Review by Carolyn Skelton – Roots (2016)
My first post on the 2016 TV miniseries, Roots, highlighted the brutality of silvery, and the ways the US slave masters aimed to erase the true identities and history of African chatel slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. A theme of the miniseries is the importance of naming, and how the slaves maintain their true names and by telling and re-telling their family line and stories to each new generation.
In episodes 3 and 4 we follow the life of Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page) the son by rape of Kunte Kinte’s (Malachi Kirby) daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), and an Irish slave owner, Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in North Carolina.
Tom came from a poor Irish American background, and considers he has been successful when his fighting cocks gain him enough money to buy a farm and slaves. He is never accepted by the wealthy, powerful and bigoted Anglo men in the area: they consider themselves Tom’s superior. Chicken George has a way with words, using an evangelical style of oratory to captivate white people as he successfully trains and manages Tom’s fighting roosters. Like Tom, the young George sees the acquisition of money as the best way to achieve freedom, and equality.
George later reconsiders, and chastens Tom for his hollow belief in the soulless power of money. Money, and the evils associated with it, are another recurring theme in the series. After a lost cock fight, Tom Lea is bankrupted. This results in George being sold to an Englishman, and taken to England for over 20 years, leaving behind his wife Matilda (Erica Tazel) and several children.
In the final episode of the series, it is a bewildering moment for Kinte’s descendants and the community of slaves, when they slowly come to realise that the Civil War has ended, General Lee has capitulated, and they are no longer slaves. Chicken George’s wife Matilda says, she won’t be dancing in celebration as she has lost so much: 3 children sold to distant slave owners, and her, now liberated husband, back in the US.
George had to leave his family because vicious white men use loopholes in the law to brutally exert their power over black people, whether they are slaves or not. If George had stayed with his family he would have been tormented, re-enslaved, or killed. An older, wiser and reformed George joined the struggle to support and protect other black people.
Towards the final episode, following the end of the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, we see the liberated slaves take the first tentative steps to negotiating their their terms for selling their labour to their previous slave masters.
Roots: the next generations
This matches the history outlined in Steve Fraser’s 2015 book*. The abolition of slavery was replaced by what often was referred to as “wage slavery”, with a large number of young black men, and some poor white men, in the south of the US, working for little money in harsh, prison-like conditions. A high proportion of black such men ended up in prison. There they became cheap labour for the developing enterprises of the rapid industrialisation of the US, and the rise of capitalism (Fraser, pp. 50-3).
“And while young African American males languished in industrial and agricultural prison camps, black women (if they weren’t also working in prisons, sometimes as unpaid prostitutes), once the helpmates of their husbands on small family plots, found work instead as wage earners in canning and tobacco factories, as domestics, in mechanized laundries and textile mills, and in the fields.” (Fraser, p.53)
High unemployment was a frightening reality. The US’s early phases of industrialisation developed on the backs and bodies of the poor, a high proportion of them being black people.
“… 35,000 workers died each year in industrial accidents, many of them skilled mechanics.…
“The bones of thousands of workmen were encased in the concrete of dams and bridges…” (Fraser, pp. 56-57)
The history of the subordination, discrimination and bigotry endured by the majority of African Americans since the Civil War, shows how the legacy of the past impacts on the present and future. Some of this is shown in the 1979 TV series Roots: the next generations, available on youtube (see also imdb).
In episode 2 of Roots: the next generations (1979), Chicken George and Matilda’s son Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown) has been proud to be able to vote every election after the Civil War. Then, a new generation of white men conspire to prevent black people from voting with vote registration rules targeting African Americans. This includes the requirement to have paid poll tax, and to be literate. Tom fronts up the registration office, shows his poll tax records, and maintains his dignity in front of the sneering white men, while haltingly reading part of the Tennessee constitution he’s given. They then disqualify him from registering because he is unable to explain the meaning of the piece he has read.
The legacy of African American slave history in the present
In the past few weeks, some in the US have tried to use similar methods of targeting African Americans with rules to prevent them from registering to vote. (Se The Guardian 3 August 2016 and The New York Times 31 July 2016 ) Those kinds of actions, plus the statistics that show African Americans continue to be over-represented in the poorer sections of society, while also being victimised by the police and other institutions, shows how the legacy of brutalising slavery, still continues into the present, as does resistance to it in the #blacklivesmatter movement. (See, for instance, the post by The Political Scientist showing the persistence of poverty experienced by African Americans over generations.)
Berklee Black Lives Matter perform a beautiful version on Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, bringing the past into the present, highlighting the continuing impact of slavery, and long-term oppression of black people into the 21st century.
The refrain in Nina Simone’s song is “What do they call me? My name is…”. At the end of Berklee Black Lives Matter’s version the reprise the refrain for 3 of the women by highlighting that the name is what “they call me”. The powerful diminish and hide the true identities, experiences and histories of slaves and their descendants in the way they name them. In covering the song, the Berklee women retell the history of this oppression and resistance to it.
* Fraser, Steve, The Age of Acquiescence: The life and death of American resistance to organized wealth and power, New York, Boston, London, Little Brown and Company, 2015.