*I don’t like to write an intro before the main article but my two pieces on Roots, Roots I and Roots II, are the kind that one finds really hard to translate emotions into words. I wish I could adequately express everything I felt while watching the miniseries but I have come to the realisation that for now, the emotions I felt are too powerful for words. I just hope what I have penned down will give you a measure of what I really need to say*
I grew up on stories of struggles. The struggle for Nigeria’s independence; the struggle for freedom for apartheid, the struggle for freedom of the black man from the white man. Names like Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, Kwame Nkrumah and Kunta Kinte were very familiar names to me and I loved to read about the brave acts of men like these. Of these however, the man I held most in awe was Kunta Kinte. I never watched the original miniseries but I heard his stories and I wanted to be like him. I was fascinated by him: his life as a free man, his capture and his refusal to accept the fate that life suddenly meted out to him, perhaps best represented by his refusal to accept his slave name, Toby.
So when I first heard that a re-adaptation of the original Roots story was being made, I was eager to watch it. I however began to reconsider my position though when I read a story about Snoop Dog asking fans to boycott the movie. He claimed he was sick of watching films that depict the racial abuse that was suffered by African Americans especially when they are still “taking the same abuse”. That made me pause in my tracks and ponder whether I really needed to watch the miniseries. In the past few years, movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave have painted a really uncomfortable picture of the black slavery and the civil rights action in America as well as drawing out from me multiple emotions, a large number of them dark, which I had never thought I possessed. But my curiosity – or morbidity – outweighed my hesitancy and so in no time I was staring at the first pictures of a young Kunta Kinte.
I soon had recourse however to ponder on Snoop Dog’s advice. The brutality, injustice and indignity that the African slaves had to offer were compelling, uncomfortable and almost accusatory. To see people treated less than animals, killed like dogs, completely deprived of their freedom and humanity because of the color of their skin made for very difficult watching. When you let yourself imagine that all these and more were done to millions of people over a long period of time by other humans, you begin to feel almost guilty to be human. It tore out my heart so many times and just when I foolishly allowed myself to think that there was a moment of respite, a light at the end of tunnel, my very soul was torn apart, again and again. It makes me wonder what the actors, especially Malachi Kirby, must have gone through in order to make this seem so real. Even the periods of happiness or normalcy – whatever normalcy there is in slavery – were just preludes to heartwrenching moments, like fattening a pig before slaughter; the image of a stumbling Kunta, screaming his daughter’s name as she is carted away is one such moment I can’t seem to shake from my mind and while 12 Years a Slave had introduced me to the horrors of slaves being whipped, Roots’ depiction was horrific that long before Kunta whispered “Toby” in his own whipping scene, I had muttered my own “Toby” if only to spare him the pain he was going through.
While I dealt with these feelings of rage, despair, hurt and disappointment that were coursing through me, I also had to deal with the confusion of my thirteen year old sister who watched part of the miniseries with me. She saw a child being torn away from her parents, sold into slavery and then raped. She saw black people being subservient to white people, a runaway slave being shot like a wild animal and a race of scared and powerless people and she could not understand why. When I tried explaining it to her, I began to doubt within me whether she needed to hear that story. How do you explain to a little girl that there was a time when her ancestors were captured and sold like chickens at the market place? How do you explain that they were treated like animals, stripped of their dignity, treated as possessions and conditioned to feel powerless? Slave trade and Kunta Kinte are as alien to her as the white man must have been to the black man in the beginning of time. And while I want her to know and understand her African history, I do wonder if she’d be best served learning about Africa’s rich history instead of its darkest stories. Wouldn’t stories about the ancient civilization of Egypt, the wealth of the Mali Empire, the brilliance of the ancient Oyo methods of governance and the bravery of the Mandinka be better and more inspiring stories than the captivity and enslavement of her ancestors?
Maybe Snoop Dog really had a valid point. I mean, when do stories about slavery of blacks become less about history and more about masochism? These stories, whether Selma or 12 Years a Slave or Roots, tell stories of blacks in captivity, in slavery, submissive and cowering, scared and powerless. And even though in each of these stories, there’s a Solomon Northup, a Martin Luther King Jnr, a Kunta Kinte, there are thousands more, in the backgrounds, less like Northup, King or Kinte and more like Fiddler who were accepting of their conditions. I mean I understand the importance of ensuring that history is not forgotten and the need for people to appreciate slavery and it’s enduring legacies in order to understand the racism and discrimination that continues into the present day as well as to ensure nothing of that sort ever happens again but wallowing in past injustice focuses on a negative past instead of moving toward a positive future and allows apologists of that injustice to defend present actions by pointing out how much worse it was before. I also could not help but notice that in Roots, just like in 12 Years a Slave, those who fought the most for freedom were those who had once been free and who had been fed tales of a rich and beautiful history while those who knew only a history of slavery and injustice were more likely to accept it as the status quo.
My confusion about all these feelings led me to search online for other views about Roots. I was especially impressed by the fact that Kirby, the guy who plays Kunta has been inspired to find out more about his heritage. It lets me know that there are a lot more facets to the discussion about what kind of history needs to be told. I still don’t have the answers to the many questions that plague me not only about Roots or history but also heritage and identity. What I do know is that wary of stories about black slavery and domination becoming our history or story. The African story, the black story, is about more than just dealing with slavery or colonisation. I would sure like to see more of that.