Last night, I watched the first of four installments, running on consecutive evenings on the History Channel, of Roots; a remake of the history-making, award-winning 1977 ABC miniseries. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the movie traces the journey, verily, the founding of a family from Kunte Kinte, the progenitor, from West African shores via the brutal Middle Passage of slave ships across the Atlantic through the horrors of institutional slavery in the United States and the rise toward freedom of subsequent generations.
In 39 years, there are differences (the barest thumbnail sketch)…
Viewership, a (the) measure of commercial success.
In 1977, millions upon millions of viewers tuned in.
In 2016, this new edition, airing on a cable channel, won’t be, can’t be seen by as many folk.
Race, a measure (one of my chiefest barometers) of social progress.
In 1977, one could look back to the previous decade to the hopeful signs of the legislative victories of the Civil and Voter Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, and to the gloomy specters of the race riots of the mid-to-late 1960s as long-simmering black rage exploded, engulfing mostly northern American cities and the reactionary era of the dominant culture’s retreat from social reform (aka white backlash). In 1977, though black-white economic disparity remained, one could look around and behold progress, largely, I think, in the worlds of academe and the professions as schools and businesses actively sought to integrate and diversify their student bodies (doubtless, a change from which I benefited personally) and employee ranks.
In 2016, though pointing to continued advancements toward inclusion in the fields of politics (our 44th President Barack Obama being a frequently invoked exemplar of progress), education, and business, in this era of the rise and power of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement and judicial impartiality, job prospects and economic viability remain present concerns, plaguing thorns in the American flesh. Moreover, to enlarge the spectrum, Arab and Hispanic Americans continue to face the unrelenting glare of discrimination under the bright, yet often unfocused light of our national passions, prejudices about terrorism and immigration.
Me, a (the) measure of my sense of self.
In 1977, when Roots originally aired on January 23-30, I was in my final seminary semester. I watched, largely in tearful silence, the visually, viscerally disturbing depictions of the human savagery of slavery. I watched, still largely in silence, yet with tears of hope, the painstaking pilgrimage of Kunte Kinte’s progeny from bondage to emancipation. I listened, again largely in silence, to the responses of viewers and film critics, news reporters and social/political commentators debating the accuracy of the history Roots portrayed, the necessity of the unvarnished representations of inhumanity, and the efficacy of the film’s purported subtext in elevating the racial consciousness of America. Then I shouted in exultation, for Roots, a visual, visceral validation of my American experience, inspired me in the quest and discovery of my familial roots.
In 2016, I half-watched last night’s episode. Throughout the evening, I switched back-and-forth between Roots and the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference game 7 final between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. Yes, I am a rabid sports aficionado, yet, also true, I found the scenes of slavery’s debasement and defilement of black folk too upsetting and more disturbing than in 1977.
In 1977, at the age of 24, I had begun to formulate my belief that, as institutional slavery was a key element of the economic, political, and social foundation of America, racism remained an indelible and virulent strand in our national DNA.
In 2016, nearly 64 years of age, my belief that too many Americans, in tenacious opposition to the ardent plea of Martin Luther King Jr., continue to teach and to learn to judge one another not on the content of one’s character, but by the color of one’s skin has become a certainty. Therefore, I do not believe that Americans, no matter how tolerant, even celebrative of diversity (and in my view of history, our national welcome and embrace of pluralism is, at best, cyclical and fragmentary, and, at worst, susceptible to suppression by the repeated rise of nativism, so evident in this current political season) ever can escape the necessity of dealing with race. Hence, I do root that the reboot of Roots may spark and strengthen another and deeper round of our national conversation.
Illustration: roots 4 forest landscapes, Paolo Neo (Public-Domain-Photos.com)