Revoke My Black Card: I’ve Never Seen “Roots” (Until This Weekend)

Revoke My Black Card: I’ve Never Seen “Roots” (Until This Weekend)

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

“I’m sorry… what?”

I’m in an editorial meeting at ESSENCE. In my recollection, the room falls silent, and all the editors train their eyes on me. We’d been discussing how we should cover the 30th anniversary of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a momentous TV event. Each editor had thrown out an idea, except me. My Editor-in-Chief put me on the spot, and I told the truth: I never saw Roots.

I knew the highlights, or I thought I did. Based on Alex Haley’s bestselling book about his ancestry, it’s the tale of an African man sold into slavery and the many horrors that come to him and generations to come.

“Nope, I confirm to my EIC. “I’ve never seen it.”

I had a somewhat valid excuse, I thought: Roots originally aired before I was born. But then there were editors in the room with children younger than me, and they’d sat there brood down for an American history moment.   I am sufficiently shamed.

“Demetria,” a senior editor says sternly, “you must watch Roots.”

Five years later, I’ve finally fulfilled that duty. The Christmas release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie about slavery is here and it coincides — no coincidence, I’m sure — with the 35th anniversary of Roots. Over the weekend, BET began airing the entireRoots franchise. I had nothing better to do, so I bunkered down with delivered Thai food and watched.

Um … yeah. I couldn’t turn away from the start, not with Cicely Tyson screaming in agony as she birthed a baby, not thru the coming-of-age story of that baby, a boy, Kunta Kinte, turning into a man in 18th century Gambia. Riveting is an understatement.

But from the moment Kunta Kinte is captured by the white man, the “WTF?” moments never stopped coming. I now totally understand why my mother wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, watch it again.

After that ESSENCE meeting, I’d rushed back to my desk to call my mother at work. I had to know why she (and my father) had set me loose into the world without showing me Roots, a seeming African-American rite of passage.

She sighed heavy. “I probably should have, but …” she began. “I just couldn’t.”

Mum explains that, for me to watch as a child, she would have had to as well in order to explain it. And she just couldn’t do that to herself. Or me.

“It’s a hard movie. Like …” She pauses to search for the right words. “I watched it. It was hard to get up and go to work the next morning and deal with … people. But you should probably watch it anyway.”

Her calling it “hard” was an understatement. I’ll spare you the long list of scenes that made me pause the movie and sigh heavy just like my mother had at recalling it. Instead, I’ll give you the top three thoughts that ran through my head:

1. This. Is. F%^#ed. Up.

2. Ohhhh, so that’s where “that” came from.  *light bulb goes off*

3. The entire African-American race has got to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (… which turns out not to be a far-fetched thought. I looked it up and I’m late on that. All the people who arrived at that conclusion earlier probably saw Roots.)

As horrifying as Roots is, it’s still slavery-lite. But let’s go with Roots’ depiction. A human is captured by weird-looking people who separate the person from their family and tribe. Forever. This person is caged like an animal, then taken on a months-long journey across the Atlantic, in which the person is chained below deck for most of it. People are dying, and vomiting and pissing and defecating and they are living, literally, in it, for who knows how long. The person is poked and prodded like an animal on the auction block, then sold off to the highest bidder, separated from anyone they might have known from home or connected with on the God forsaken journey over.

Any one of these experiences alone would screw up the average person. But we’re still not done.

This person lands on a plantation, and is introduced to a “home”  of horrors where the threat of violence looms and folk that look like them have adopted the White Man’s version of what Africans are, and are in equal measure friends and enemies. As a means of survival, the Black people the person encounters have adapted to a f@#$ed up reality where submission, fear, silence, and you know, delivering your daughter to be raped by the overseer are par for the course.

This goes on for generations. People who have lived under tyranny, have adapted to bizarre modes, and been taught off-klter perceptions of the world and themselves. Overseers have been paid good money to break them so they “know their place.” Stories about Africa, a far off place where Black folk strut free are a distant memory or sound like a fantasy and ain’t nobody got time for that. Live. Die. Get your reward in the After Life. You cling to that either because you really believe it or it’s the only thing that keeps you from going crazier. Maybe both.

Freedom doesn’t suddenly make everything “Kumbaya.” All the trauma and screwy ways you’ve been taught to see and adapt to the world like putting white folks on pedestals (and walls in Black churches), fearing white folk, seeing yourself and people who look like you as less than, eating the sh!t white folk won’t touch, and placing a premium on light-skinned Negroes or Negroes of any color with white folks’ features, remain along with a whole lot of anger, depression, and bitterness.

In 19th Century America there’s no time (or money) for the masses of Black folk to work out all that with a therapist or have long conversations about feelings and collective Black self-esteem. Emotionally shot and physically damaged folk need to focus on survival for themselves and their brood. A hefty chunk of Black folk’s core dysfunctions that the world blames them for having don’t get treated. So their kids watch and do as they do, not as they say. Someone beat them, and they beat their kids, and then they beat their kids and the cycle doesn’t get broken because everyone it happened to says, “Hey, I turned out okay.” And there’s no end in sight for any of this to stop when 165 years after the abolition of slavery, in general, Black folks fear therapy more than they fear God.

A few weeks ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving and stayed for a week, perhaps the longest I’ve been home consecutively since I moved to New York at 23. I’m sitting at the kitchen table where the wi-fi signal is strongest watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead. My father wanders into the kitchen to forage for leftovers and engages me in conversation.

“What are you watching?” he asks.

“The Walking Dead.”

He opens the fridge.

He’s still tinkering around nearby by the time the show ends and I ask him out of genuine concern,  “Hey, do we have guns in the house?”

There’s a shotgun “probably from the late 1800s, I would guess,”  he says. “Doesn’t work. Why?”

“Just wanted to know if we were covered in case there’s ever a zombie apocalypse,” I say.

He decides to entertain me. “The shotgun was my father’s, father’s. He was born in 1862. You want to see it?”

Wayament. What?

“My great-grandfather was a slave?!” I shout.  I’m just now finding this out that just three-generations ago, my blood, literally mine as Type passes down on the Daddy’s side, was owned.  People talk about slavery like it was so long ago, but when people still living can talk about people they met that were enslaved, it ain’t that far back.

“He’s where we get our eyes from, I think,” my Dad says. “My Dad had them, his dad had them. We have them.”

That’s DNA passed down since slavery for sure, and I wonder how much else.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk


Clutch Magazine

Django Unchained l Commentary by Professor Karen Johnson, Coordinator of African American Studies, Univ. of Utah

Django Unchained: Historical Inaccuracies and Racial Tropes Abound

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (Photo credit: Pink Cow Photography)

by Prof. Karen Johnson

Django Unchained, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino (QT), tells the story about a rescued enslaved person named Django (Jaime Foxx) who teams up with his rescuer, a German-immigrant bounty hunter, named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in efforts to capture criminal fugitives ‘dead or alive’ as a way of acquiring monetary awards. Django and Schultz ultimately devise a scheme to liberate Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the brutal slave-owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film takes place in the South, from the 1858 to 1859 timeframe.

Although Django Unchained is supposedly a depiction of slavery, it isnot a historical period piece. Instead, this film is more truly a Spaghetti Western genre, in every sense of the word; even the title, Django, is the same name of a 1960s Spaghetti Western film, made by Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino’s Djangoreflects the typical QT derisively mocking, sardonic storyline motif, wherein which the aestheticization of violence is reverberated throughout the entire film; and is carried out by the main character, Django, and the other significant supporting characters of Schultz, and Candie. In true QT stylistic fashion, Django represents the antihero—a neo-noir personality type, who is a tormented and conflicted individual, due to the brutal horrors of slavery and to the separation of the love of his life, Broomhilde.  Django is willing to engage in any liberatory means necessary, albeit nihilistic acts of violence, to rescue Broomhilde from Calvin Candie’s plantation. For me, the only redeeming aspect of the film is Django’s unbridled love for Broomhilder and his desire to travel to the bowels of the earth, if you will, in efforts to free her from the holocaust of enslavement. That type of commitment to black love is rare on Hollywood screens. It is a powerful story plot, indeed!

Still, this is a White-American masculinist-authored fantasy about an “exceptional” bad-ass freed man, who is supposedly “different” from other enslaved men or women. Tarantino’s re-imagined Django stands out and alone from the other enslaved in that he is bold, fearless, and has some level of agency, albeit he is still subordinately tied to Schultz. The viewing audience is not given an understanding as to why Django is “exceptional” and the other well-dressed enslaved men and women are docile, idiots, fearful, happy, and have internalized their bondage.

In addition, the enslaved women in the film are characterized as weak, passive, obedient, damsel-in-distress and complicit in their own sexual exploitation. Such myths and depictions run counter to the numerous slave narratives that reveal Black women who were resilient survivors who actively embarked on obliterating slavery. I argue that the erroneous and controlling stereotypical images of Black women as the happy servant or the willingly whore serve to set Black women aside from her humanity and justify and rationalize, to the viewing audience, her bondage.

Tarantino rightfully took artistic liberties to create his film but unfortunately presented a piece that is historically inaccurate and one that drew on racial tropes as a filmic formula. I argue that his film tapped into a particular set of Post Emancipation retrogressionist racial beliefs about the U.S. enslaved person. It appears that he rarely relied on the historiography of U.S. slavery, slave narratives, Civil War widows’ pension testimonies nor other empirical support for his discursive structure or character depictions. If he had tapped into these sources, he would have learned that the enslaved engaged in all sorts of acts of resistance in efforts to undermine slavery. The Nat Turners, Gabriel Prossers, Harriet Tubmans were abundant and they worked in concert with each other, rarely alone, to fight for their people’s liberation. In fact, history reveals that slaverydid not work because of the ongoing various forms of resistance to it. In addition, the time frame in which the film takes place (1858-1859) is a pivotal period in the controversy over slavery in the U.S. and the free and enslaved Black was at the “heart of it all,” in their struggle to put a death knell to this monstrous system, one and two years before the bloodiest battle in American history, the Civil War.

Although Tarantino attempted to break the mold with this film and present a raw and in-your-face visual imagery of the vile abomination of slavery, he interjects lots of satirical humor as a way to diffuse the brutality and degradation of slavery, in attempts to make it more palatable and acceptable. The loud and boisterous laughter my niece and I were surrounded by in the predominately white theater in which we saw the movie was perturbing! Nothing is humorous about human bondage and degradation. At the end of the film, I overheard audience members making comments such as, “that was a funny movie” or “that was entertaining.” With these types of comments, what does that say about the (mis)re-presentations about history in films regarding U.S. slavery? Whose and what representational images are worth depicting accurately in film? Why do we, in this country, continue to tolerate the distorted history about the holocaust of enslavement in film, pop culture, and even in the K-12 school textbooks? At what point will this nation seriously come to grips with its ugly past? Such distortions that Tarantino presented inDjango Unchained do not diminish or challenge the Eurocentric hegemonic regime of truths that invalidate or de-legitimatize Black folks legacy of liberatory struggle in this nation! Taken as a whole, Tarantino’s Django Unchained fails on so many levels! It is not a classic historical film about slavery, but one white man’s imaginary gory and violent video game!

Karen A. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Education & Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah

Professor Karen Johnson is Coordinator of African American Studies, a division in the Ethnic Studies Dept; Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies; Associate Professor of Education in the College of Education at University of Utah. She earned her PhD at UCLA · Los Angeles, California  email:


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