Reclaiming Roots for the Next Generation

Reclaiming Roots for the Next Generation

Sometimes, a new historical study can raise new questions to previously discussed topics while reintroducing classic works with refreshing perspectives. Tyler D. Parry’s Jumping the Broom is one such work. Parry uncovers the complex and interconnected histories of Europeans, Africans, and African Americans’ marital ceremonial practice of jumping the broom as a form of agency in order to have their unions legitimized (at least within their communities). Additionally, Parry traces the rising popularity within the wedding industrial complex, which continues marketing the act as an African ritual confirmed in the 1976 edition of Alex Haley’s Roots miniseries where Kunta Kinte and Belle wed (an act that did not receive as much detail in Haley’s book).[1] By refocusing on the significance of enslaved people’s cultural practices, Parry shows readers how it is possible to uncover the complexity of intimate relations, marital practices, and enslaved people’s agency while living within the oppressive system of slavery. For me, Parry’s analysis and conclusions raised the possibility of structuring an undergraduate course that critically analyzes Haley’s printed and dramatized works and places them in conversation with relevant scholarship might provide current students with Black genealogical histories and cultural practices across multiple generations.

Older Black man in gray hair standing next to a younger black man draped in a blanket and wearing a hat.
Lou Gossett Jr. (left) and LeVar Burton (right) star in the Roots miniseries.

Alex Haley’s Roots, both the book and miniseries, remain relevant and ever-present in American society. It is plausible to connect the material to current conversations regarding social and racial justice, systemic racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically, Roots’ centralized focus on Haley’s family history dating back to the mid-eighteenth century includes several issues, including but not limited to, detailing African culture, depicting the Middle Passage for enslaved people, highlighting how enslaved people repeatedly demonstrated agency against slaveowners, and emphasizing the significance of Black families (in and outside of bondage). Both the literary and visual images invoke, then and now, vivid ways to understand the lives of diverse Black people across hemispheres and generations and their struggles to have their humanity recognized, marital unions legitimized, and families protected.

A compelling aspect of Haley’s work was that he focused on significant historical moments from the perspective of Black people rather than white people. Whether it was the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, the shifted gaze provides a lens that reveals how knowledgeable, resourceful, and intelligent enslaved people were to key events as they continued to adapt for their survival, which previous academic and public discourses downplayed or ignored.

Given that Roots held both the number one spot as a New York Times Best Sellers list and was also one of the most-watched miniseries, it was unsurprising that it received a diverse and wide number of public responses, positive and negative, from audiences in the United States and internationally. Some African Americans, such as James Baldwin, saw Roots as an invaluable contribution to conversations about race and racism by doing pro-Black work that emphasized agency, strength, and familial importance in the face of unending racial discrimination.[2] White audiences, meanwhile, ranged from people stating that Roots uncovered, for them, a historical past that some did not know, while others denounced Haley for promoting (supposed) racialized propaganda. At the same time, President Jimmy Carter minimized the Black experience depicted in work by claiming that they “were one group among many.”[3] Incorporating these varied public opinions into the classroom can potentially stimulate discussions on the complex and differing public responses to the work that analyzed the realities of slavery and racial and gender discrimination from the perspective of Black families at the center of the topics.

Aside from public debates, some critics raised multiple questions about the authenticity and accuracy of Roots. Regarding the book, numerous questions arose over Haley’s research methods, his personal biases, the writing process with his collaborators, and even concerns of potentially plagiarizing the works of Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander.[4] These are important and valid issues to raise when discussing the complex public and scholarly debates surrounding Roots. Adding these points to the classroom presents an opportunity to unpack issues related to authenticity and a project’s originality and how the popularity of Roots continued to this day. Currently, students (at a wide range of institutions) engage in similar debates over the 1619 Project and critically discuss issues of race, gender, religion, class, and other important topics.[5] By placing such issues into a historical context, students gain deeper and more nuanced understandings of how previous generations dealt with historical moments, people, and thought-provoking pop cultural phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Matthew F. Delmont provides insight on the various politics of producing, filming, broadcasting, and viewing the 1976 miniseries. He details the lived and real trauma that Black actresses and actors experienced throughout the filming. For instance, the Middle Passage depictions below the deck on the Lord Ligonier had cast members tightly chained together with simulated vomit and fluids, which led to numerous extras refusing to return after one day of shooting.[6] Understanding the physical, psychological, and emotional distress that cast members experienced is critical for classroom discussions about the unintended consequences of bringing such intense and compelling stories to the screen.

There is a wealth of scholarship that educators could assign, in conjunction with Roots, to provide illuminating dialogues regarding the Black family experience in the various locations and periods that Haley’s work discusses. The work of Jennifer L. Morgan and Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh provide a counternarrative to Haley’s patriarchal emphasis of Black familial and communal dynamics to focus on life, in freedom and bondage, for Black women. Both scholars denote how West African women repeatedly demonstrated agency against slaveowners, including practicing West African tradition throughout the violent “Americanizing” process.[7] Walter Johnson’s work remains one of the best studies that explore both the processes of commodifying and dehumanizing enslaved people in public slave markets.[8] Meanwhile, the collective work of Amy Murrell Taylor, Tera Hunter, and Brandi C. Brimmer provides insight into the personal lives of African American families (including those connected to the United States Colored Troops soldiers) as they navigated the difficulties of freedom during and long after the Civil War.[9] Ultimately, placing these and similar studies in conversation with Roots can yield informative course content that highlights how studies of Black families were, and still are, an important topic that can reframe public and academic discourses on history, race, and gender in informative and lasting ways. At the same time, their work highlights how relevant the content and points of emphasis in Roots remain ever-present today. Hopefully, students (mine and others) will gain a better understanding of Roots, genealogical studies, and Black history in the process.

 

[1] Tyler D. Parry, Jumping the Broom: The Surprising Multicultural Origins of a Black Wedding Ritual (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[2] James Baldwin, “How One Black Man Came To Be an American: A Review of Roots,” New York Times, September 26, 1976.

[3] Clare Corbould, “Roots, the Legacy of Slavery, and Civil Rights Backlash in 1970s America,” Roots Reconsidered: Race, Politics, and Memory, eds. Erica L. Ball and Kellie Carter Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 33-34.

[4] Arnold H. Lubasch, “ ‘Roots’ Plagiarism Suit is Settled,” New York Times, December 15, 1978.

[5] “The 1619 Project” Critical Race Training in Education, https://criticalrace.org/the-1619-project/, accessed on 1/25/2022.

[6] Matthew F. Delmont, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

[7] Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

[8] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[9] Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Brandi C. Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020); Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

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