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The Roots of the Problem: A Tale of Two Legacies

Posted by J. Menaq on June 3, 2016 at 8:45 AM

The Roots of the Problem: The Tale of Two Legacies

By: Jeff Menzise, Ph.D.

In 1977, there was a mini-series that aired on national television, highlighting the journey of the enslaved African from the west coast of Africa to the east coast and south of the embryonic United States of America. Roots, an incredible and revolutionary masterpiece, boasted a star-studded cast including: Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett Jr., Madge Sinclair, Leslie Uggams, John Amos, Sandy Duncan, Ben Vereen, Lloyd Bridges, LeVar Burton, Olivia Cole, and Robert Reed. It received more than 20 Emmy nominations, as well as Golden Globe and Peabody recognition. This mini-series ranked high according to Nielsen, with more than 140 million viewers (over half the U.S. population). This series was inspired by author Alex Haley, who found his own ancestral roots by tracing his genealogy to the SeneGambia (Senegal and Gambia) region of West Africa. His story inspired countless numbers of American Africans to begin searching out their African ancestry and to seek a better knowledge and understanding of the enslavement process, and to reclaim some form of their African heritage.

In the late 1970s, this was revolutionary and even necessary…but what about 2016? Many people have mixed feelings about this new rendering, or “reboot” of the classic mini-series, including many of the original actors. LaVar Burton is quoted as having been unsure about the remake stating that he didn’t know that we “needed this.” His perspective was swayed by Mark Wolper, who happens to be the son of the executive producer of the original series, David L. Wolper. Mark Wolper shared his experience of showing his own teenage son the original mini-series that his (the teenager’s) grandfather made 23 years before his own birth. He was attempting to show him their legacy and the greatness of his ancestors. The teenaged Wolper was not feeling the original, stating it was “paced weird” and that it “looked funny.” He also said that “It is kind of like your music. It doesn’t speak to me.” This conversation is what encouraged (read gave courage to) Mark Wolper to follow in his father’s footsteps and bring forward the story of Kunta Kinte and his enslavers in a language (both verbal and visual) that would speak to his son and his generation. LaVar was sold (pun intended).

There is an interesting, underlying narrative about inheritance running throughout this story and the surrounding conversations. On the one hand, the late producer David L. Wolper, his son Mark Wolper, and his teenage grandson are all preserving their legacy and privilege as White males, financially benefitting from the same, while they tell the story of how their European ancestors dominated and subjugated an “inferior” race of Africans, even as they fought to the death for their freedom and rights as a human being (it is unknown by this author if there are direct links between the Wolper family and any plantation owning enslavers). This seems to be an attempt by Mark Wolper to have “the talk” with his White male son, and the son wasn’t getting the picture. How many other Whites have tried to have “the talk” with their children and have had to use outdated material as references, only to find that their children were resistant to the indoctrination of the legacy of White superiority and non-White inferiority? Is the remaking of Roots an attempt to update the narrative, a tool for transmitting the notion of White Supremacy across generations? Is this also the reason why it was aired on at least three networks simultaneously and also why television series like Underground are getting so much play?

Other American African stars from the original series had mixed feelings about the remake as well. Leslie Uggams, who played Kizzy Kente Reynolds in the original mini-series, was unsure about the remake. She expressed that the role was very dear to her and that she was concerned about the remake. Another actress, Olivia Cole, was very supportive and even seemed to be excited about the remake, stating, “Everyone has a wonderful story. We need to have these voices out here. We need to know where we come from. We need to know how we got here.” The conversation of race, racism, slavery, and how certain parts of American society continue to benefit from these crimes against humanity has always been a tough topic, the Roots reboot is no different.

Olivia Cole and her husband Richard Venture

The Tale of Two Legacies

Snoop Dogg, a.k.a. Snoop Lion, has become more and more vocal in regards to perceived racism and injustices experienced by American Africans. He most recently made media headlines as he called for a boycott of the new Roots series. He stated, via an Instagram video that he is:

“…sick of this sh!t. How the f*ck they gonna put Roots on on Memorial Day?…They gone just keep beating that sh!t in our heads of how they did us, huh? When y’all gonna make a muthaf*ckin series about the success that Black folks is havin’? The only success we have is Roots and 12 Years a Slave and sh!t like that, huh?"

He has received a mixed set of responses to his comments. Many have cited the apparent hypocrisy of his stance on the negative portrayal of American Africans, while simultaneously perpetuating and promoting self-defeating behaviors via the same Instagram account. Snoop Dogg is perhaps most famous for his career as a “gangsta rapper” from the LBC, and his collaborations with the Dogg Pound, Death Row Records, Dr. Dre, Suge Knight, Master P, and No Limit Records. In many of his songs and videos, Snoop can be seen promoting gang violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse, and the treatment of women as female dogs (bitches). Many are rightfully asking “Who is he to criticize what media and popular culture are doing to negatively portray American Africans?” Nonetheless, the quality of the message should not be confused with the flaws of the messenger.

Mr. Neely Fuller, Jr. speaks of how racism, and its only functional form, White Supremacy, operates as a well organized system, and that everything done under †he system of racism, by racists and suspect racists, is done to further the system by one or more of the following: 1) Establishing it where it never existed; 2) Maintaining it where it has been established; 3) Expanding it beyond where it already exists; and 4) Refining how it exists, meaning, there is a constant updating and changing of the ways that racism/White supremacy is manifesting in all areas of people activity, including: Economics, Education, Entertainment, Labor, Law, Politics, Religion, Sex, and War/Counter-War. This refinement is necessary because sometimes systems get outdated and need an updating. With the constant advance of technology, and the ever increasing sophistication of delivery systems (i.e, social media, HD and UHD television, digital music downloads, front facing cameras on smart phones, etc.), the message and methods of racism also need to be advanced and updated.

The younger generations are born into a more technological age, which has far surpassed the media technology of the 70s; as a result, their brains are wired for another form of entertainment, attention, and focus...as stated by Mr. Wolper’s teenage son, the original looked funny and did not speak to him. Mr. Fuller encourages American Africans, and others, to question everything that is done under the system of racism/White supremacy, in order to find out “how” a specific action serves to further the system via one of the four methods mentioned above. In the case of rebooting Roots, it is clear that the remake serves to: maintain, expand and refine.

The new version of Roots may help to maintain White supremacy by showing how Whites have historically dominated Africans during a certain and very specific period of time. This remake helps to keep the narrative of American Africans “coming from slaves” relevant, and told from the perspective of the enslaver (while giving a moment or two to the African s/heroes who fought against such an experience). The movies and television series that Snoop mentions, in addition to The Butler, and several other similar stories serve the same purpose. The making of The Gods of Egypt, The Mummy, X-Men Apocalypse, and most other films that feature the ancient African societies of Kemet (Egypt), also help to reinforce this message by "white-washing" the image of Ancient African greatness.

The Roots remake could also assist in the expansion of the system of racism/White supremacy by making sure that it travels trans-generationally. Not only will the adults and children of the 70s have seen it and been exposed to its message, but also those in 2016 and beyond. In the 70s, it was a proud moment for many to learn that their family tree does in fact, have roots. But we must be clear that Roots did not exist in a vacuum, nor was it the only source for American Africans to learn something of their African heritage. On the contrary, there were many scholars and activists who were fighting and dying in the decades before Roots being aired, while assisting American Africans to reclaim their African heritage and to learn of their ancestral lineage. From Marcus Garvey to H. Rap Brown, and from Anna J. Cooper to Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, the quest for African legacy, in a positive light, has been consistent. The difference is, this mini-series, Roots, was made a public and mainstream event, with full support from major television networks of the time. But, why?

In her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy Degruy outlines, in great detail, the processes used to condition free Africans into enslaved Africans. By focusing in on the trauma of enslavement, she brilliantly identifies how the constant portrayal and or re-airing of, and how re-exposing and flooding the psyche of traumatized people with, these reminders of their dangerous and uncertain existence, serves to maintain the fear response often displayed by traumatized people. This is easily verifiable by counting the large numbers of videos circulating of police shootings, the mass incarceration and/or effeminization of Black males, as well as the portrayal and rewarding of the “nigger” personality. By using the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, we get a clinical view of how the updating and airing of Roots, Underground, and movies like 12 Years a Slave, absolutely serves as a vicarious exposure to trauma, and can also reinforce and deepen the already installed trauma. An interesting change to the diagnostic criteria has removed media, movies, etc. from the list of potential sources of triggering the traumatic response unless it is work related. This change just occured with the most recent version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual).

Part of the ongoing legacy inherent in this process is this psychological state called PTSS (Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome). PTSS is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that is acquired trans-generationally, by the trauma induced behaviors of previous generations, stretching back to the days of enslavement and being plantation prisoners. One of the most relevant features of PTSS, as it relates to the Roots controversy, is found on pages 124 – 143. Dr. Degruy discusses how “the experience of multigenerational trauma, together with continued oppression and a real or perceived lack of access to the benefits available in society leads to PTSS.” She continues by identifying how PTSS manifests in many patterns of behavior, including: vacant esteem, ever present anger, and racist socialization. She continues by quoting Yeal Danieli from the International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma:

“Viewed from a family systems perspective, what happened in one generation will affect what happens in the older or younger generation, though the actual behavior may take a variety of forms. Within an intergenerational context, the trauma and its impact may be passed down as the family legacy even to children born after the trauma.”

Part of the expansion phase of racism/White supremacy is to ensure that this trauma continues to impact the targeted groups, across generations, far into the foreseeable future. The task of the refinement phase is to ensure that this transmission continues in the most efficient and effective manner, producing products that are easily and willingly assimilated by the subject population. Some hypothesize that this is the reason why popular culture (i.e., hip hop) serves as a major vehicle for transmitting trauma and promoting examples of the trauma induced behaviors displayed by traumatized people (vacant esteem, ever present anger, racist socialization). One of the most insidious "refinement" accomplishments of racism/White supremacy is its ability to manifest as “Black-on-Black violence.” Amos Wilson gives a wonderful treatment of this phenomenon in his book Black on Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in Service of White Domination. His major thesis is that the majority of American African behavior is actually in response to their experience with some form of violence perpetuated by Whites, and how this detrimental behavior is actually designed to maintain White superiority. The popularizing of the "prison culture," the glamorizing drug dealing, and the plethora of illegal activities being promoted by American Africans to American Africans is undeniable evidence of this phenomenon.

T. I. as Cyrus, the runaway slave.

Another major accomplishment of the refinement phase is the employment and promotion of American Africans into positions and roles that financially or is otherwise beneficial to them, while they are serving to expand the system of racism/White supremacy. This new Roots mini-series does both. Not only have they updated the imagery and the story of Roots, but they have also updated the cast to include actors that are more popular with today’s generations, including hip hop artist T.I., who also promotes the concept of Black on Black violence, in his music, much like Snoop Dogg. T.I. was also initially hesitant to join the cast as a runaway slave, but eventually agreed to play the part. The goal at this phase is to create a situation where it seems as if there is no more racism, and that any and all issues that arise, are race neutral, race beneficial, or self-inflicted by the oppressed racial group. In Dumbin’ Down: Reflections on the Mis-Education of the Negro, I use the analogy of dominoes being set-up to knock each other down to illustrate this very point. If the dominoes could talk, and if you were to ask the 3rd domino who knocked it down, it would accuse the one standing next to it; which is true. However, the fact that they were set-up to knock each other down, by an external force, brings a better understanding of that truth; such is the case with much of the current Black on Black violence.

Modern "Master-Slave Retreats" take place in Saratoga Springs, California

Overall, the legacies inherited by those exposed to and participating in the new Roots mini-series differ greatly along racial lines. On the one hand, Mark Wolper is carrying on the success of his father, and is motivated, in part, by the desire to create a story, that is accessible to his son and younger generations, of how his ancestors were able to capture and enslave Africans. On the other hand, American African children, the same age as the teenaged Wolper, are being shown the enhanced version of how their ancestors were able to be captured by Whites and kept in an oppressed state until this very day. The experiences are totally opposite and so are the potential results. This is the deeper implication behind why certain people are uneasy about, and others were downright opposed to, the remaking of the Roots mini-series.

Is boycotting the viewing of Roots the most productive and effective means of expressing this concern? Probably not. In fact, it was likely an emotion-based reaction to the deeply felt frustrations of having the atrocities of slavery “beat in our heads,” as Snoop lamented. The economic resources (time and money) spent on recreating this series, could easily have gone towards the creation of a more empowering story of Africans in America or anywhere else in the diaspora. The reality is, most of the American African experiences in the United States are directly related to, and perhaps a direct result of, the existence and experience of racism/White supremacy. So for anything to be historically accurate for the American African, this theme must at least be present.

An alternative to the rehashing of the story of slavery, is to find stories of success and triumph and amplify those. Filmmakers can easily demonstrate how early pioneers such as Lewis Latimer, Granville T. Woods, Madame C. J. Walker, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Mamie Clark, and the countless others, made strides in a positive direction for American Africans. Another alternative could be to create fictional accounts of how American Africans exist in the future. Showing how we can be successful without the negative stereotypes and other detrimental characteristics that we are currently bombarding unsuspecting viewers through the media. Many younger American African celebrities such as John Legend, the Smiths, and the Carters are following in the footsteps of Oprah, Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson, demonstrating degrees of social responsibility by producing culturally empowering and positive images for the race. It would be nice if Snoop Dogg, in addition to protesting the viewing of Roots, jumped on board and also protested his own production of self-destructive entertainment…and perhaps, put some money and effort towards the creation of positive success stories.

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