Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Kellie Carter Jackson interview

Kellie Carter Jackson is Assistant Professor of History at Hunter College, CUNY.  Carter Jackson's research focuses on slavery and the abolitionists, violence as a political discourse, historical film, and black women’s history. Her manuscript, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennslyvania Press), examines the political and social tensions preceding the American Civil War and the conditions and that led some black abolitionists to believe that slavery might only be abolished by violent force.  In addition to her manuscript, Carter Jackson is currently co-editing a book with Erica L. Ball on Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, & Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press).

Kellie Carter Jackson interview February 8, 2016

MD: When did you first read or watch Roots?

KCJ: I remember when I first watched Roots, because I was very young.  I was about eight-years-old and we lived in an all-white community, so my parents were very big on us having an education in black history.  I’m one of seven children and they sat us all down with a VHS tape, and we watched episode one and two the first night, and I was traumatized.  I remember having nightmares.  As an eight-year-old kid you don’t have a lot of historical context, so you know that slavery happened, you know that slavery was bad, but that was the first time I saw it visually.  I really needed to re-watch it again as an adult to get a better appreciation for what I was seeing.  But I remember all of the things that stuck with me:  Kunta Kinte being whipped into submission to say his name Toby, when Kizzy is sold away, the threats of the Klan, all of that stayed with me as a child.  So Roots was transformative in how I understood slavery as being violent, extremely violent.  And then I re-watched it again in college and I’ve re-watched to prepare for classes that I teach now.

MD: Can you talk about teaching Roots?

KCJ: I first started teaching it back in 2012.  I taught an American slavery in film class at Harvard called, “Hollywood and History: Understanding American Slavery Through Film.”  I really wanted to teach it because Django and Lincoln had just come out and there was a lot of buzz about slavery in film and it was a perfect time to talk about all of the films that are out there, which isn’t really a lot, there are only about a dozen or so decent films about slavery.  Most of the students had never seen Roots.  They knew the references, they knew Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley, but if you asked how many of them had watched it or read the novel it was only one or two hands.  I thought it would be a perfect time to bring it into the classroom.

I’ll show certain scenes and I have the students watch an episode and then analyze the episode: What about this is useful?  What about this is accurate, what is not?  They really liked it a lot.  I thought they would think it was corny because its from the 1970s, but once they got into it it was really powerful to see their reactions.  So now every time I teach the class I use Roots.

MD: Which episode or clips do you show?

KCJ: I show the episodes with Kunta Kinte’s voyage on the Middle Passage and once they get to the United States, how he is broken to speaking his slave name.  I also show the episode where Kizzy is sold away, that is also a powerful scene.  The students are torn apart at how it happens and how there is no friendship or childhood in slavery.

MD: What was the motivation for your edited collection with Erica Ball?

KCJ: It was about 2011 when Erica came to me and said, “I’m thinking of writing about Roots, there is absolutely nothing out there.  I want to do an edited collection…the fortieth anniversary is coming up and there should be something scholarly out there to mark this.”  So we started sending out CFPs and recruiting people and asking them to contribute chapters.

They way we chose to break up the book is to look at it in different sections.  One section looks at Roots abroad.  So we have a chapter on Roots in South Africa, one on Roots in England, one on Asia…How people are responding to Roots abroad different, but also how people in places like Australia and China responded to it is very similarly to African Americans and Americans in general.

We talk about the politics of Alex Haley, which I think really needs to be discussed with much more nuance.  I think people have been too quick to dismiss Haley as a liar or a con artist.  That might be true, but there are a lot of ways we can dissect his work. We can ask, "What is the utility of this?  What are the politics of this?  And can we still glean or redeem from his work?"

MD: In working with Erica Ball on the Reconsidering Roots, is there anything that surprised you about Roots?

KCJ: The impact that Roots had abroad is astounding.  Some of the stories brought me to tears.  One story deals with Roots in South Africa.  Roots was banned in South Africa because of apartheid.  They did not censor the novel, but they censored the miniseries because they thought visually it would be too troublesome and cause riots.  For years people weren’t able to see Roots, but somehow people got ahold of it and started setting up viewing parties to watch the film.  A lot of them were segregated viewing parties, so white people would watch in certain theaters and black South Africans in Soweto would watch it in another.  And the response was just remarkable, people were in tears, some people had to leave the theater, they were visibly shaken and upset.  To read about the impact that it had on people facing similar oppressions was quite moving.

Another essay is a scholar writing about the response to Roots in China and he tells this beautiful story about a man who was living in China and sent to Taiwan and basically lives in a prison camp.  He has all of these similar experiences that mirror what Kunta Kinte experienced.  When he gets a copy of Roots he starts crying because he realizes this is my life, this is what happened to me.  And he starts this quest to get back to China, to get back to his homeland and the relatives that he left.

The reception abroad is important to understanding that while the historical accuracy of Roots might not be there the historical authenticity—how it resonates with people, how people internalize these ideas that are universal—how that plays out is quite remarkable.  Roots has a impact literally all over the world.

MD: Why do you think it has taken scholars so long to reengage with Roots?

KCJ: This is my theory, when Roots debuted it was so explosive! People were saying, “We’ve never had a black history like this before.  We’ve never had something so visual and so captivating.” Then to see Roots become critically dismantled because of the plagiarism, I think it is like the scandal that no one wanted to touch.  I think some scholars felt like if I touch this it could effect my own credibility, if I give any sort of credence or praise to Roots it will effect my own reputation.  Academia was very, very harsh to the Alex Haley.  While the public loved him, for people in the Ivory Tower, he was not a real scholar or a real historian.  He was seen as a fraud and someone who put the reputation of historians at risk. But now I think there is enough distance for people to be able to appreciate Roots for what it did, despite all of the controversy.

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