Saturday, January 17, 2015

Watching Roots

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 30, 2007

I don’t think that my wife, Elizabeth, and I are stuck in the past or anything like that. I think it’s fair to say that, in spite of our interest in history, we’re both pretty progressive, forward-looking people. I think. In most things.
Except, I think, when it comes to our taste in television. Other than at times of national elections or national emergencies or approaching snowstorms or hurricanes, we don’t watch much. (That could change, too, if the Sox make it into the World Series, or maybe even the American League Championship games.)
I couldn’t tell you the name of five current regularly scheduled television series. I never saw The Sopronos. I don’t think I ever watched more than five minutes of American Idol (enough to figure out that that Simon guy is a real jerk). I tried to watch Survivor—once, but I got tired of all those dirty people running through the forest after about three minutes. Sex and the City sound intriguing (both of them), but I couldn’t tell you anything about the TV show by that name. The most recent show we liked was Joan of Arcadia. But we only started watching that two years after it was cancelled by CBS.
But we do have a television set, and we turn it on often. More nights than not, in fact; especially when we sit down at our TV trays for supper, now that our nest is empty, and it’s just the two of us most of the time. But the thing is, the stuff we watch is old; most of it is from the 1970s: now available to us on DVD, or more likely (for us, behind the times as we are technologically) video cassettes. We made our way throughThe Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson. We loved Upstairs/ Downstairs —we watched it night after night not too long ago, through all five seasons. Then we watched all of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective episodes aired by the BBC—in the 70s, originally. Finally, we decided we’d had enough of this “ethnic” British stuff, so we decided to “try something American”, so we picked up a cheap set of the miniseries, Roots, on Ebay.
We were not prepared for how meaningful and moving this experience would be.
Of course, along with everyone else, I think we had watch Roots back when it was first televised in 1977. It was something of a national phenomenon back then, with the entire country, it seemed, glued in front of their television sets, to watch the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendents. According to Nielsen, the final episode, broadcast on January 30, 1977, still ranks as the third most viewed American television of all time, surpassed only by the final episode of M.A.S.H. and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of DallasRoots received an amazing 37 Emmy nominations. In addition, it won a Golden Globe and Peabody Award—just as the book by Alex Haley had garnered both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards in 1976.
Both the book and the miniseries were cultural milestones, as well as commerical successes. Roots empowered the rise of increased black conciousness in America, and especially fostered black Americans’ respect for the African basis of their ethnicity. But Roots had an even wider impact, as well: It awakened within many of us increased curiosity about our own “roots”—our own geneology and lineage; increased questioning of where we came from and our own family histories. “I had to find out who I was… I needed to find meaning in my own life,” Alex Haley wrote later. “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we came from.”
By delving deeper into his own family’s story, it was as though Haley threw open the doors of exploration for all of us—to listen to the oral histories of older generations in our own families and communities; to search out our own ancestors; to discover our own histories, and to discern how our personal history fits into the greater panorama of our shared human history.
But the lessons Roots teaches bear repeating—and re-learning. They seem to have been ignired too often in the 30 years since this work originally appeared.
The scourge of racism continues to affect our nation at its very heart. Just how much progress has been made in the past 30 years is open to debate, certainly. Perhaps in some areas, there have been notable successes. But can there be any doubt that there are still important issues or race that our nation has not addressed? When the four leading Republican presidential candidates can find time in their schedules to attend every other nationally televised debate, but are “too busy” to attend one at an historically black college, to specifically address issues related to minorities, there are still matters here that needed attending to.
People of color in America today are being charged under the “three strikes laws” at 17 times the rate of whites with similar criminal records;
In our country today, African American professionals earn approximately 26% less than white counterparts doing the same jobs;
Even allowing for differences in age, education, and job performance, African Americans in the U.S. are fired at twice the rate of whites;
The median income of African American families in the U.S. was 54% of the median income for white families in the year 2000, compared with 61% in 1969;

Three of every four toxic waste dumps that fail to comply with E.P.A. regulations in the U.S. are found in African American or Latino communities;
Black Americans are convicted of approximately one-quarter of the murders in the United States each year, yet they receive nearly three-quarters of the death sentences.
One thing a simple exercise like watching Roots can do is to remind us that a large part of the economic basis of this country was founded upon the systematic enslavement of black men, women, and children. That is, to a large degree, the rock from which our system is hewn; the tree from which it is carved.
As Rev. Kimi Reigel has written:
“Africans have been abused. They have had their glorious history removed from the world memory. Very few of us realize the idea of black inferiority did not exist before the slave trade. The African continent was filled with vibrant successful cultures that offered scholarship, world trade, wealthy empires, complex traditions, huge physical monuments, and epic achievements that have been completely subsumed under an image of a rough primitive people who could be bought and sold. A lively wealthy continent was robbed of millions of people. The young and healthy were put on ships and taken away. There were far fewer inhabitants of the African continent at that time then the North American continent today, but just imagine if suddenly our young and strong were taken away by the thousands every year for centuries!”
Preaching at the Music Hall in Boston on the Fourth of July in 1858, the great Unitarian minister (and abolitionist) Theodore Parker said:
“The effect of slavery on the colored men, bond or free, is evil, perhaps only evil. I know the wrong which they suffer awakens very little sympathy with the mass of men, who in their rudeness reverence Strength and not Justice. But the colored men are one seventh part of our population, and America does not rise as the Negro falls; you and I go down with him; for if one seventh of the people be degraded it is the Nation that is debased. Would you feel safe if every seventh house in Boston was full of the yellow fever and every seventh man was dying of it? There is a moral degradation which is contagious not less than the plague.”
We can not hope to heal any of our wounds unless we can look honestly at what happened in the past. A simple exercise like watching Roots can help us at least to glimpse some of the reality—an oftentimes bleak and tragic and blood-stained reality-- of what really happened in our history.
Another thing watching Roots can do is empower us with a broader understanding of our own personal histories. Racism has made victims and perpetrators of us all. We all bear the marks of slavery and prejudice, deep within our beings, within our histories.
The American story of many of us begins in the 19th Century, when most of our forebears arrived here from Europe. The greeting they received was often not a very friendly one:
In 1859, the American Standard in Jersey City called Irishmen who were working on the Erie Railroad "animals" and "a mongrel mass of ignorance and crime and superstition, utterly unfit for civilized life."
In 1869, Scientific American told the "ruder" laborers of America that they were welcomed to America's shores, but that if they did not "assimilate quickly", they would face a "quiet but sure extermination". Indeed, the writer went on, all too honestly, they must "change their ways or race the same fate as the American Indian."
In the mid-1870s, the Chicago Post Mail characterized its city's Bohemian immigrants as "depraved beasts, harpies, decayed physically and spiritually, mentally and morally, thievish and licentious." At the same time, the Chicago Times complained that the city had become the "cess-pool of Europe under the pretense that it is the asylum of the poor." "Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue," the editorial concluded, "or in some way exterminate them."
Compare this language-- directed at whites, remember-- directed at some of our ancestors—all these talk of the “filthy Irish” and the “Slavic hordes”-- to the most virulent racist language today. It’s the same language; it’s the same racism. Taking our own “roots” seriously—in their joy and in their pain; in their heroism and in their shame—should help us to build bridges of compassion and understanding with all those people of different races and nationalities and ethnicities and religious backgrounds who now dwell among us.
Perhaps a simple exercise like watching Roots can help us to look beneath veneer of skin color, and to grasp our deep humanity and the deeper issues involved in our culture today.
"We have the power to transform America through [our] work," the Unitarian Universalist theologian and social critic Thandeka has written. "All we need is the moral courage to practice what we preach... about the value, dignity, and worth of us all."
Or, as someone else has said it:
“When we dream alone, we have only a dream. But when we dare to dream together, we have the beginning of a new reality” That means listening to each other’s stories, and knowing our own. Knowing our history is the first step on the road to transforming society, and changing the world.

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