger, a mirage even. When she was on stage or on my TV, she wasn’t really Olivia, and I wasn’t sure who she might be in real life. She wasn’t the kind of actress who played herself over and over, she played characters who were nothing like her, except that they used her eyes and her voice. They even changed her body, making her walk, her body language, the shape of her, unrecognizable.

olivia cole - the women of brewster place

Olivia in the Women of Brewster Place.

And then, when I was in my twenties, she came to stay with us. She had to sell her father’s house on the island and Mom offered our apartment as base of operations. Normally Olivia would have stayed in the city with her mother, but this was more convenient, and, more importantly, a chance to catch up with an old friend.

We had Dina then. She was probably ten years old, a black lab mix from the shelter, still in good health, and calmer than she’d been for the most of her life. I was still at my shyest back then (and only a few steps removed from that even now). I think Olivia was the only adult who ever slept over at the apartment (nephews, no matter what they might think, do not count as adults). Olivia was this mix of grand theatrical wisdom and down to earth, plain spoken quiet. And she loved my dog. And Dina loved Olivia.

dina smiles


Dina did not have many friends. Little children were as frightened of her as she was of them. They would see her black hair and sharp teeth and hide behind their mothers. Dina would see their quick movements, and short stature, and sit down by my leg with her back hair raised up. When people asked if she would bite, I had to say yes, she might do that. She’d tried to bite me, for picking her up when she didn’t want to be moved, for leaving her home when she wanted to come with me.

I took her to therapy with me for a few months, when she was suffering from unbearable separation anxiety, and maybe just knowing where I went without her, knowing what the place smelled like and sounded like, calmed her down. By the time Olivia visited, Dina was doing better, but she was still Dina. So Olivia’s matter of fact and immediate friendship was disarming and surprising to her. She wasn’t used to being liked by strangers. The two of them went for long walks together, down to the beach, keeping stride, breathing together.


Dina loved to listen to Olivia’s voice.

With people, Olivia was a talker. She had that dramatic raconteur voice, with a touch of her southern Mom and her time in London coming through, and a lot of her time on stage filling out her voice so that even her whispers filled the whole room with a low smoky sound.

I don’t know if Olivia talked to Dina out on their walks, telling her stories of her own dog, Oro, or her trips around the world, or the characters she’d played. Maybe they were just quiet together, breathing in rhythm, walking towards the water and feeling the slight breeze in the air. Whatever it was, they came back content.

Dina had a friend. She didn’t know anything about Emmy awards and Hollywood and pilot season and table readings, all she knew was that this presence had entered her life and offered love of a gentle, fresh, relieving kind.

dina dances

Dina, the dancer.

I have to believe that’s part of what changed things for my Dina. She never became a social butterfly, but something in her anxiety seemed to slow down. As if she’d decided that it was all okay. She didn’t have to get better to be loved, she just had to be.


Olivia Cole is currently in a two-woman play about the Delany sisters, called Having Our Say, in Hartford, Connecticut. If you’re in the area, or plan to be there before April 24th, stop in and see her. She’s magical.

Olivia in Having our say

Olivia in Having Our Say.

This is a review of the play when it was at the Long Wharf theater:

Link to Hartford Stage: