Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Monday, May 30, 2016


I've softened on Roots. Which isn't to say I've changed my mind but rather changed my understanding of my own thoughts and feelings.

Roots isn't a bad miniseries. Not by a long shot. As just narrative it's actually pretty good, but it can't just be that. It's frustrating to me that growing up it was THE story of the black America. When really it's not.

As a guy who was born both after the civil rights movement and after Roots originally premiered in 1977 I don't have quite the same emotional baggage. And I know how that sounds but hear me out. For me Roots isn't as much of a historical drama as it pretends to be and is very much informed by the 1970's racial politic.

What I'm getting at is that Roots is less of a historical account and more of a story that mostly blacks but also whites would enjoy and also understand. A lot of the dialogue sounds less antebellum "do what you got to do to get through the day alive" and more 1960s "what do we need to do to subvert the system from within"  A lot of the themes, morals, and conflicts aren't so much about the 1770's as much as well you know.

That's not to knock it, but rather to explain that I loath this perception that Roots is somehow a historically accurate correction to all the European bias of American story telling. It's not. What it is, is a landmark of television the exemplified African-American audiences being treated as though what they wanted to see in their living rooms mattered.

And what they wanted to see was some sort of acknowledgement of them as human beings and of the various crimes America had committed against them. Namely the big one.

My real dislike of Roots has less to do with the miniseries (I haven't read the book.) but more so that it represents a racial politic that is not my own. That our continual focus up on it and what it represents diminishes focus from current conversations about race and identity being had.

The conversations we need to have and are having about race in a America are not necessarily the same ones we had in the 1970's.  My experience as a black man in 2016 is not the same as my father's in 1977.

I could and probably should write a book on that last sentence.

Which is why Roots bothers me so much.

It's hard to spot because of its racial politics but the miniseries is very much also about reinforcing traditional family values in a way that very much makes sense considering it was made right when divorce, abortion, and premarital sex were becoming big voting issues.

Roots is ground zero for black social conservatism. WHICH I HATE!

Here is my dilemma. I am not a conservative. A lot of my family are able to reconcile those values with their politics. But I'm just not.  To be free. For me to be truly free means living the life you choose. (How's that working for ya empty pockets.)

Roots set's up type of life these characters want for themselves. The lives they would have outside of slavery. And those lives look very much milk toast.

The miniseries tries to deliberately draw a parallel between those values and traditional African values which were lost to the original sin. And I can't say with a straight face that it's wrong to try to recover some of what was stolen.

All the same it's one of my major beefs. I don't like that Roots tells me the best way to fight the white power structure is to... get married and go to church.

My take on it is that my ancestors found love and life despite being in bondage not because of it.

It bugs me because most that is not so much about showing the brutality of slavery. But 1.) communicating the stories and by extension the writers ideal values to African-American Audience and 2.) Making the slave characters more sympathetic to a white audience. Both of which are bitter pills for me to swallow. Me being born in an age where I owe no white man my deference, the series being made in the same and belief that's the way it ought to be. 

And don't get me started on the token good slavers sprinkled throughout. It sort of bothers me when slavery is presented as the only bad thing about the antebellum South. Because at least based upon my quick take slavery pervaded the entire society.  It affected everything, where money went. who got married to who, who got elected, what laws got passed, what stories got told. Put a pin in that.

All those speeches claiming slavery was the foundation of southern society and that the planter aristocracy would fall without it...weren't exactly wrong. But you know. They were slave owners. I don't care about their plight. SEE HOW THAT WORKS!

Anyway panafricanism as well as the Nation of Islam are a prime example the 1970's crashing up against the 1770's.

By the by Titan A.E. while a bonifide cult classic becomes instantly more interesting when you consider it an allegory for displaced diasporas and the need for a homeland.

Speaking of which I also get the feel that while anger at slavery is justified the show's target isn't so much the stuff being done to the characters.

Okay this the part where I describe part of MY experience as a black man in America. EVERTHING is about race.

You can't know for sure how your race effects any aspect of your life so you have to constantly question whether or not it does. Did I lose out on the job because I'm black. Did I get turned down from that loan, because I'm black. Did I not get into that school because I'm black. Am I getting that look because I'm black.




Eghhh.  Now all of those are things I can not know. But it is very much constantly on my mind. With everything wrong with the world you're always thinking, is it because I am black? Or more broadly because I am not white?

And that feeling was being expressed. Is everything I don't like about my world the result of not being white? Not having the power and privilege that conveys to change the world.

 And the original we can do this to you because you're not white sin is slavery.

The root of Roots indignance is that slavery is being used as a stand in for every damn thing white people did and do to piss black people off.  Due to ehem, "differences in racial experience" you can't point the finger on the more subtle stuff so instead you do the one thing that ...I wish... even the most racist person in the world would admit was fucked up.

By the way. I have gotten into way too many online arguments over the years with idiots basically believing the same thing as John C. Calhoon.

Do I need to even say the words.

That said if you know where to look you'll find the other stuff.

You have to remember we were less than ten years out from 69. And the sheen of the civil rights era was gone. In a lot of ways hope had turned to anger.

Hmmm people disenchanted with what a few years prior seemed like a moment of momentous change for black folk. I wonder why they are remaking this?

By the way this is one of the reasons I like Roots II, The Next Generations a lot better. That show is actually pissed about the injustices they show rather than rolling everything into the slavery box. Instead of it slavery being a allegorical metaphor (which kind of screws my head), it plays more like a series of vignettes, episodes in its character's lives.

Which is a lot closer to where I think cinematic representation of the African-American experience needs to go, rather than focusing on the collective historical narrative of the people, Africa, Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, end credits aaaaand nothing of import happened in between.

I really do like Roots II.

I can't help but feel why we go with the usual is because its easier to get these big dramatic show piece moments.

But a lot of life isn't that. It's waking up and trying to do what you said you would and trying to remember why you said you'd do it in the first place. What's important to you. Why in spite of all of life's trails do you keep going. WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU!

Both in life and on the screen that is where character is found.

And I might as well say this now. That is more than a name for damn sure.

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