Press play. A Black man dressed in a black bowler hat, long-sleeve buttoned shirt, gold waistcoat, and forest-green wool scarf, worn in a bourgeois once-around, sits in a green wagon, gripping the reins as two horses kick up dust along a dirt path. Press pause. I know what you’re thinking, but he’s not a hipster; he’s “Chicken George”—played by the bright-eyed Ben Vereen— a cockfighting slave featured in the award-winning 1977 miniseries Roots.
Press play. Chicken George, always the optimist, sings. Oh nigger, what you gon say? Freedom comes your way some day. ‘Stead of bein’ a nigger in Carolina… rather be a free man in hell! He laughs, but his smile quickly fades as he contemplates the impossibility of a slave buying his way to freedom. The wagon enters of the shade of a large tree and a gun goes off. Two white men on horses approach from the left, two from the right. Chicken George, afraid, tries to wake his drunken master in the back of the wagon to no avail. “You know a nigger name Nat Turner, boy?,” one man asks. Chicken George says no. After another man threatens to stick the muzzle of his musket right in his teeth and pull the trigger, Master Moore wakes and claims Chicken George as his slave. The men leave and before falling back into a spirit-fueled slumber, Master Moore smiles, grips Chicken George’s shoulder and says, “In some ways, you and I is more alike than any white man and nigger I ever saw.”
Fast forward. Stop. Chicken George and Master Moore arrive on Moore’s plantation, but it’s empty. A gun goes off. Master Moore’s wife, believing her husband is dead in the wagon, shoots at Chicken George. A minute elapses until Master Moore wakes to his wife’s relief. Press pause. At this point in the miniseries, Chicken George doesn’t know it, but Tom Moore is both his master and father through rape.
Fast forward. Stop. Chicken George and his family are laughing in their cabin and eating dinner. Master Moore, afraid of a Turner-like insurrection, kicks open the door and brandishes a shotgun, telling the slaves to hand over their utensils and any other objects that can be used as weapons. Chicken George, smiling, approaches Master Moore, until Master Moore orders him to get back, or he’ll “splatter him to kingdom come.” Chicken George, betrayed, no longer smiles.
It is hard to watch this scene, or nearly any from the miniseries, and not feel something—rage and anguish, of course—but also an almost supernatural sense of déjà vu, as if you’ve been there before and you’ve seen it play out a thousand times. This is because you have. In different ways, shapes, and forms with a diverse cast of actors rotating throughout the history of this country: teacher and pupil; police and civilian; doctor and patient; employer and employee; neighbors; teammates; co-workers. This scene of betrayal is nothing new, which is why with the rise of white nationalism and a president who unabashedly defends it, it’s more important now than ever before to watch these painful, familiar scenes unfold. To remind ourselves that the blood and bondage that birthed our nation will forever be a part of it, especially in the present. It’s time to watch Roots again.
When Roots premiered in 1977, one hundred thirty million Americans—at the time, half of the population—sat back and watched how the “peculiar institution” built the land of the free and home of the brave. Many of them also likely realized the absurdity in relegating slavery to the remote, almost alien, past, gathering dust and cobwebs in the country’s closet. Because what do we think took place when a child, sitting in his mother’s warm lap, saw children, his age, being shackled, branded, and slaughtered like animals? When a woman saw women, bearing the same lines of time in their faces as herself, forced to endure the violent penetration of their masters? When a man saw men, resembling a brother or a father, either cracking the whips or being mutilated by them? The past, through the strange alchemy of television and masterful storytelling, became their present, even if only for forty-five to ninety minutes a night.
Eight nights. A Christian God supposedly made the Earth in less, but for eight nights in 1977 the world was baptized in the truth of how our nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, came to be. According to Nielsen, it was the largest viewership any television show in US history ever gained. With eighty-five percent of every home with a television watching every episode, or at least a few. Today, forty-one years later, it still holds the record for second-most watched series finale. But what drew people to the miniseries? Especially when it was so unmistakable in the way it said, “It doesn’t matter whether you turn away, or not. This happened. And what happened directly affects you.” For Blacks, it was a chance to see a tragic reality, brought to life on ABC, finally displayed for the world to watch, internalize, and reckon with.
Still, what compelled whites to watch? Was it a desire to gain a feeling of superiority? To reconfirm their God-given right to this country, where no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave? Maybe. But perhaps it was the visceral curiosity about, and desire to learn more of, their history, because slavery isn’t African-American history, it’s American history. To claim that the unforgivable sins of their kin, if only in the color of their skin, have nothing to do with them, is a lazy coping mechanism. Because though they didn’t crack the whip and tear open the flesh, they, based on the very fact that this country rose to global primacy on the skin of Blacks held down by the leather boots of whites, have benefitted.
They benefit when they can walk down the street and not see someone grip their purse; when being stopped by the police is more of a nuisance than a death sentence; when attempting to purchase a home is met with a key in their hand instead of a door in their face. All this is a direct result of our country’s history of bondage, and the frightening fact that so many people, whether consciously or unconsciously, choose to divorce this history from the here and now further supports the necessity of watching Roots again, now.
To watch Roots is to realize that the racist foundation of our nation’s past is unfortunately ever more present. Despite a rise in white nationalism and the “take back our country” rhetoric, I’m not concerned about neo-nazis, skinheads, or the KKK. Who I worry about, when I read the news or hear of the latest unarmed person of color being butchered, are those floating on their backs in the murky racial waters, susceptible to going whichever way the strongest tide pushes them. The ones who read about children being torn from their parents and think, That sucks, but there must be a reason for it, right? The ones who hear about unarmed people of color being gunned down and think, “Shouldn’t have resisted. If they would’ve respected the law, they wouldn’t have died.” The ones who remain silent, complicit, when hanging out in a group of friends or around the dinner table with family and allow their loved ones to spout piping-hot words of hate about people they know nothing about more than what the media told them. These are the people who I think about; good people ingesting gateway drugs of apathy, jokes, and whataboutism until they become the people preaching the same words of hate they only casually disregarded before.
This is why Roots has never been more relevant. Because when you watch it, you’ll be astounded to find that opening the closet of America’s past doesn’t contain cobwebs or dust, but the same ectoplasm oozing out of our prisons, covering our lands, and speckling the very paper our nation’s laws were written on. And no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we as a nation, and a people will be better off when we decide that the best way to rid our land of its ghosts isn’t to hide from them but to grab flashlights and shine them into the darkness—even if what we end up finding is only a reflection of ourselves.