Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Arlene Keizer - "Remembering Roots"

Arlene Keizer is an Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at University of California, Irvine.  She is the author of Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery (Cornell University Press, 2004) and is currently working on a book project that analyzes the work of the African American visual artist Kara Walker as a window into black postmodernism.

Remembering “Roots”
I recall the event of “Roots” very clearly. For an Afro-Caribbean immigrant family like mine, watching this mini-series was a deep initiation into African American and American culture. It was the site and source of my first understanding of US slavery.

Remembering “Roots” fills my mind with the beautiful and complex faces of two or three generations of African American actors: LeVar Burton, John Amos, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, Lou Gossett, Jr.—the list goes on and on.  Without significant extended family in the US, attending mostly white Catholic schools, I relied on TV and filmic images to give me more of a sense of intimacy with black faces than I got in my everyday life.  In this respect, “Roots” was the motherlode. And I can’t think about Haley’s series without also thinking of “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” and “All in the Family.” Blackness felt different in the 1970s. It was still a moment when one could believe in the clear forward progress of US race relations; as a child, I definitely believed in that progressive narrative.

Remembering “Roots” also takes me back to Shirley Chisolm’s 1972 presidential campaign, part of the same cultural moment and milieu. The lovely thing about having parents who weren’t (yet) embittered by US racism is that they never thought to tell their children that a black woman would absolutely not be elected to the country’s highest office. I recall very clearly believing that, if she had stayed in the race, she might actually have won. I was in college before I learned how sweetly ridiculous my child-like faith had been.

I remember both the horror and the unintended humor of “Roots,” produced by the melodrama of the series. Though I obviously imbibed the gravity of that history, my siblings and I also found ourselves stifling the kind of laughter that sometimes bubbles up in church. Thus I feel that the parodies “Roots” has inspired—most notably Dave Chappelle’s—were already telegraphed within the original series itself.

You can probably see how I came to focus on the work of Kara Walker and other brilliant contemporary African American ironists. I’ve alluded to “Roots” twice in my published work. In my book Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery, I argue that most late-twentieth century African diasporic literary representations of slavery register a deep skepticism about Haley’s (and the nation’s) progressive narrative. In fact, it’s the failure and partial reversal of socio-economic and civil-rights gains that have made slavery once again such a potent site and metaphor for black dispossession under neo-liberalism.

I also discuss “Roots” in an analysis of Kara Walker’s silhouette Camptown Ladies.

One of the many images to which Camptown Ladies alludes comes from the immensely popular TV miniseries “Roots” (1977), based on Alex Haley’s fictionalized version of his family’s history, beginning with capture in West Africa, enslavement, and eventually freedom in the US.  The moment when the main character, Kunta Kinte, is lifted toward the night sky and named by his father has become an iconic scene in American popular culture, a reaffirmation of the importance of West African roots to African Americans.  In Walker’s tableau, the Hottentot Venus has become the African ancestor figure, signaling how the treatment of Baartman’s body was of a piece with the denigration of the bodies of Africans enslaved in the Americas.  The rooted foot of the Hottentot Venus figure further emphasizes the connection to Haley’s popular representation of American slavery; in contrast to the white woman’s tiny foot, the black woman’s foot is enormous and almost indistinguishable from the earth beneath it.[i]  While recognizing the weight ascribed to African ancestry in “Roots,” it is difficult for viewers to escape the playfulness and feeling of parody evoked by the re-imagination of roots and rootedness in Camptown Ladies.  The image invites us to remember the miniseries in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, recalling Marx’s often-quoted assertion that historical events ‘occur, as it were, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’ (Marx 436).  Thus the Hottentot Venus finds herself in yet another compromising position—plucked out of the context of the Cape Colony and Europe in the early nineteenth century and made part of a complex joke about the nature of the popular reconstruction of American slavery in the late twentieth century (Keizer 206). 

As you can see, “Roots” has figured in my work in numerous ways.
[i] In an interview with Jerry Saltz published in Flash Art in 1996, Walker responds to a question about the identities of the characters in a drawing by noting that ‘A shack in the background also refers to the black woman in this world as an anonymous root’ (84), indicating her ongoing interest in representing ancestry through literary and visual references to roots and rootedness.

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