On January 23, 1977, more than 100 million people across America tuned their television sets to ABC to watch one of the first and still few programs to truthfully tell the story of American slavery. The historic miniseries, based on the novel by Alex Haley, recounted the genealogical saga of one of the first black people in America to successfully trace his ancestry backwards from the tobacco fields of Virginia, through the Middle Passage, to the West African Gambia village of Juffure. Revolutionary in its content, it was a story that embodied extreme examples of both horror and hope, along with the emotionally wrenching roller coaster of events that tied those reactions together.
On that evening, I was a twenty-five-year-old single mother, living at my mother’s house on the Southside of Chicago with my seven-year-old son. Three generations of our household were riveted for four nights until the series’ end. My heart raced with fear as teenaged Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte was chased through the bush by vicious slave catchers. It trilled as Kunta Kinte raised his “new born African” baby girl up to the skies to “behold the only thing that is greater than yourself.” I cried uncontrollably when his cruel master cut off his foot to stop him from running away and again when his wife Bell wailed in anguish as their precious daughter Kizzy was sold away.
This was the story of MY ancestors....and the progeny of more than 500,000 people who were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in America. Alex Haley instantly became my hero, as did the characters in his tome—whether real, fictional, or merely actors in the miniseries. I devoured Haley’s book and, when I met Levar Burton and Cicely Tyson later in life, I hugged them in gratitude for their portrayals.
Even prior to seeing “Roots,” I had embarked on a mission to uncover my own family roots. I started when my son was born in 1969 in the hope of building a legacy for him that I did not have. My interest was jumpstarted big time after watching “Roots.” I began making annual pilgrimages to my father’s birthplace in Montgomery, Alabama so I could walk in the footsteps that led him to Chicago. Thirty-nine years later, I am still at it.
My Kunte Kinte is my great grandfather, Tom Leslie, born in 1845. He wasn’t born in Africa, but he was born into slavery, as was his mother Harriet. They endured their servitude in “black belt” Lowndes County, Alabama. I have a document that places him firmly in the maw of moral turpitude when he and his mother were sold (just like Kizzy—with no warning or recourse). Harriet’s going price was $400. Tom was valued at $1,000.
Tom died in 1938, but his wife Rhoda was still alive when I was a child. She died at age 104 when I was three. I met her. My family story says she was thrown against a wall as a baby by the wife of her owner, who was her father. She did not die, she only went into convulsions. In the aftermath, she and her mother Easter were sold away.
To date, I have found more than two dozen people in my ancestral family tree who were enslaved. My discoveries represent the tip of an iceberg whose depths are likely never to be fully plumbed. Imagine my joy when DNA testing proved one of my uncles has Mandinka roots (like Kunta Kinte) and a female ancestress with origins in Moçambique!
When I wrote Gather at the Table with Tom DeWolf, I was on a mission to reconcile my personal conflict with the egregious history uncovered by my family research. In the research and the writing, I was forced to confront the cognitive dissonance of a nation whose principles, wealth, and continuing behavior are based on a foundation of genocide, slavery, disenfranchisement, hate, cruelty, torture, and murder.
Slavery happened. For more than 250 years, America’s “peculiar institution” enslaved people based on race and doomed its victims to perpetuity in that state. That is a FACT. It was HORRIBLE. What films like 12 Years a Slave and TV programs like “Underground” and “Roots” do is FORCE us to LOOK.
When Tom told me he was watching “Roots” at the same time I was, and that it made a profound impact on his life, I was SHOCKED. Until he said that, I had no idea white people had any empathy or feelings of remorse for how we got to this day where America remains so obviously stuck in the unhealed vise of history’s grip and oblivious to its consequences. (Witness black people being slaughtered in the streets and people in their millions cheering a Hitleresque misogynist who aspires to the American presidency.)
I am characteristically unimpressed when the money mongers of Hollywood or TV Land announce sequels or remakes. However, I find myself strangely attracted to the announcement of a “Roots” reprise. History Channel president Paul Buccieri says “Roots will allow new audiences to experience this epic family saga with a new vision that is both inspiring and tremendously entertaining.” (I can relate to being “inspired” but have problems coming to peace with the idea of being “tremendously entertained.”)
There is no doubt our memories need to be refreshed. The millennial generation has no personal experience whatsoever with slavery, Jim Crow, or the African American struggle for civil rights. Although research has proven otherwise—about their mindset as well as the state of social affairs—many blissfully think things are “hunky dory.” After watching “Roots,” they will have the option to either embrace a narrative of truth or succumb to new depths of collective denial.
I shall reserve my opinion about the “Roots” reboot until I see it. My hope is that it will accomplish the same thing it did for me and Tom = Make a profound impact on the soul of America.
On Memorial Day 2016, I will rush to my television at the appointed hour and tune into The History Channel with my heart in hand. My son (who is now forty-seven, married, and no longer lives with me) will no doubt be watching as well. He will be sitting on his cushy sofa next to his wife in their lovely apartment in Harlem. Their arms will be lovingly wrapped around my grand babies (aged six and eight). As we watch in our disparate locations, we will surely mutually channel how, during slavery, the little bodies of our beloved offspring—had they been born in another time and place—would have been abused by relentless field work; their little hands burned and bleeding from the pricks of cotton bolls.
Sadly, these are the roots we must embrace in order to empower our future.
About the Author
Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. She is the founder of Our Black Ancestry, an online community of family researchers.