I remember watching Roots in 7th grade. I guess Mr. Jones felt we were mature enough for the themes of slavery, racism, and just what it means to be human. For me watching that entire miniseries was depressing because growing up with that specter of slavery like a shadow over everything was hard enough in theory, but seeing what kinds of things really happened to my ancestors was a hard weight. It made me think about how little I actually knew about the system of slavery, or who my own forebears were.
So, what did I do about it? Absolutely nothing. I let the miniseries end and I put Kunta Kinte out of my head because it hurt too much for him to be in there. I went back to calling him that Reading Rainbow guy, and I laughed at his show because it was easier to face that reality than the one where people who were related to me were treated like they were less than human, being whipped, chained, and forced into servitude in this great country I love. I couldn’t reconcile the two ideas, so I pretended the one didn’t exist, even though I had been given solid evidence it had.
A few years later I read the book by the great man himself, Alex Haley, and I realized it was more important to understand where those who came before were coming from, to get to the bottom of who we are by getting to know who our ancestors were. I became obsessed with black culture: the vernacular, the clothing, and the connections to Africa that were supposedly severed several generations ago. I read other books dealing with “the struggle” for equality, and the non-violent resistance, even the violent resistance espoused by the nation of Islam and others.
And I began to truly get how horrendous it was, the treatment of blacks in this country, the hatred and loathing of other human beings simply for having different skin color, for coming from somewhere foreign (even though we all come from somewhere foreign on some level). I realized that Black History Month means we’re being compartmentalized again. Why can’t the history of all cultures be celebrated all year long? Why must we segregate even in the honoring of cultures? It made me stop and think about so many things I had just taken for granted my entire life.
But what did I do about it? Absolutely nothing. Apart from thinking about it, that is. I didn’t organize any protests, plan any marches, or even go back to my own inner-city high school to speak to kids about the struggle. I sat there and thought about how harsh it had all been, and I read books about how harsh it had all been, and I watched movies about how harsh it had all been, but it still didn’t touch me on a personal level. Maybe that’s what Alex Haley was really getting at then, I thought, that in order to be personally touched we have to dig deep into our own personal connections, into our own ancestors and their individual struggles.
Which is what I’m doing now. I’m digging through old records, talking to those patriarchs and matriarchs in our family who are still alive, and trying to draw a map back to that time period, to those cotton fields in Alabama that are now swimming pools and condos. I’m connecting the dots on a portrait of oppression and abuse that touches a little close to home, that actually does touch home. You see, this is where I come from, not the land of the free, and the home of the brave. I come from a series of segregations, from a people who were not even seen as people, from a fierce will of those people to be free. Now I’m free, but I can’t forget.
Because in the forgetting the roots shrivel up and die, taking the entire plant with them.