The re-airing of the 1977 miniseries “Roots” in December helped draw in a new generation of viewers in my home to the darker times in the Deep South, where the slave trade once thrived.
My children were at first reluctant to watch the series, preferring rather to watch their usual fluff comedy shows, cartoons or play video games.
My husband and I knew then that it was the right time to expose them to the program, just as our parents once had. The film offered so many themes and teachable moments, from greed, to the price for freedom, to the power of hope and faith.
The opening scenes of “Roots” caught their attention quickly. Poet Maya Angelou, who portrayed Kunta Kinte’s grandmother, suggested Kinte make a drum for his younger brother. Kinte set out alone in the forest to find a piece of wood and was soon captured and chained. Actor LaVar Burton’s portrayal of the young teenage African losing his freedom and fighting to escape is forever etched into our memories.
My 10-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son’s reactions to the scenes were no different from my own feelings some 35 years ago when my parents invited me to watch the program as a young girl.
I was stunned, confused and hurt. My son couldn’t understand why black men were chaining Kinte up. I explained to him that some Africans did participate in slave-catching and selling.
In another scene, actress Cicely Tyson, who portrayed Kinte’s mother, learned that her son was captured and she cried unbearably. Both my children grew quiet and their eyes welled up.
One of my favorite lines in the series, from Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy, played by Leslie Uggams, is something I too have shared with my children when I remind them that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from.
Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Alex Haley, who died in 1992, wrote “Roots” based on his own family’s history, beginning with Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Gambia, West Africa, in 1767 and sold as a slave in America. The novel details the lives of his descendants up through Haley’s own life.
Other scenes from the movie offered food for thought. Consider the scene in which an African warrior Kintango explained the value of life. “There is no object more valuable than a man’s life,” Kintango said.
Juxtapose that to Capt. Thomas Davies, played by actor Ed Asner, who commanded the ship containing nearly 200 slaves who endured death and other horrors during the Middle Passage. Throughout the film, Asner’s character is visibly disturbed about the mission, but the economic incentives always seemed to lead him deeper and deeper into accepting the slave trade. In one scene, Asner’s character is visibly having a moral dilemma with slavery, though he behaves as a hypocrite. “I’m a Christian man and I command a Christian ship. I will not lead men into sin,” Davies proclaimed.
Bringing “Roots” to a younger generation reminds me that young people only understand where they are going and value their freedoms once they grasp and appreciate their heritage and understand the obstacles and struggles families have overcome to build America into what it is today.
Chanter Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at chante firstname.lastname@example.org