Thursday, June 2, 2016

They're My Roots Too

Over the years, I've had plenty of opportunities to be disappointed in my fellow white people. From Vanilla Ice to All Lives Matter, we keep giving the world cringeworthy examples of how we need to do better.

Like how very few white people are tweeting about watching Roots. Maybe they're not watching. Or maybe they're watching, but not tweeting because they feel they shouldn't. This isn't just because Roots is about slavery because the same thing happened with The Wiz Live. One of my white tweeps even tweeted about how much she was enjoying reading black people's tweets about The Wiz. 

Either way, it's not OK. I'm not saying that it's racist not to watch musical theater or an epic 9-hour miniseries. What is racist is white people not feeling a sense of ownership or involvement in anything with an all (or predominantly) black cast. We expect people of color to watch movies and TV shows with all white casts but don't reciprocate. Because we're clueless assholes. 

(I have a theory that the history of civil rights in America is really the history of white people becoming less and less dickish. People of color haven't changed - white people's attitudes and treatment of them has.)

Sure, The Wiz is the black version of The Wizard of Oz. It's also an updated, citified version. Living in NYC in the 70s and 80s, The Wiz was closer to my reality than the Judy Garland version. I was able to like both. I loved The Wiz Live and live tweeted the fuck out of it. (It was a better production than the pretty good Grease Live and that trainwreck Sound of Music Live, and as a musical theater geek, I will fight you on that.)

It bugged me that more white people weren't watching, enjoying and tweeting about The Wiz. It was a damn good show. 

(I have no idea if this phenomenon extends to Scandal and Empire. I had my fill of nighttime soaps with my Dynasty addiction back in the day, so I don't watch or live tweet those. I could find out, but that's the difference between journalism and a brain dump blog post. No time or energy for research. Can anyone fill in that blank?)

Back to Roots. I was a bit young for it the first time around, but did watch it in my 20s. I was a bit of a curmudgeon about the remake until I discovered the reason behind it. One of the producers showed it to his teenaged kids and they couldn't get into it. It looked too dated and they didn't know any of the actors. Essentially, teenagers really need to see this story, but teenagers are little shits so they needed a remake. 

Fine, whatever it takes. And we've learned more about Kunta Kinte's hometown (it was a city, not a village) in the intervening decades, so there was something to add. I also like that they didn't have a different actor playing Kunta as an older man. LeVar Burton and John Amos were both wonderful, but the change was jarring. (Of course, LeVar was a college senior at the time, so maybe they couldn't make him look convincingly older. Or maybe they just wanted to cast another actor. Seriously, the original has more stars than a season of The Love Boat.)

See? There's more to discuss about Roots than the horrors of slavery. But here's the thing - slavery is white history too. Yes, it happened to black people. (And do not come around here with that nonsense about Irish indentured servants being slaves because that it the stupidest shit I've heard in a year with a lot of stupid shit flying around.)

But slavery wasn't an act of God. It wasn't a hurricane. It didn't just happen. White people did that. Our ancestors built and maintained a system that supported slavery. To this day, we go through mental gymnastics to justify how much black Americans have been screwed over. 

This is white American history. As a kid, I felt smug because my ancestors are all Northern so I assumed they didn't own slaves. Then I learned that slavery existed in the North and just ended earlier than in the South. So it's possible that my people owned people. Which sucks. But I don't need to get defensive about it. No one's saying I bear any personal guilt for slavery. There's no reason I can't acknowledge how horrifically wrong slavery was. 

But not everyone feels that way. They say that slavery was so long ago that ever should just get over it and move on. (Even though the racism that white people created to justify slavery is still very much a thing.) They point out how bad they and their ancestors had it too. (I think every white American should at least watch the bit where the poor, downtrodden Irish guy complains about his social standing to the people he owns. Seriously, dude? Juneteenth should be Slap a White Person Day.)

They don't want to watch a show where the bad guys look like them and the good guys don't. (Even though we expect people of color to watch shows like that.)

When I was in grad school, I went on a road trip with some family. Out West, we visited some small museum on a spot where white people committed an atrocity against Native Americans. My aunt explained to her 6-year old son that "our forefathers killed them" referring to the overall genocide. He misheard and said, "YOUR FATHER? Your father was a bad guy."

That's all it takes people. Acknowledge that our forefathers were bad guys, and decide to be good guys instead.

So stop being big babies and watch Roots. It's an engaging story full of hope and the strength of the human spirit. If you have to, start with the last episode (airing tonight) which is about emancipation and reconstruction. (Not that those weren't sucky times to be black, but they sucked a bit less than earlier eras.) Then go back and watch the whole thing because it's a damn good story.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! My family isn't watching "Roots," but that's because we don't watch broadcast TV. So we will see it later. :)

    On a related note: do you know of this Twitter account? https://twitter.com/afamhistfail

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