My mother texted me on Memorial Day and asked me if I was going to watch Roots. I simply replied, “never.” For those who weren’t aware, the History Channel commissioned a remake of the 1977 miniseries, Roots, that was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel. Here’s a trailer for those who haven’t seen it.
I’ve seen and have listened to the many debates surrounding this remake as well as the ever-so-popular rant from rapper Snoop Dogg. So I’d be remiss not to eventually join this ongoing conversation. However, before I share my thoughts I want to make something abundantly clear. For the generations to come, films about American slavery need to be made. But until the entire story (truth) is told, I won’t watch them.
My feelings about films depicting American slavery started when I was in the 5th grade. My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Stohlman, came into class one day and told us that we would be watching the original miniseries Roots. I didn’t think anything of it because slavery was a part of American history and the class gets to watch a movie instead of doing assignments, so I’m all in. However, from the time I saw Kunta Kinte being kidnapped to the time I saw Kizzy being raped by her slave master, I knew that I had a serious problem with what I was seeing. And what bothered me the most, was the fact that I felt like I was the only one in the class who had an issue with it.
There wasn’t and still isn’t anything exciting about seeing Black men being beaten or killed, Black women being raped or killed, and Black children being sold or killed. Yet, that seems to be the premise of every slave film; oppression and abuse. As I’ve gotten older, my frustration has turned into total disdain for the fact that these biased, slave films perpetuate an underlying message in the Black narrative: What happened to you then really doesn’t affect you now, so get over it. That message is so frustrating that I have to laugh about it because mainstream audiences only see and discuss the psychological effects of slavery that may or “may not” affect Black people today. But there’s another part of the story that mainstream audiences don’t see or discuss, and that’s the economics of slavery that—without a doubt—still affects Black people today.
Slavery was a business. The National Geographic News made reference to this from Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture, by advising that American financial and shipping industries were dependent on slave-produced cotton after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. They also advised that the United States was competing for economic leadership in a global political economy, and that “each plantation economy was part of a larger national and international political economy,” and not just in the antebellum south. It’s been documented that slaves were property and traded for goods & services, so that’s what I want to be educated on. Teach me and everyone else about how much money was made off of slave labor. Educate me about all of the inventions that were created by slaves who were never accredited. Tell me about the major corporations, banks, and etc. that profited from slavery. If slaves were considered a commodity and used as collateral for business transactions, then educate me on the monetary value of each slave.
I saw in a display at The Wells’ Built Museum a slave woman who was worth $800, so if she had a son in his prime (17-18 years old), how much was he worth and where did the money go? Was it pocketed or invested somewhere? Those are the questions that I want to be answered. Take me inside Massa’s house and show me the wealth that was passed down his family line. I always wondered why that portion of the story was never told, when in fact, that was the main reason as to why slavery lasted for as long as it did. I guess it’s safer to tell this slave narrative from the perspective of the oppressed, because if the oppressor is handed the mic, mainstream audiences might start connecting the dots and realize that Black people are actually owed something today.
Nate Parker‘s Nat Turner film, The Birth of a Nation, might be the only mainstream slave narrative that I will support because it was written, produced, directed by, and starred a Black man who’s telling a Black man’s story. Which is a rarity in today’s slave medium because white people always feel like they can tell the story of the Black struggle better than Black folks. Just look at Django Unchained’s condescending director, Quentin Tarantino, who implied in a 2012 interview that Roots was inauthentic. He stated, “nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either.” Well, Mr. Tarantino, since you and many other non-black filmmakers feel that your version is always accurate, there are other stories about us “Coloreds” that you can tell.
I’m just saying.
Folks, American slavery consisted of a lot more than just psychological/physical oppression and abuse, the business that was slavery still affects black people and still benefits white people today. So that portion of the story needs to be told. And if someone were to ask me if I believe that the entire truth will be told anytime soon, I would have to respond with “no.” As for the reason why, well, Dr. Joy DeGruy answered it best.
“When we pull back the covers on us, we pull back the covers on other folks. So we rewrite European history as well. We rewrite our perceptions of those founding fathers and our perception of our inherent humanity, our willingness to embrace, and our inclusivity as it were. Somehow it throws a rock into that glass house and you begin to realize that things weren’t as they were written in the text; not just about you, that black person, but about you, that white person. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and we’re not getting ready to let Timmy and Lil’ Sue find out what folks were really about and what they really did. That’s where you’re going to see the resistance and the pushback. Because it’s not about you seeing you, it’s about everyone seeing everyone.”
Dodson, H. (2003, February 3). How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/01/0131_030203_jubilee2_2.html
Samuels, A. (2012, December 10). QUENTIN TARANTINO ON DJANGO UNCHAINED AND THE PROBLEM WITH ‘ROOTS’. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.newsweek.com/quentin-tarantino-django-unchained-and-problem-roots-63453