Roots & Feels

For the last two weeks, I’ve been staying with a friend during a construction/reno project in my apartment that left me with no bathroom. My friend Rachel is the type of friend everyone should have. She’s so nurturing and welcoming – and her house smells so good that even the dirty laundry I brought home smells like it could go another round.

While staying with Miss Rachel, and her fiancé, Craig, I was able to watch the new version of “Roots” that aired on cable channels that I don’t have at home. Now, mind you, I was already a little stressed because of being displaced, which always makes me a little (or a lot) emotional, but this show…

Y’all. This show.

I never saw the first one. I was only 3 years old when it aired, and have never had the opportunity to see it as an adult, on the rare occasion it was showing on television. So this is the first time seeing this story at all. Before I tell you how I feel about it, I will tell you that I STILL haven’t been able to watch more than 30 minutes of the recently released movie “Twelve Years a Slave”. I’ve read the book, but the movie is an entirely different experience. I’m going to. I just haven’t seen it available again yet.

I will also tell you that when I do watch any movie or documentary that centers around Slavery, The Civil Rights Movement, or The Holocaust, I make it a point to do so when I have no other demands on my attention or emotions…because frankly, it takes every ounce of my strength not to lose my ever-loving mind over the atrocities of the human race.

So, Roots.

Well, shite. I don’t even know where to start.

It hurt. God, it hurts.

The story, written in the 70’s by Alex Haley, was admittedly plagiarized for the most part,  built on stories passed down, and on probably a lot of conjecture. Arguments online have sprung up all over again about this…but it doesn’t matter. The whole thing could be a novel of fiction, and it wouldn’t matter.

Look. There was no Jack and Rose on the Titanic, but the tragedy still happened in frighteningly close detail to what we saw onscreen in that James Cameron movie.

So it is with Roots.

Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, teenagers, adolescents, toddlers, babies…stolen – not just from their homes, their country…but from each other. Over and over and over again. Chained. Beaten. Exposed to illnesses. Murdered.

And that’s all before they even arrived to this country.

Beaten into submission daily, hourly, by strange-looking people who didn’t speak their language. Murdered if they resisted in any way. Wives torn from husbands, sold to someone in another state. Brutally raped repeatedly, because it was the “master’s” right to do so, according to the law.

When they birthed the children of these monsters, or of their own husbands or lovers, their babies were often sold away, like livestock, the moment they reached an age where they could work….never to be seen or heard from again.

These monsters brutalized, raped, tore apart, mutilated and used any means necessary to break the will of the human being standing before them, in an effort to drill into them constantly, without ceasing, that they were not human, but property. Like cattle.

There is a famous scene in both renditions of this movie, where Kunta Kinte (the main character) has been told his new name by the plantation owner’s wife, and is beaten until he admits that “Toby” is his name (he is tied to a post and whipped, tearing his skin to shreds…reminding me of the scenes of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion).

He refuses to give in.

The overseer tells him he’ll stop if he just says his name. He won’t do it. He repeats his given name, Kunta Kinte. The other slaves are made to watch this, and told that if they look away, they will be next. This includes small children. Every time the whip cracks, the brutish overseer screams, “SAY YOUR NAME!”…and he will not. He will not submit and give up the only thing he has left of himself – the name his mother gave him.

If you’re not crying at this scene, you’re a monster, by the way. It is truly awful. I kept yelling at the television. Yelling “Don’t say it!”…and then, “Say it!”…”Don’t say it!”….”Oh, Jesus, make him say it!”…

Aaaaaugh…!!! You want him to hold on. To stand his ground. Never submit to the monster who had NO RIGHT to steal him from his family and chain him up and JUST NO!!! DON’T DO IT!!! And yet…if he doesn’t, his skin will continue to be torn from his body. So you want him to say it, just to make the horrible man stop.

And the thing that gets you the most? The horrible man was the norm. Oh, sure, maybe not everyone had the stomach to perform the pesky brutality. But it had to be done by someone if those normal, everyday people wanted their slaves to continue to work. So whether they did it themselves, or hired someone to do it, or simply knew it was being done and did nothing to stop it – and why would they? It was THE LAW.

If you immerse yourself into this train of thought, you realize the impossible truth – that they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They really, truly, did not see these people as people at all. You’d think most of humankind wouldn’t treat even a feral animal with such vile cruelty, right?

But they did. Every day. Because it was their lawful right to do so. That means that enough people thought it was okay that it was just a given. Do you ever think about the magnitude of that? We’re not talking about like 20 or 30 or even 100 dudes were mean enough to do this and had like a club. No. They made laws and had a war about it. It was NORMAL.

That will never, ever NOT blow my mind.

Not all the scenes are so graphic as this one, but it does make you realize the reality of how often this happened. It made me think of the mothers whose children were sold and taken from their arms…under threat of murdering the child if the mother didn’t stop making a scene. Can you just imagine? It brings to my mind the image of the baby whom Solomon threatened to cut in half. The mother readily gave up her rights to save her child…but what if she were faced with giving up that child, knowing even then that the new “owner” would absolutely beat, and could likely rape and/or murder her child – on a whim?

I’ve seen/heard arguments (by white people) that not all slave “owners” were bad. That some were nice. To that, I say: STFU and are you kidding me with this? “Owning” a human isn’t “nice”, stupid. It’s atrocious. And it still happens today, all over the world. Even here. But I’m not going to get into that, because I’m in my feelings about this movie.

Years ago, I did a family history search on Ancestry.com. I traced my father’s family back to Sweden, and took great pleasure and relief at knowing that his father’s family came to America so late in the game, they didn’t really “own” a damned thing, much less a person. But I didn’t look at the whole picture, admittedly. His mother’s side was traceable pretty far back, too…like, to Celtic surname that had no vowels…and I think I sort of glossed over the time frame of the Civil War. Totes on purpose, guys, but not consciously.

Captain William Meredith apparently was on the Confederate side, hailing from Kentucky. And while there’s no documentation I have yet found that he, or anyone in his family, “owned” any slaves (please understand that I feel I must use quotations with that word, as I can’t bring myself to think in terms of ACTUAL “ownership” of a human being), it is still apparent that he fought on the side of the South, in support of slavery.

That hurts. It stings my pride in my family from those generations. It shames my heart to know that anyone of my bloodline refused to acknowledge another human being as a human being.

A couple years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who is…not white…and he was very frank about his own family history. His perspective made me think about how Ancestry.com is awesome. For white people.

For black people, it only gets you so far. I hadn’t really thought much about that, until my friend pointed it out. I mean, I knew that many of the surnames of black families in the United States can be traced back to their ancestor’s “owners”, which is bad enough…

But if you really think about it. I mean, for real, take a hot minute and just imagine for a moment how many children were taken from their parents. How many families were torn apart, sometimes sold to many different people. And since they weren’t considered humans at all, their names weren’t recorded anywhere. Anywhere. AND, if the story of Roots has it right in that aspect, the slave “owners” changed their first names, too.

No identity.

Because they weren’t thought to be human.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? Remember how there was this massive search for family members all over the freaking country, because everything was so chaotic in getting people to shelters? Put that on a nationwide scale, and factor in that no one was documented as a human, much less with a name, then add a couple hundred years of that being the norm.

I don’t know, guys. I realize I’m all over the map here.

Its just that when the whole Confederate flag issue came up a few months ago, I was taken aback by how many people – including a few black people – who didn’t see the big deal. Who see it as a source of pride in their own heritage (Lord, HAMMERCY, that word was thrown around a LOT). Excuse me while I vomit.

And here I am, a white, Southern woman…offended to my core at any Southern “values” that were/are rooted in slave “ownership” – ever. How offended am I allowed to be, without coming across as trite? Because I will never, ever know the plight of anyone of color living today. I will never know what it’s like to be silently, automatically judged and thought of as “less than” because of my skin.

My weight? Sure. Every day. But I still have a fat leg up.

And that isn’t fair.

I said ‘silent’, because of the many, many, many people who don’t think they’re racist because they don’t actually SAY things. They may not even think outright evil things.

But its there. Because none of us look at another person the way a small child does. Babies aren’t racist at all, because they haven’t been exposed to even subtle tones of it. It is a learned behavior. Its why:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

  — Matthew 18:1

Here’s something else to think about:

I saw a few people on a favorite blogger’s post about the movie, saying they wished people would stop talking about it (slavery), because it’s in the past. That bothers me almost as much as the scene I described above. We can’t stop talking about it. We can’t push it into the past, as if it doesn’t still have ripples affecting our modern society. It does.

You’ve got to be blind, deaf and mute not to know that.

I’ve been in the car when a friend was pulled over for ‘driving while black’.

I’ve witnessed a restaurant host speak only to me, and never once to my black, male counterpart. Even when my friend answered the questions directed at me. Never was there the courtesy of asking the man, or even making eye contact with him when he spoke.

I’ve been subjected to anger at me from white men, for dating black men.

I’ve heard a friend use the “n” word when a waitress made her mad…justifying it because of the “type” of person she was, not her skin color (yet she was black, and I never heard that friend use the term for anyone that was not black).

Yeah, we need to keep talking about it. Our culture is quick to say “Never Forget” in the wake of a great tragedy like 9/11, and we have no qualms about remembering and honoring those who perished in the Holocaust, but we want to sweep under the rug the cruel behavior of our own blood ancestors, and refuse to acknowledge that it is still affecting the generation we live amongst?

What Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, 1905 was: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And Winston Churchill wrote this on repeating history:

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

—House of Commons, 2 May 1935

 

It must be told. Over and over and over and over and over. As much as those recreated scenes (painstakingly and beautifully portrayed by brave actors, producers and directors) make us flinch and emotionally gut us, it must be told. Seeing it in gory detail is what we NEED, to keep the memory alive of those who came before us. Those who shaped this nation – the innocent and the evil – can’t be forgotten, shushed, downplayed…not ever. It hurts like a sonofabitch, but you and I need to feel every inch of it – because we’re still reaping the benefits of those hostage souls, whether you want to admit it or not.

While my hands may not be stained with blood, my heart and mind must never forget those who lived in torture, and died lost in a world where they were never free.

A final thought: In the movie, “A Time To Kill”, Jake Brigance, a white man who is representing the black father of a 9 year old girl who was brutally raped by a couple of rednecks, because he killed the perpetrators and is on trial for their murder. There is an all white jury, and Jake knows that in Mississippi, his client isn’t going to get a fair trial. His closing argument was to ask the jury to close their eyes and picture a little girl, walking home from the store…and describes in vivid, horrible detail, what the two redneck boys did to her. “Can you see her?” he asks. “Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.”

That. Right. There. Is how you need to think about this. Picture it all the opposite from how it happened. That whites were the ones in slavery. Your babies sold as goods, with a damned receipt and everything. Would you want your grandchildren, your great grandchildren, or their children, to forget?

Apparently, the scene in the original is said to be harsher. I’m going to watch it anyway, because I need to. I implore you to watch at least one of them.

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