I wrote in an email earlier today that I feel like Roots should be required viewing for every American; I’m making it required reading for myself – I’ve decided that even if I read nothing else this summer, Roots is the one book I must read. I bought myself a battered copy from a garage sale outside the Golisano library after my sophomore year of college. But before yesterday, I had yet to make it past the first page.
This past weekend was a very full one for me, and a substantial part of it was spent watching the new ROOTS miniseries on the History Channel.
Just after finishing the first (heart-shattering) episode in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I made a quick SM side trip to find a feed filled with news of Muhammad Ali’s death.
Talk about coincidental timing.
Two famous quotes from Ali stand out to me as especially relevant to Roots. The first:
Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.
The meaning of names and the powerful act of naming is a HUGE theme throughout all of Roots. The first episode of Roots ends with a frankly horrific scene of Kunta Kinte – a Madinka warrior stolen from his homeland who becomes the patriarch of the family whose story is told in Roots – struggling to endure an incredibly tortuous scourging meant to force him into submitting to the slave name his masters have assigned him, Toby, while he is insisting on his true name, Kunta Kinte.
(As a sort-of aside, watching Roots also made me realize afresh how full of crap slogans like “Make America Great Again” really are.)
The second quote from Ali, which President Obama cited in his remembrance of the champion fighter:
I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.
I am America. . . .
This simple, three-word declaration strikes me as simultaneously brashly arrogant (in true American style) and simply beautiful.
Roots has prompted a lot of thoughts in me, one of the uppermost being about how prominent (completely central, even, one could argue) the ugly wound of slavery is in the history of America, and how much the legacy of it still infects our national identity today.
But there is also the legacy of survival, truly awesome strength, courageous resistance to and in spite of an utterly dehumanizing system; there are free descendants like Muhammad Ali, who were, and are, able to declare themselves America, along with every other person living in this country today – whether legally documented or otherwise, officially recognized by the State as a citizen or not.
I want to be very careful here not to seem like I’m sentimentalizing any part of slavery, racism, or other forms of suffering for communities of color, either in the past or ongoing. I actually don’t really want to say much more on this particular thread of thought at all right now.
B/c, to be honest with you – as a white woman, I am really, really uncertain how to talk or write about race, especially in public or semi-public spheres. The most I usually do is tiptoe around the subject; I do often feel like I’m walking on white eggshells (while crouching behind white-washed walls, lily-livered), and (right or wrong) I do usually feel like it’s not my rightful place to offer firm perspectives on racially-charged issues. I feel I don’t know enough, experientially or otherwise, and it seems I’m always afraid of giving offense or embarrassing myself through a misunderstanding or a misplaced/misused word or phrase. Or one that I leave out. I’m also cringe-worthily conscious of how much – because of my light skin – I could choose to largely ignore the history of race relations in America, if I wanted to. It’s like a text-book example of privilege.
But I don’t want to ignore race, etc. – and I don’t think I, or we, or anyone else individually or collectively can truly afford to. I also think that embarrassment and social discomfort are risks worth taking, and that it’d be more dangerous to persist in always shying away from this topic of utmost importance. My current conclusions include that one of the best ways for me in particular – as the person that I am with my own background and specific ethnic identity – to participate in the national conversation(s) about race that really need to happen is to listen…and keep listening, and listen some more – actively. One of the ways I want to do that this summer is by immersing myself in Roots.
Will you join me?
(For watching the remake of Roots, I found this commentary and the ones following it to be both interesting and informative.)