Voices

Here's Why We Should Not Boycott Roots

By now you may have read Snoop’s comments about the reboot of Roots and his call to boycott the series. His comments, which he delivered this week via Instagram—from his account that boasts a following of 10. 5 million users—has already driven numerous responses, including comments from the producers of the series reboot, Roland Martin & Levar Burton, the latter of whom played Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries. But Roots is much more than a story about slavery, it’s a story about the black experience in America.

 

So, here's why we should NOT boycott Roots.

 

1. History

It's important. In the 150 plus years since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, the latter of which abolished institutionalized slavery in America, never before have we been more equipped to tell the story of the people that endured the system and the subsequent atrocities that followed its end, by the descendants of those who endured it. Prior to the miniseries, stories about slavery and the Civil War in mainstream culture and media— print, film and music— were predominately told by Southern sympathizers, like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell, who romanticized the period and further perpetuated derogatory stereotypes of black people, diminishing them to caricatures. Roots was the first time that America’s dark history –from slavery to the contemporary issues of the day—was told from the black perspective, with strong, unapologetic characters like Kunta Kinte, to a prime-time audience.

 

 

2. A Brief History of the Black Image in Media

Roots was revolutionary—not in subject matter alone, but in presentation and representation.  The original Roots aired a little more than a decade after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  In an address at the National Broadcast Editorial Conference of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in July of 1964, the then president of CBS, Frank Stanton, called upon broadcasters to launch a "mighty and continuing editorial crusade" in support of civil rights. Albeit the call was initially was made to focus on blacks as the subjects of documentaries in alignment with Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society,” the shows produced during this time period—The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, Julia, Star Trek and The Mod Squad, to name a few—placed black actors in leading and supporting roles, introducing mainstream America to black culture and issues.

Prior to this shift, films starring black actors made by black filmmakers – Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and James and Eloyce Gist—in order to contradict negative stereotypes, were suppressed by major studios, especially to Southern audiences. Films produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood that featured or starred black actors, such as Gone with the Wind, Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, Imitation of Life and Pinky, were few and far between and mostly catered to white audiences, perpetuating archetypical “black” characters. The shift that Stanton called for in 1964 had already begun playing out in Hollywood with the arrival of Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Ozzie Davis and more, many of whom made the leap from theater to the silver screen. But, for all the progress made in front of the camera, there was still progress to be made behind the camera. The original Roots screenplay and series directors included Alex Haley and Gilbert Moses, co-founder of the Free Southern Theater Company whose establishment was part of the Black Theater Movement, in alignment with the Civil Rights Movement. Having black writers produce work for mainstream consumption was still considered a risky investment.

 

 

 

3. Something that "happened 200 years ago" ABSOLUTELY relates to contemporary issues.

When Roots aired in January of 1977, the nation was still recovering from the Vietnam War, civil unrest and economic crisis. The manufacturing jobs that drew southern black families north during the Great Migration began to dwindle in the mid-60s and were being outsourced to other countries where the cost of labor was cheaper.  But the burden of a national trend affecting cities across the country was disproportionately suffered by black and brown, working class families, as white families began moving out of cities (see white flight) to avoid the desegregation of schools and Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968—the Fair Housing Act—which prohibited housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. What does slavery have to do with this? Systemic Racism—Jim Crow, employment and housing discrimination, incarceration, the school- to prison pipeline, the wealth gap, the war on drugs and infant mortality all stem from the systematic stripping of constitutional rights established during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).  Roots is a saga—and it begins with slavery because that’s where the story of blacks in America begins.

 

4. Should we watch Soul Plane instead or nah?

You're right about one thing—we need more black stories in mainstream media. Stories and images that showcase who we are culturally and celebrates our diversity, because we are not a monolith.  Please!—make movies and media that tell multiple stories of a rich culture and diverse people. In the last decade, television has seen a resurgence of black characters in leading roles in the coveted prime time television spot. The rise of social media and streaming services has also provided previously unknown black actors, writers and producers— like Issa Rae— with a powerful platform in which our stories can be seen and consumed by the masses, jettisoning black actors and black stories back into traditional media outlets. Shows like Martin, Living Single, Girlfriends, A Different World and many more, have reintroduced the contemporary black experience to new audiences and a new generation of viewers. What’s more is that the characters are three dimensional, beautifully nuanced roles written, produced and directed by people of color. The creation of these complex roles provide more to mainstream media consumption than bland, unrealistic,  stock "black" characters, previously written by writers who knew nothing of what it is like to be black in contemporary America.

 

So yes, Snoop, I will be watching—well, streaming—because in a time where states are violating voting rights and where activists have to remind society that Black Lives Matter, it is extremely important that we go back to our roots.

 

Assia Micheaux Johnson, Public Relations and Social Media Coordinator 

Images: Roots (2016) Via History Channel, Still from Stormy Weather  via MGM and allposters.com

Related Content: The Emancipation ProclamationThe Thirteenth Amendment.

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