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“Roots” and the Cult of Resiliency

Exposed tree roots

by dc edwards

This post was originally published on the author’s website and is republished here with permission.

This tweet pissed me off:

It’s a false equivalency. The feeling that many of us have about not wanting to relive trauma that exists even today in our community versus watching multiple renditions of fictional characters is just not the same. To argue that it is, is quite simply ridiculous. And yet, this tweet went viral. Making it to Colorlines and all over my Facebook timeline.

Then of course Snoop Dogg, he of the infamous bitches & hoez lyricism, went on a rant against Hollywood and their consistent slave movie making hobby. And then Roland Martin went after him.


Technically what Snoop said minus the “real nigga” bravado and the cursing is not so wrong. Black activists often say that very little has changed when it comes to racism. And as noted in the past few years (seen through cell phone/body cam/car cam footage), black people have been gunned down and beaten in public and there is often no indictment. What Roland didn’t want to hear were the words that Snoop was saying.

Now let me pause here; I want to be careful with how I approach this. Because what has happened between Snoop and Roland is an example of Chris Rock’s (in)famous monologue about “Black People vs. Niggas.” It’s about respectability politics. Rather than hearing the painful language of a man who Roland clearly doesn’t respect, he’d rather rail on him than deconstruct why Snoop (and other folks) may not be in the mood (considering our perpetual national tragedies) to sit in front of television and watch a stylized version of slavery yet again.


This is not to say that Hollywood, “only makes slave movies.” That is ridiculous and we know this not to be true. But we can see that a movie like 12 Years a Slave got much more promotion than a movie like Race, the Jesse Owens biopic, that came and went before most people could get to the box office to see it. And I guess a few questions from me to Roland would be, what does smoking weed and producing porn have to do with legitimately not wanting to see trauma?

Now, we can argue that we hope one day Snoop would gain a larger scope of understanding on how racism, sexism, homophobia and all of those isms work in collaboration to demean and demoralize all people and that maybe porn might not be the best avenue for his money. And I want to caution Roland on his dismissal of marijuana. Marijuana is a growing legal industry, which is a conversation black folks should begin to have as they are still being pushed out of the growing multi-billion dollar industry for which more black men have been criminalized than white men.

But how does being a weed-smoker eliminate an individual from having a legitimate opinion? I can say that I know a bunch of people who smoke weed who also could have critical in-depth conversations with folks like Roland and those weed-smoking folks would win. Also, unlike Holocaust deniers there are no slavery deniers. Not in the same way at least. Sure, there are some ahistorical assholes who say, “Slavery wasn’t so bad.” But do we re-traumatize people just so idiots can be satisfied? I would hope the answer to that is, no. And, of course, we want to “Never Forget” that slavery happened, but rather than addressing the actual living outcomes of slavery, we’d rather make a movie that re-traumatizes folks and expects us to see the “resiliency” of slaves as a badge of honor.

I do agree that black celebrities should use their power to create, celebrate and promote black film. But I want to caution us when the only movies we push people to promote and create are what I call “Resiliency Films.”

So while Roland had a nice neck jerking, finger snapping read, he decidedly attempted to shame the “nigga” into aligning with the “black folk.”

Respectability politics at its finest.

The problem that I have with this remake of Roots has a lot to do with the language we use with POC and Indigenous folks around “resiliency.”

Specific to black folk, resiliency is the notion that created the “Strong Black Woman” identity. It’s the kind of belief that asks us to ignore the legacy of trauma from slavery that manifests itself in the racist systems and institutions in our country. We tell our young people to be resilient because our ancestors were forced through the diaspora and into slavery. They were resilient, so we should also be.

Never once do we think, “Why should I be resilient? Why can’t the culture, systems and institutions change?”

I am guilty of this, too. During the past three months I have been dealing with both trauma  resurfaced from the past and current identity-destroying trauma. And my thoughts to myself are often, “My ancestors endured slavery so I don’t DESERVE to break down.” Strong Black Woman mask on fleek.

Considering today’s society, remaking Roots above, let’s say, remaking Eyes on the Prize, feels like a one-two punch of pushing black people to relive the trauma of their ancestors and pushing the respectability politics of resiliency. Asking the audience to “Suck it up” because “You don’t have it so bad.”

People sometimes roll their eyes when you talk about inherited trauma or generational trauma. Some people (POC and white folk) will sometimes argue that there is no living legacy of slavery. That the civil rights movement erased the debt whites had to blacks and whatever is happening now is purely about, “Niggas vs. Black People” (in the most crass sense).

But is it?

There was study done on children of survivors of the Holocaust.

The conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

This is controversial research. And yet, we know that there are family legacies into which children are born, where those children then perpetuate the cycles of their family. Fear begets fear. Pain begets pain. We know these things to be true.

But what is also true is how we say to a group of people who have now endured the most hyper-visible years of our lives that its not society that has to change it is we, Black people, that have to see the struggles of the slaves and know that we have it better and therefore, it is we who must change and be resilient in the face of racist systems and institutions.

Do we?

The writers, producers, actors and director of the new Roots miniseries do not see it that way. In many statements, they have almost unanimously said that this is an opportunity for people to have the great national conversation on race. But we’ve been already having and failing at that conversation. Most white people would argue that, against no uncertain terms, they have anything to do with the legacy that slavery left on themselves, much less black people. Hell, most people don’t want to even address the fact that slaves were tilling and creating an economy unmatched in the world on stolen land.

So who is going to start this conversation?

I am eventually going to watch the Roots remake because it is a part of pop culture. But I remember very viscerally watching the original Roots when I was a kid. Back then, they used to show it during every Black History Month on regular television. I was in first grade when I saw it for the first time (a few years after it originally aired). But it was still something that people watched with their families. I remember going to school that week angry. I didn’t feel resilient. I was very much aware of my blackness, of my otherness, even though I didn’t have words for those things. I remember even then my teacher trying to engage us as a class, in an age-appropriate conversation about the movie. I remember one of the kids, a popular blonde boy, raised his hand. The teacher pointed to him and he said to us, “My dad said niggers should be glad we got them from Africa. He said it was a bad place.” He sat down with all the pride he could exude from his 7-year-old body. The teacher reddened then moved on to the next student.

I remember this. I didn’t get over it. Maybe I’m just not resilient enough.

[Header image courtesy of Wikipedia]

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