Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Kimberly Juanita Brown interview

Kimberly Juanita Brown is Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at Mt. Holyoke College.  She is the author of The Repeating Body: Slavery's Visual Resonance in the Contemporary (Duke University Press, 2015).

Kimberly Juanita Brown Interview - September 29, 2015

When did you first encounter Roots?

KJB: I know that I saw it as a child, but its really foggy because in 1977 I was five.  I cannot imagine that I watched it in 1977, but I know I watched all of it and I was probably around ten when I saw Roots for the first time.  Much like everybody else, the stories that I’ve heard of it having a very lasting impression are true.  There was nothing else like it and I think the length and the detail are the things that stood out for me.  I went back and tried to find a couple of the YouTube videos, and I remembered a lot more than I thought that I did.  Everybody talks about when Toby becomes Toby, and that scene stood out.  And then the later scene when his foot is cut off.  So I ended up remembering most of the more violent scenes.  I did not remember a whole lot from the beginning of the miniseries, but I do remember much about the plantation.  So a lot of that ended up just staying with me.  It has to have some measure of importance since slavery is the hovering text for me for representation and literary endeavors.  I’m interested in how black people imagine slavery, how they reproduce slavery, and how they try to get beyond this event.  And I know that Roots is centrally focused somewhere in there, I’m not quite sure how, but I know that it is.

MD: In your new book, The Repeating Body: Slavery's Visual Resonance in the Contemporary, does Roots figure into your discussion of those writers or visual artists?  Or do you have any sense that Roots influenced these artists?

KJB: What I think is that it is that hovering text about slavery that people aren’t necessarily articulating.  I don’t remember a lot of artists writing about it, but I don’t know anybody who didn’t watch it and I don’t know anybody who didn’t know its import and how it figures into the imaginary.  So I think it is one of those texts that ends up being almost too available for people.  They watched it in groups, they bought the book, they bought the series.  I might just be guessing here but I think it is the text that hovers and does not necessarily figure clearly into narrative, of why these people are pursuing slavery and its representation as something that they must participate in.  I don’t think that I’ve ever read any of the artists I’m writing about talk about Roots, but I do think that it has to figure prominently.  I’m working with women artists as well, so trying to find a place for women in that schematic organization is key.  I really don’t think its possible for most of these contemporary artists to even be thinking outside of the framework of Roots and its effect.

MD: Have you ever taught Roots?

KJB:  I’ve never taught Roots.  It’s a two-pronged issue.  One, it's the delicate dance of the texts about slavery.  In any context outside of teaching a class about slavery, you can only have so many texts about slavery before the students become almost unresponsive.  Roots is a really long text and it's a text that’s really difficult parse out chapter to chapter or section to section.  So you either have to teach the entire book or none at all.  So you’ll find that a lot of these are logistical issues.  And the second thing is that we have these canonical texts about slavery that we end up teaching.  So it will start with Frederick Douglass and it will end with Beloved.  You have that span there, and because Roots is a really big text it would take up like a third of your semester.  And because its African American literature that means a lot of stuff is not getting taught.
MD: Is there anything you discovered in the process of working on your new book that you want more students and scholars to know about?

KJB: This might apply to Roots as well.  I think improvisation is something that has been discussed in regards to music, dance, and black vernacular culture.  Not necessarily in the same way about literature and not necessarily literature and visual culture in tandem.  While I was working on this as a dissertation and then later as a book I realized there was no way I could untether literature and visual culture from the framework of slavery’s representation, because it seemed to me that they were in dialogue and they didn’t need to be separated.  And part of that is having a more multivalent appreciation for black cultural production.  Maybe that would be the surprise.

MD:  Is there anything else that comes to mind about Roots?

KJB: I was a waitress a long time ago and I met a waitress who was Trinidadian.  She and her sister were both waitresses at the Olive Garden where I worked.  And we were discussing Roots, I don’t know why.  This was the late-1990s.  We were discussing Roots and I think we were doing this thing where we’d say, “have you seen this?,” this canonical black American thing.  And when we got to Roots the woman, her name was JoAnne, she got really pensive and quiet and she told me that her and her sister were married to white men.  And she talked about she and her sister watching Roots on the television in the kitchen and both of their husbands were watching a football game in the living room.  And she said after the first couple of episodes that they watched, their husbands turned around because they could see their wives staring at them from the kitchen, glaring at them.  She said it was the first time their husbands registered to them as white men.  It was the first time she saw her husband as part of this order, was actually a white man. 

I feel like I hear of lot of these stories, mostly black Americans talking about Roots, and sometimes its white Americans talking about Roots.  But it seems to be this centrally focused area that I think so many people can agree upon its importance.  That’s very fascinating to me, because you cannot get people to talk about slavery.  

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