By Laurean D. Robinson, MA
Being the diligent journalist that I am, I spent a great deal of time this Memorial Weekend “studying” the industry reviews and reflections on the upcoming Roots miniseries. From The Hollywood Reporter to New York Times, mainstream media has dissected and compared the 1977 groundbreaking series which starred a young Levar Burton to its contemporary starring British newcomer Malachi Kirby. The most refreshing insight writers have made connected the relevance of said series in the age of Black Lives Matter. Personally, I had already foreseen this application when the project had been announced over a year ago (thanks to my insider access to Variety magazine).
I wasn’t alive when the miniseries first flooded our cultural consciousness 40 years ago but I was able to watch it multiple times thanks to BET’s re-broadcasts. With that and The Color Purple, they shaped my understanding of racial and gendered binaries as a teenager. They also helped me appreciate my family heritage:
I am a descendant of Africa’s slaves and America’s sharecroppers, United States Army medics, diligent maids, hard-working nurses, authoritative professors, HBCU presidents, charismatic pastors, flamboyant lawyers, selfless caregivers, praying mothers, loving fathers, and so many more.
Last night’s broadcast reawakened that consciousness that too often lays dormant when we become preoccupied with everyday stress and responsibilities, our dread of returning to work after a decadent holiday weekend where excess lets us forget our emptiness.
In Roots, family heritage and birthright reside with chosen names. They reflect an unbroken lineage of ancestors, immediate family, village and tribe. In Alex Haley’s novel the series is based on, the naming ceremony of the series’ protagonist includes familiar qualifiers:
Then the alimamo turned to pray over the infant, entreating Allah to grant him long life, success in bringing credit and pride and many children to his family, to this village, to his tribe — and, finally, the strength and the spirit to deserve and to bring honor to the name he was about to receive . . .
‘The first child of Omoro and Binta Kinte is named Kunta!’
As everyone knew, it was the middle name of the child’s late grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte . . . where he had saved the people of Juffure from a famine, married Grandma Yaisa, and then served Juffure honorably till his death as the village’s holy man (3).
Kunta Kinte’s own name carried so much that as a viewer, you slowly begin to understand why he refuses to let it go, even in the boughs of the slave ship during Middle Passage and when he is being transported to Virginia after being sold.
When he punished for running away in Virginia plantation, the sharecropper is also punishing this stubbornness to conform to the American slave mentality, demanding that he uses his new name “Toby.” To say it was most heart-wrenching scenes of last night’s broadcast would be too simplistic and even a little disrespectful. You are witnessing the painful submission of a strong Mandingo warrior with dreams of education and returning home to his family in Gambia, broken down to become a weak and pained slave in America’s Virginia.
I will definitely be DVRing the rest of the series for the rest of the week.