On 'Roots' and the shame I refuse to hold
June 02, 2016 at 12:30 am
So I understand why some would choose not to watch it. The choice to protect your mental health and well-being is valid and understandable.
Yet, there are people who choose not to watch because they believe that Roots is “just another slavery movie,” another time for Hollywood to harp on the oppression of black people. Instead of spending time discussing slavery, these folks argue that we should invest our time and money in the stories that uplift and celebrate the more triumphant moments in black history (Snoop Dogg, I’m looking at you, fam).
I don’t necessarily understand why we would reduce our narratives to be either about triumph or about struggle. But, at the end of the day we can admit that some stories of triumph are easy — easy to consume and easy to celebrate.
It’s easy and expected to honor Malcolm and Martin, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs. It’s easy to exalt the lives of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash and Stokely Carmichael; those who led the rebellions and sparked the revolutions.
But can we stop and bear witness to those that stayed? Can we exalt those who never ran, and those who never marched?
The mothers who bore children with the master’s face.
The mothers who nursed white babies that would one day refuse to recognize the humanity in all people.
The fathers who sang freedom songs on Sunday knowing they would work from can to can’t on Monday morning.
The mothers who birthed children into oppression every time their bodies bore a new life.
Those with scars and welts like maps on their backs detailing their journey to this particular state of persecution.
The mothers who in the spirit of Sethe in Beloved made the decision to rid their children of this misery.
Those who never had enough to give their children more and could never make enough to buy their family’s freedom.
Those who never fled. Those who brushed the missus’ hair and tended her garden. Who never muttered more than ‘Yes, sir’ and “No, sir.” Those who played the fiddle and cooked the meals. Their resistance might not have sparked a revolution, they might not have resisted in the most overt ways, but they lived. They survived and endured more than we could ever imagine and overcame more than we could probably ever fathom. And yet, they chose to live.
They lived through it all.
In a time where they could only be 3/5s human for economic purposes, they lived five-fifths type lives.
When marriage between them was illegal, they fell in love and jumped the broom.
They lived and bore beautiful children with uncertain futures.
When they were told they had no history, they passed down piecemeal stories of the ancestors and their homelands.
When they stood in the face of destitution, they danced and sang with every piece of joy and resistance left within them.
When they lost all the family they knew, they created fictive kin and formed new bonds.
They held on to their customs and infused them into their new lives. They worked hard to remember the melodies, to recreate the recipes, to tie themselves back to the homes of their people.
To those that made the act of living and of choosing life, their daily resistance to which we — their descendants — owe an unbelievable debt. The least we can do is bear witness to their stories, even when they make us uncomfortable. We can sit in the pain and remain thankful for the ancestors who now serve as our cloud of witnesses, surrounding us in moments of pain and joy. Reminding us that we, too, even in the darkest of hours, can choose life.
Reminding us as James Baldwin reminded his nephew that we, “come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” – The Fire Next Time
The need to overlook the story of our enslaved ancestors is rooted in the belief that they held no human dignity and that there is no triumph here. The urge to turn away sometimes stems from a shame we don’t like to discuss. A shame that tells us to ignore the pain that we endure, and (maybe if we ignore it long enough) one day it will disappear. A shame that says the story isn’t for mixed company and can’t be told to small children. A shame that urges us to replace the narratives of our foremothers and forefathers with the story of our first black president or black mathematicians or the women and men that marched from Selma to Montgomery. This shame weighs on so many, contorting us into unrecognizable beings and making us forget that this shame isn’t ours to bear in the first place. The shame of American enslavement doesn’t belong to the descendants of the enslaved.
The shame of American enslavement and its soul-killing savagery does not belong to us. It does not belong to me. It has never been mine to carry. It will never be mine to hold. I, a black woman, the granddaughter of Alabama sharecroppers who were the descendants of enslaved humans, have nothing to be ashamed of.
So, I will sit nightly surrounded by my multi-ethnic black family and bear witness to one family’s beautiful narrative of life. I will declare that the act of living was and still is an act of resistance. I will laugh sometimes and cry sometimes. I will wallow in anger and I will revel in their joy. I will acknowledge the trauma that still sits with us, but I will praise God forevermore that my ancestors lived and chose unbelievable life each and every day of their journey.