Friday, April 18, 2014

Revisiting ROOTS

We're in our Slavery in Film unit now, and this past week watched excerpts from the 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley's novel of the same name.  Roots was an unexpected overnight sensation, reaching an estimated 130 million viewers and airing in 85% of American homes in its week-long broadcast.  (And Haley's account of his decade-long detective work to locate his ancestors inspired a genealogical craze in the late-70s and 80s.) The series chronicles Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior, and as Haley claimed, his own ancestor, who is captured by slave traders from his home in Jaffure in 1767 and struggles to survive the violence and exploitation of slavery in Virginia. 

While the accuracy of Haley's account has largely been discredited--Roots is no longer regarded as nonfiction--scholars and critics agree that the story of Kunta Kinte was a major correction to existing myths about slavery and black families that also placed African Americans at the center of popular conceptions of American history.

Roots was the first cinematic portrayal of the horrors of the Middle Passage, in which enslaved Africans were packed into the cargo hold of ships in unspeakably unsanitary conditions for a grueling three- to four-month transatlantic passage.  And for many Americans, it was the first portrayal of slavery other than the moonlight and magnolias myth of Gone With the Wind.

Roots is part of a long history (since the eighteenth century) of individual stories, from the slave narrative to the novel, that incited conversations and debates about slavery, forcing slavery to the forefront of American (and British) public conscious--and inciting debates about accuracy.  To what degree should it matter that much of the "history" in Roots, even while it disputed myths of the shuffling and docile "Sambo" or of the absent black father and the pathology of the black family (that had been given added currency with the 1962 Moynihan Report), was still false and misleading in key ways?  (For example, from the falsified genealogy to the very misleading and simplistic representation of 18th-century Africa, particularly in the series.)  Scholars who have written about Roots have noted that most accounts of slavery, from Frederick Douglass' Narrative to Uncle Tom's Cabin, have had to go on the defensive, their accuracy challenged from all sides.

But Roots has a lot of problems that aren't simply about "truth" but also about how Haley represents resistance and gender in slavery.  As my students this semester have learned, these problems aren't new, but found in the slave narrative and slavery novel.  For example, Roots suffers from what we might call the Frederick Douglass problem, that resistance is often connected with masculine independence.  It's very one-dimensional.  You fight!  You run away!  And ultimately, Kunta Kinte is "tamed" when he marries the slave cook Bell and begins a family.  Family provides support for Kunta Kinte, but it also seems to encourage accommodation.  Some scholars have disagreed with this analysis, pointing out that while Kunta Kinte's marriage and family appears to lead to an accommodation to slavery, it also shows the persistence and importance of the black family under and after slavery.  This was extremely important given 20th-century political discourses that cast black men as failed husbands and fathers and saw the black family as pathological.

I was struck by the way the series connects Kunta Kinte's resistance to his Africanness.  Kunta Kinte resists because he remembers Africa.  The implicit message here is that the loss of the African past leads to greater complacency, even docility.  When young Noah decides to run away, Kunta Kinte is surprised and pleased to see some glimmer of fight in this younger generation that has no memory of Africa.  Of course, as scholars have since discovered, African religious and cultural practices persisted beyond the generation that survived the Middle Passage, shaping some of the distinct features of slave culture and American culture more broadly and shaping resistance.  Scholars continue to debate the precise relationship between the Africanization of slavery and slave revolt (for example, around the Stono Rebellion of 1739).  But bringing this up misses the point.  Locating the African in African-American was one of the central points of the novel.  This was Haley's major contribution to the popular memory of slavery, but it came with a narrative catch-22 that linked Africanness and masculinity to resistance but couldn't quite figure out how to deal with the experiences of women.  

It shouldn't surprise us that a generational saga of a family built primarily around one man has some built-in limitations when it comes to capturing the complexities and varieties of slavery and resistance--but that is precisely the point of this unit in the course.  Most Americas, including myself, continue to find this type of storytelling the most compelling.  And as my students noted in our discussion, most Americans don't take a class like this one, don't spend a semester talking about the history of American slavery (and certainly didn't in 1977).  But that doesn't mean those stories are off the hook, that we can't criticize them or try to improve upon them.

Next week we'll be watching the film version of Toni Morrison's Beloved (alas, no time to read the novel) and thinking about how this type of storytelling handles these questions and deals very differently with some the problems involved in telling slavery.

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Sources: For a gender analysis of Roots see Merrill Macquire Skaggs, "Roots: A New Black Myth," Southern Quarterly 17:1 (Fall 1978): 42-50.  For an overview of the controversy about accuracy and plagiarism see Helen Taylor, " 'The Griot from Tennessee': The Saga of Alex Haley's Roots," Critical Quarterly 37:2 (Summer 1995): 46-62.  Tim Ryan places Roots the novel in the context of 20th-century writings on slavery, from Margaret Alexander's Jubilee to Toni Morrison's Beloved.  Tim Ryan, Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008).  Leslie Fishbein's piece in Why Docudrama? is the most thorough treatment of scholarly and critical debates about the series. Leslie Fishbein, "Roots: Docudrama and the Interpretation of History" in Why Docudrama?: Fact-fiction on Film and TV, edited by Alan Rosenthal (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 271-295.

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