History Becomes Personal

January 16, 2012 –

I just finished watching “Oprah and the Legendary Cast of Roots:  35 Years Later.” on OWN.  I couldn’t keep the smile off my face or the tears from my eyes.

If you are old enough to remember January 1977, you can’t do that without having a memory of the groundbreaking miniseries, “Roots.”  Based on Alex Haley’s 1974 book of the same name, most of America – Black and White – spent 5 evenings in front of a television set watching the lives of Kunta Kinte’s family unfold.  While it was truly the family history of the Haley family, it soon turned into a look at the history of America and inspired many of us to fill in our  own family tree.  Most of us who were alive at that time, have a “Roots” story.  Here’s mine:

“Roots” was about family and mine’s was certainly a huge part of my “Roots” story.  Each night for the entire week my parents, grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins came together to watch.  I’m not sure if the adults planned it like this ahead of time or if it was just something that happened organically since they were used to being together in this way anyway, but each night found the bunch of us together in someone’s living room.  Adults were on couches and in chairs, as the children found seats at their feet on floors covered with wall-to-wall carpet (which was all the rave in the ’70s.)

One of the things I remember most about this time was the complete and absolute silence that fell upon the room once the show started.  Even the squirming of my younger cousins was stilled by the story playing out for us on the tube.  Conversation, snack and bathroom breaks occured only during the commercials.

I remember one particular night, riding home in the backseat of my father’s Oldsmobile from my Uncle Lou’s house and feeling a deep sense of sadness.  The scene of Kizzy being taken away in the back of a wagon while her mother, Belle, screamed and cried in the dirt wouldn’t leave my mind.  While I was certainly closer in age to Kizzy, it was Belle’s anguish that rode home with me that night.  I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve felt like to lose someone so precious.  It was almost as if I could feel her heart breaking…inside of me.

Everyone everywhere was talking about “Roots.”  I was 16 years old and fortunate enough to have an English teacher (Clara Daniels) who allowed and encouraged much discussion about each night’s episode in class.  We were assigned the reading of the book (if you’ve never read it,  I highly recommend it, as it takes you far beyond the miniseries) and the completion of a family tree.  While history or anything that even resembled it had never been my favorite subject, I found myself unable to think about anything else.  I began to question my parents and  grandparents and pour over old mementos, papers, and letters that my grandmother kept in a box in her chest of drawers. 

Even though I have yet to connect the branches on my family tree to Africa, “Roots” told me I’d come from somewhere other than Oakland, CA and I loved that thought.  The spirit of Alex Haley’s African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, lived in the spirit of my ancestors and that felt good; real good.

As African Americans, we have ‘come this far by faith’ owing EVERYTHING to those who came before us across the waters to a strange, violent and hostile world that held up the values of freedom and equality only if you weren’t Black.  Let the knowledge of their resilience, endurance and triumphant make you stand up a little straighter the next time you’re faced with an obstacle or encounter adversity.  Let’s remember that we truly are ‘the hope and dream of the slave.’ 

SPECIAL NOTE TO MY YOUNGER FOLKS –  If you have never seen the miniseries “Roots” go rent or buy it today.  Sit down watch it.  Share it with your family.  America was able to have this experience because Alex Haley’s elders TOLD THE STORY of “The Old African” as Kunta Kinte was known to the family.  We cannot expect our children to know if we are unwilling to TELL THE STORY!

 

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