Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Marcia Chatelain interview

Marcia Chatelain is an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and the author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015).  In 2014, she created #fergusonsyllabus to encourage educators to discuss the national crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.

Marcia Chatelain Interview - December 9, 2015

MD: Do you remember when you first read or watched Roots?

MC: When I was eight or nine years-old it was re-running on television and I remember watching it and having this kind of weird unease, because I think it was the first popular culture representations of slavery that I ever saw.  And so there was something kind of overwhelming about the intense drama of it.  It was also strange because I recognized all of the actors from other things.  LeVar Burton, I remembered him from “Reading Rainbow” and now he was in this slave movie.  John Amos from Good Times was in it and the dad from Brady Bunch was a slave owner.  So mind blown, because as a kid all I did was watch TV and its like all of my favorite characters are trapped in the nineteenth-century peculiar institution and the fight for freedom.  So that was just weird, to try to divorce the actors from the roles they were playing.  But I also remember the Roots spin-off, Roots: The Gift, and it was like a Christmas themed movie about escaping from slavery.  And that one I remember vividly.  I remember those things so clearly because at the time I watched them, in the late-1980s and early-1990s, there was such the Afrocentric impulse to think of black history as celebrating a hyper-achievement approach to thinking about Africa.   I remember at the same time I’m watching this depiction of American slavery, everything else in the culture was about glorifying Africa.  So I think now in my analytic head there is something kind of interesting about disrupting Afrocentric fixations on black greatness with this kind of raw portrayal of slavery.

MD: Have you ever taught Roots?

MC:  No, I’m afraid that students will think that it is real.  Every year I go to Annapolis and they have the Kunta Kinte memorial and it bothers me so much because it is not real.  Part of me feels this kind of overwhelming resistance to Roots, not as a cultural production but because of the fundamental misunderstanding of its veracity.  I don’t know, maybe this will make me reconsider my feelings about Roots.  What I appreciate about the legacy of Roots is that in many ways it inadvertently helps me and inadvertently helps you, because the interest in black genealogy that comes out of Roots allows for people who do historical work on African Americans to be legible to audiences outside of academia.  So I think that the kind of Roots-effect was really good for the emergence of African American historians, but the fact that it is untrue always makes me uneasy about introducing it in the classroom because I think it is a text that even when you emphasize the fact that it’s fiction there is a barrier for people to understand that.

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