Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, and she directs the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Her forthcoming book, Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ Runaway Slave, will be published early next year.
Hollywood is onto something.
Historians, including myself, don’t usually make this kind of comment. Typically we tear Hollywood apart, calling out the historical inaccuracies of television shows and flailing against overdramatized films. But tonight, America was reintroduced to a television phenomenon that restored a bit of my faith in the film industry. On May 30, a new version of the epic television series Roots began airing on the History channel, A&E network, and those of us who study the institution of slavery in America, well, we were captivated.
At the recent conference, “The Future of the African American Past,” the renowned historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed prompted everyone in the room to think about the influence of recent events on the way we write history. The killings in places like Sanford, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri; and Charleston, South Carolina have had a deep and profound impact on historians, writers, and, so it seems, directors and producers. Older narratives about African American history are no longer acceptable to a younger generation of viewers and readers. Fortunately for them, we have more than forty years of groundbreaking scholarship that has changed everything. A new era of film and television now presents shows like Underground, Roots, and soon The Birth of a Nation. The terms have been reset for how we interpret and represent the lives of the enslaved.
The first episode of Roots begins on the Middle Passage, the journey that took untold numbers of kidnapped Africans to early and demonic deaths in the sugar cane and coffee fields of the Caribbean. A young Kunta Kinte from Juffureh, West Africa, appears chained, fearful, and ferociously angry. Just like millions of other Africans, Kinte was the victim of an African internal slave trade that spiraled out of control with the involvement of Europeans. The barbarity of his kidnapping, abuse, and branding with the infamous stamp of the Lloyd’s of London offer gut-wrenching attention to Africa’s internal warfare. Scholars such as Stephanie Smallwood, Daina Ramey Berry, Edna Greene Medford, and Lucy Duran steered the series’ directors and producers in the right direction, correcting many historical inaccuracies while adding depth to the lives of West Africans. The first episode clearly demonstrates how increasingly difficult it was to hold onto freedom when it was perched precariously next to enslavement. I imagine that this will be a theme that is touched on throughout the series.
What I found most powerful in the first episode was its attention to slave resistance. Kunta Kinte’s training as a Mandinka warrior could not overpower the might of European slavery, but it prepared him to fight slavery at every turn. He constantly tries to escape and to fight his captors, and he is unafraid to use deadly force. The new Kinte reminds viewers of the strength and courage of African people, appropriately challenging the stereotypes of docile and timid slaves. No matter how degrading the situation, the enslaved did not lack humanity, nor were they traumatized beyond dignity—a dated myth that is eviscerated in the first episode. Kinte is reminded of this during his horrific Atlantic crossing when a countryman declares, “The shame is not ours!” The blame of slavery is placed squarely on greed and white racism.
I can’t wait for tomorrow night.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s comments on each episode will appear following the East Coast broadcast each night.
Dunbar and colleagues Kellie Carter Jackson, Daina Berry, and Jessica Millward will also participate in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) at Reddit’s AskHistorians forum on Friday, June 3, aiming to field questions about the history of American slavery, the slave trade, and the representations of slavery.
Read Dunbar’s commentary on episode two here.