My image of Roots until about two weeks ago was LeVar Burton in stocks. I don’t know why that’s what I thought of – probably some flicker of the mini-series I saw twenty years ago – but that’s what I saw when I thought of the book.
Now, with just the final bit of the story to finish, I see America when I think of Roots. I see the way that poverty and culture and race and pride and friendship and greed and love and hope and despair weave into and out of our story as a nation. I see the story that has – as much or more than any other – shaped the very nature of who we are as Americans – for good and for ill.
I will need a lot of time to think through what I’ve read. I will need a lot of time to consider how it has changed me – because it has changed me – at my core. At this point in my reading journey, I’m hyper-aware of racial and cultural clashes; I’m very sensitive to the way slavery has scarred us and the way our nation’s response to Reconstruction still maims us today. I expect I will integrate this awareness more into my fuller sense of the world and become less sensitive to these things with time. I do not know if that will be a good thing.
For right now, though, I am very sad and quite angry at the choices we have made as a people in our past. I cannot change those choices – no – but I can choose to see them for the horror that they were – I can choose to not turn away from the pain of Kunta Kinte and Kissie and all the people they represent; I can choose to acknowledge that chattel slavery is part of our history and own that fact. I can choose to see that these horrific, abominable choices have shaped our country in ways – both obvious and subtle – that still affect every single person in this country every single day. I can choose to talk about these things, even when they are hard and painful and awkward and frustrating, because to heal, to become more of the people we are made to be, we can’t just look away from this history, these scars, or the wounds we inflict on one another still. We have to turn – as Alex Haley did – and face history full on. And own it. We have to own it.
Have you read Roots or seen the mini-series? What effect did it have on you?
As a writer, I also want to say that I find Haley’s work stupendous. Yes, I know there are some plagiarized paragraphs (and I don’t excuse that), and I know that people are disturbed by the unclear lines between fact and fiction in this work. But as a person working on the history of enslaved people myself, I can say that sometimes the best we can do is be true to what we know and imagine the rest of these people’s lives. One of the saddest parts of the legacy of slavery is that it left little written legacy. So for Haley to imagine himself into his great-great-great grandfather’s life, well, I think that’s just good writing. Good, good writing.