Knowing Our Roots

Do we need more slave narratives told?

Do we need more slave narratives told?

Last week, I watched the new Roots miniseries presented by the History Channel. If you’re not familiar, Roots tells the story of Alex Haley’s African descendant, Kunta Kinte, and his enslavement in America. The original Roots miniseries appeared in 1977 and starred Levar Burton and a host of other prominent black actors and actresses. Initially, when I heard of the revamp, I didn’t feel compelled to watch it because I love the original and didn’t see the need to redo it. Also, I didn’t know if I could take another disheartening and disturbing slave movie. 12 Years a Slave was haunting and graphic enough for me.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way because as a shock to most, controversial and sometimes comical rapper Snoop Dog posted a video of his disdain for movies that show blacks as subservient slaves. Snoop is comical to me because during his rant, he said, “I’m a real nigga,” which to me negates his entire statement about slave movies being that he uses the same dehumanizing language used by enslavers.

But, despite my qualms, I watched it and was immediately drawn into their interpretation of Kunta Kinte’s life and experience. Needless to say, it was an emotional rollercoaster that several times left me in tears at the end of the night and in need of quiet time to pray, self-reflect and regain my composure. On the end of the fourth night, I was glad I watched it, and concluded that the producers did a great job of reintroducing the story to newer generations.

I understand why some black people are frustrated with movies and TV shows that focus on slave narratives, but I see the purpose in revisiting them. We need to know our American history. I say American history because our story doesn’t begin in 1619, and it doesn’t begin with slavery. However, I believe younger generations need to know the brutality, dehumanization and evil black people endured and survived in America. They need to know because it shows them the stock of which we’re made. It shows them how God has been with our people from the beginning, and I’d like to think that knowing our American history makes them more conscious of what’s happening today so they can advocate for justice and mercy and enact it in their personal lives. Watching Roots didn’t make me feel ashamed of my ancestors, subhuman or what have you. It made me even more compelled to endure the trials I’m in today because black people have endured much worse, and it made me want to make my ancestors and those who’ve gone before me proud. I want their lives to count. Their lives count if I live my life to its fullest representing them and remembering the heavy price they paid for my existence.

“After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths” Judges 2:10-13 (NIV).

Judges chapter 2 talks about an entire generation that arose who didn’t know their history and it outlines what happened as a result. The Israelites followed the gods, customs and practices of a foreign people because they didn’t know their history and they didn’t know the God of their fathers. This led to them committing great evil because of their lack of knowledge. If we looked at the generations today, we see generations of people who don’t know their history. They don’t know their people. They don’t know their God. It’s not only because of the history, culture and practices that were stripped from us because of American slavery, it’s because we adopted the practice of refusing to look back.

Commentator Cal Thomas published an annoying op-ed and ranted on Christian radio that black people shouldn’t focus on slavery and said other infuriating conservative nonsense. However, what Cal Thomas fails to realize is that the very Bible he professes to follow admonishes the people of God to remember their history and what God did for them and to teach it to their children. The Bible also outlines what happens if we don’t remember our history. As descendants of Africans, we shouldn’t only remember American history, but we should research and learn about our history in Africa and share it with our children so they will know who they are and develop pride in their roots and ancestry.

Ancestry is very important in the Bible. Even God makes a point to tell his people throughout the scriptures, “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Those long genealogies are not there by accident. Ancestry is important.

In 1 Kings 2:1-10, David is handing over the reins to Solomon because he is about to die. David tells Solomon in verse 4, “If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.” David tells Solomon the promise and covenant God made with him. In the process, he speaks of the generations to come. In the same way, we need to be concerned about the generations coming after us. It is painful to look back at the horrors our ancestors endured, but it’s necessary so our children will be aware of what they’re up against in this wicked world, and so they can work towards justice so history will not repeat itself. However, as black people, tell the full story. Let’s tell our children about the great dynasties and kingdoms in African where our people originated, some of which are mentioned in the Bible.

“So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, ‘Go into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” Joshua 4:4-7 (NIV).

The Roots miniseries is a small piece of American and African history. Our children want to know what “these stones” mean. Are we equipped to tell them?

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