Why I Love Roots

Not the band, though they are a personal fav of mine (ask me about the time I sang backup for them). I’m talking about the classic 1970’s miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Starring a young LeVar “Gordy” Burton, John “Mr. Evans” Amos, Robert “Mr. Brady” Reed and Louis Gossett Jr. Cicely Tyson. Ben Vereen. Lloyd Bridges. Burl Ives. Leslie Uggams. Richard Roundtree. Todd Bridges. Maya Angelou. And OJ Simpson for crying out loud. Pretty much every black actor with a SAG card in 1977.

I remember watching Roots when I was a kid. One of those things my Dad insisted we sit through to learn about our ancestors. Somehow my sister doesn’t remember this. Maybe he saved this special brand of what I’m sure amounted to torture at the time, just for me.

Then in middle school and high school we would watch the whole Middle Passage sequence during obligatory February Black History Month units. Though I don’t ever remembering having seen the whole thing, at once, in context. Then there was college. I minored in Africana studies and watched several different parts of Roots for research. But again. Never all together. Never the whole thing.

It was getting to be the middle of February and it dawned on me. It’s Black History Month. Since being out of college and the library it seems like it just fell off my radar. There’s no special programming on TV. (Wait, to be fair, there’s not really any black programming on TV as it is. Oprah. Tyler Perry’s shows. That’s it. But I digress.) There were no black history playdates or craft days in my Mom’s group. No trips to the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

I felt guilty. I felt like I missed such an important opportunity to celebrate my heritage and to teach my daughter about hers. So I self-assigned a large undertaking. Watching Roots. In it’s entirety before the end of the month. And I’m just about done. I know, it’s March already. But I don’t have nearly enough time for marathon TV watching that I used to.

And you know what? It was fantastic. It captured our country for eight straight days and spawned two sequel miniseries for a reason. It is engaging and imaginative and heartbreaking and moving. Sure, maybe it’s a bit hard to get over the production value, it was the 70’s and made for TV, so it doesn’t look too pretty on an HDTV. But modern aesthetics aside there are so many pure and important moments to experience and some incredibly difficult ones as well.

At the heart of the story of both the best-selling novel and the miniseries is the idea of recapturing and passing down our family stories, our collective past. From one generation to the next they pass down the legendary story of Kunta Kinte, the Mandinka warrior and proud African that was the first of his family in America. Each generation passes his dreams and aspirations to be free to the next. Each passes the pride and hope that one day their children’s lives will be better off then their own.

Cedella is 1/4 Black, 1/4 Lebanese and 1/2 White (German, French & English), though she is truly and completely American in her multi-ethnicity. Though she’s still too young to appreciate the breadth and scope of Roots, what she can begin learning now is this, the stories of her people.

She should know her great great grandfather Elam Sims that was a black soldier in World War I, who enlisted even though blacks were still second-class citizens and relegated to menial labor duties with the Army.

She should know about her ancestors tending to the centuries old olive trees in Lebanon only to have their trees and land taken from them by Israel during the war.

She should know about her 7th great grandfather that served in the Revolutionary War, not only because that makes her eligible to be in the DAR, but because ironically his parents left Germany to flee the violence ravaging their nation.

These are all stories I have learned in researching our family tree on Ancestry.com. An obsession passed down to me from my maternal grandmother Rose and my great aunt Billie. But it’s not the research and facts that have sucked me in. It’s the stories.

And so as our new tradition and to honor the struggles and triumphs of all of our ancestors, not only will I take the reigns as the family genealogist, but I will tell her these stories. Like the story of her stubborn great great aunt Garnet refusing to wash the dishes for three years because her husband insulted her.

The story of her 4th great grandmother who was born into slavery but died a property owner.

How both of her grandfathers were the first in their families to have not only college degrees, but Master’s.

This new tradition may come in the form of bedtime stories but they will be an integral part of the fabric of Monk’s character as she grows. Because these people, these ancestors, what they did, who they were, make us who we are now. That’s what Roots teaches us.

And my new tradition? Watching Roots, in its entirety, every February. And when my kids are old enough, this will be required watching for them too.