This week I was one among the millions who watched A&E’s powerful and devastating “re-imagination” of the epic miniseries Roots, brought to the small screen for a new audience against the not-so-new backdrop of this, the latest iteration of the crisis of racism in the United States. Two nights this week I went to bed with tears. At points in each episode, I wanted to look away.
The 2016 Roots begins in the belly of a slave ship in the midst of the terror of the Middle Passage. In the establishing shot a young Kunta Kinte, Mandinka warrior, thrashes against the chains of his captors as he realizes their attempts to make him a slave. I immediately recalled a sermon by the Rev. Gail Jones, pastor of the Long Island Christian Community in New York. At a community Martin Luther King Jr. Day service in Manhattan in 2013, the Rev. Jones preached on the power of ancestry and spoke the stirring words, “I am the dream not only of Martin King. But I am the dream of someone who made the decision to survive that journey in the bottom of a slave ship.” For the Rev. Jones’ ancestors — as for Roots author, Alex Haley’s — survival itself was a form of resistance.
My own ancestry holds less pride. I learned this when my father appointed himself the family genealogist a decade ago. At first it seemed little more than another on his list of middle-age hobbies that included the likes of bird watching and motorcycle riding. Then he started closing telephone calls with, “So, I’ve been looking at the genealogy…” and telling me which former U.S. president might be a distant cousin. But I remember the day he called with news much more jarring and emotional: “Son, I’ve been looking at the genealogy. I think I’ve confirmed that our family owned slaves.”
It was 2007, when elsewhere in Virginia a certain state legislator expressed that it was time for black people to “get over slavery.” As for my father, he grieved and invited me to do the same. He shared confession with friends and colleagues, including fellow pastors in his community. He didn’t look away, however appealing that might have been. Coming face to face with history, he shared some of the stories.
Like the story of Frederick Wesner — a great-great-great-great uncle of mine. A prominent Charleston architect and aristocrat, Wesner also had a noted reputation as a “slave catcher,” which perhaps made him especially invested in his work as architect of the South Carolina State Arsenal. Following the failed slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey in 1822, the white government of Charleston asked the state to set up an armed force to guard white residents and intimidate the black population, thereby reinforcing the system of slavery with military might. The arsenal and its adjoining guardhouse were built to support this force. Prominently located on Marion Square, the buildings could be seen by those they were constructed to intimidate, including those in bondage on some of the more than 800 slave ships that would arrive to Charleston’s harbor over its history.
The arsenal — the original site of The Citadel — was also constructed close to the site of the church founded by Denmark Vesey: Emanuel AME Church, or “Mother Emanuel,” where one year ago this month, nine more black lives were taken by racism and white supremacy. All within sight of the fortress designed by my fourth great-uncle.
The 2016 Roots, like its groundbreaking predecessor, brings us face to face with history, and it might bring some of us face to face with ourselves. The series was reimagined for an era in which we chant “Black Lives Matter” because there is so much systemic evidence to the contrary. These days, rather than slave ships or militias, the far greater threat is what the theorist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has termed “racism without racists.” In other words, even when overtly racist individuals are absent or gone, so many structures and citadels of racism still stand. Many were constructed for reasons with which we are only beginning to reckon. And some of us have been architects without ever knowing it.
As Kunta Kinte’s uncle shouts to him in the belly of the ship where he is deciding to survive, “Kunta, the shame is not ours!”