Black For a Month
Why Roots is Still relevant
This is the 36th anniversary of the conversation-changing, made-for-TV docudrama, Roots.
This is also Black History Month, an oddity in our celebratory world akin to Gay Pride Day, National Cereal Week, and a myriad of other, more or less relevant, cause celebre. Not to trivialize ANY of these worthy aspirational topics and goals but, the silliness required to capture them into the mental models of today’s brains is somehow minimalistic in nature and feels cheap and slightly hucskterish in delivery.
But since Black History is the topic, then Roots is as good a place to begin a conversation as any.
I was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Maryland, technically a Southern State but with a heavy dose of Washington political sway overlaid on daily life from early times. It was a slave and tobacco state, rife with plantations, powerful (white) men, and access to the highest reaches of government as well as the lowest reaches of human trafficking. Maryland walked a rickety, split-rail fence of an existence but with firm Southern ties binding its core as well as its bundles of tobacco leaves.
My families, both birth and chosen, were just as much a gumbo of ingredients as Maryland could conjure without some serious, other-century, other country, arranged marriage style intervention.
Birth father: born in 1912 in Southern Maryland, raised in D.C., with healthy doses of Virginia drawl and Boston Brahmin influences.
Birth mother: born in 1912 in rural Wisconsin of Norwegian immigrant stock, sturdy, determined, cold in nature as well as nurture, a self starter who would eventually, along with her siblings, help populate a new generation of Mid-Atlantic, Mid-Century, mostly Democratic thinkers.
Chosen father: born in 1928, of Greek and French immigrant parents, raised in the greater D.C. Metro area with two siblings.
Chosen mother: born an only child in 1930 in New Orleans of truly tasty Acadian French ancestry who migrated to Maryland to marry the handsome Greek who captured her fancy.
It is my chosen mother who provides the link I wish to mention today, and her mother, Maida, a true New Orleanian, a Lady, a very deep thinker and in possession of a unique, quixotic, sense of place, and self, and purpose. Maida was unlike anyone I had come across in my young life, white gloved, coffee in china cups and truly of the opinion that children, particularly small children, were to be neither seen nor heard, at least in her presence. Talk about foreign. We were farm kids, running feral on the land, mucking stalls, riding horses, playing Swamp Fox in the wetland and having the best lives any group of youngsters could contemplate. Maida, a single woman divorce from the South, would arrive and hold court in the front living room, not the catchall kitchen or the log cabin family room that were the rictus of our large-loud lives. We would be summoned to converse in groups of one or two, respectful, quieted, subdued, and, once our audience was complete, freed back into the wild.
A sort of human Catch and Release program.
Once, when a cousin from Louisiana, Susan, was visiting and we had all, collectively, misbehaved enough to cross the parental and grand-maternal threshold of acceptability, Susan was to be escorted by Maida, in shame, back home to New Orleans. It was the late 1960’s and it was summer in Maryland. It was that hot muggy stifle that seemed to suck the air out of the very sky itself. We cousins were laughably distraught that poor Susan was being punished and banished from our sylvan idyll but yet we knew we were not under the gun for Mom was much more tolerant and much too busy to be shocked and concerned about whatever act of decorum-shattering had led her mother to take measures.
We cousins decided to drive out to Dulles airport to see them off, Dulles was then shiny and new and fascinating to us all, adult and child alike, so a trip to the airport was akin to watching a science fiction show about the future, retro before retro was cool.
We were dressed according to our life as country kids, to our position as up and coming hippie radicals, to our fluke of geographic placement in the Swamp that was and is the Mid Atlantic. Think ripped, lovingly worn jean cutoffs, tank tops and sandals.
Maida was not.
Susan, looking like a carbon copy of us, was.
In the terminal, Maida would not even acknowledge us as human no less her own kin. She would not even walk with Susan to the people mover or deign to sit with her on the plane. We were all, no exceptions, non-human life forms that she had to share breathing room with but little else.
We laughed until our sides ached, we still tell this story at family gathering (but then we tend to still tell ALL the stories of this freedom-inspiring time in our lives to excess, just ask any of our spouses….or children), but this was not the end-all in the definition of Maida.
Moving forward into the 1970’s, and backward to the “TV Event of The Decade”; Roots.
Transformational is not too strong a word for this phenomenon, particularly having been raised up exactly where we were and from about Half-Southern stock as well, which, much like the “one drop” laws of a few decades earlier, painted us with a certain faded patina of Southernhood, albeit without the outwardly racist and harshest elements that the then (and sometimes still) South portends.
Like 100 million households around the US, we gathered at Roots Parties for four consecutive nights to watch this epic of Southern Horror unfold in vivid Technicolor on the small screen. This was unlike like ANY thing we had learned in school. This was real, this was history, this was told from the perspective of Alex Haley, its author and the inheritor of all its harsh history. If only all education could be so relevant.
And so on some of these momentous nights, we sat in our New Orleans-formed grandmother’s living room and watched Roots unfold together. This was a gift from Maida, a real Southern lady, to us, her very Northern grandchildren. To share in the viewing and actually pause afterward and discuss the harsh truths contained in it without the stain of prejudice tainting our talking.
What a unique and enlightening experience.
As so Roots today should be required viewing and required reading and required conversation to continue to enlighten and educate and inform each of us, no matter where and when we were born, or raised, in the real truths as to where we all really come from. History, the harsh and the brave and the truth, belongs to every one of us and it is our responsibility to know our own genesis, and to live in its facts and be better for them.
One more additional coincidence of timing.
Maida also, during these Rootathons, requested that we smoke a joint in front of her. I know, I know. I can hear the spit-takes as you read this over your morning coffee. You see, Maida really was a curious and consistent truth seeker. She knew the times we were living in and the temptations we were undoubtedly succumbing to and she wanted to see for herself what it was all about. And so, under her curious gaze, we rolled a fat one, lit up and sat back to enjoy the show. But only after Maida had securely stuffed a rolled up towel under her front door….she didn’t want her apartment neighbors thinking that SHE was actually lighting up.
Which brings us full circle to today…..36 years later.
We have a black President.
We have states where marijuana is now legal.
How much has changed and how little we have learned.
We still have prejudice and racism and bigotry in far too much abundance.
We still fail to learn from our pasts and inform our futures as much and as well as we can and we should.
And so, Black History Month 2013 is upon us, and Roots is still with us.
We all have further to travel in our collective search for the answers from our individual histories and the paths to our collective future.