Friday, 13 January 2012

Roots II

Having made my way through the book a little further, I feel bad about my last post on Alex Haley's Roots. It's as if I didn't give the piece enough kudos somehow, did not appreciate the massive cultural impact the work must have had. This is proving to be a searing read, and my somewhat flippant attitude was shaped by the fact that I had previously only watched the TV series. What I am beginning to realise from reading the text, as well as some of the background to it, is that the story carries an enormous weight - especially for black Americans - and that it is written with great power. I still don't know which sequences were plagiarised from Harold Courlander, but will try to get hold of a copy of The African to find out.

Be that as it may, the sequences on the slave ship are viscerally 'honest', if that's the right word, unflinching in their portrayal of the squalor and utter brutality visited on the poor people aboard by the barbaric 'toubob'. How any human being could have survived such a terrible journey: four and a half months in the hold, chained to boards 24 hours a day, rolling in their own piss and shit, covered with sores and infested with parasites, beaten and whipped, is truly beyond me. Haley writes with great pride in the inner strength and dignity of the African men and women torn from their homeland to be sold as free labour in the not so brave New World. By describing the ship as a giant canoe, a cannon as a great black stick, and other similar devices, we see what is happening through Kunta Kinte's eyes; his inability to fully comprehend what is happening to him giving the terrible events an almost supernatural power.

Importantly, there is no Ed Asner figure to soften the worse than hellish cruelty meted out by the crew. This particular addition to the character list, along with some others, was made by the Executives at ABC Television to please the watching white folks in middle America, and it is I feel a further shame that it was felt necessary to do so. Indeed, I have read that there were no real expectations for the programme when it was made, and that it was originally almost sneaked out for fear of turning off the core audience - or the core audience turning off. How wrong can you be?

I also felt that there might have been a racist interpretation to some of the things I said in my previous post (specifically the bit about doing Kunta Kinte and Chicken George impressions) and I would like to quash that here. I would say that my younger self - like Richard Herring's - was a racist. We knew little of the world in Oswestry, and many - if not all - were, I'm afraid to say, surrounded by racist attitudes. Remember that Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language were staple fare for us also, and so (excruciating as it now is to remember it) capering around shouting 'Don't whup me massa!' was considered the height of sophisticated humour for a 13 year-old boy.

Did watching Roots make me consider my racist attitudes in any way? In all honesty, I don't think it did. Just about everyone loved the programme. It was a cracking adventure with some boobs in it, but I really don't remember contemplating the role of the British and Americans in slavery to any degree. Reading Roots now is certainly making me do that; from my position as a middle-aged man, I can more clearly empathise with the human suffering portrayed, and can more fully comprehend how the whole thing must make black people feel. Especially as some things just haven't changed. Alex Haley must be given great praise for what he did, and I would urge you all to read this book.


A Martian said...

Your post brings up an interesting (at least it is for me) question: How do you define racism?

A Venusian said...


Myeral said...

I define racism as intentional or unintentional words or actions which cause offence to people based purely on the colour of their skin.

A Martian said...

From this, is doing an impression of Kunta Kinte a racist act?

Myeral said...

Well, the way we did it, yes it was. However, my argument here was more to do with the slightly dismissive way in which I had treated Alex Haley's (or whoever's) work, which in itself could have been perceived as racist.