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. Read her commentary on episode one here.
At the close of the second episode of Roots, I wept.
I must admit, while I look forward to the next two episodes of the miniseries, I am emotionally exhausted. The emotional tax felt by those of us who study, write, and teach the history of the slave trade often goes unrecognized. I have read hundreds of nonfiction books and essays on American slavery, and many of them were field shifting. But I’ve never cried at the close of a chapter or at the end of a book. I may feel sadness or anger, and perhaps may need some silent time to work through my feelings, but I’ve never cried. There’s something about the visual that almost always trumps print in soliciting an emotional response to despair.
And the same can be said about stories of resiliency and triumph. Even in the midst of the darkest oppression, the power of survival is central in the second episode of Roots. This is most obvious through the display of what scholars call “Africanisms”: the African cultural traditions retained by the men and women who were sold into a European system of human chattel. By the end of episode two, the viewer comes to understand that eighteenth-century America was blanketed in the customs of African people. This was visible in the dance and celebrations of the enslaved and audible in the music played by British musicians. The musical direction of Questlove helps to translate these customs throughout the episode.
This reminder of the strength and persistence of West African culture is essential. The previous episode ended with the powerful yet painful physical “breaking” of Kunta Kinte. The protagonist is whipped so brutally that he publicly forsakes his given name for that of “Toby.” This iconic moment in television history has been seen as a marker of defeat. However, if we think about survival as a form of resistance, Kinte did indeed resist. He uttered his slave name in order to live, to continue fighting his capture, and perhaps to experience a different future, one that would restore his freedom.
Although Kinte ultimately answered to his English name, his rejection of Christianity and steadfast belief in Islam are welcome additions to this version of Roots. Through his wedding headdress, prayer, and other rituals, Kinte shuns the religion propagated by the English, holding onto the faith of his parents and family in Juffureh. While some Black men and women adopted Christianity, this slow transformation never claimed Kinte. In addition to questioning Christianity, Kinte verbally attacks the so-called “African tradition” of marital broom jumping. Emphatically denying the ritual as African, Kinte tells his new bride that the tradition of jumping over a broom makes a mockery of their marriage. This addition to the story of Roots is poignant and accurately demonstrates cultural disconnects between newly imported enslaved people and those who had been born in America.
Understanding that enslaved women were never safe from physical or sexual abuse, Kinte passes on this ferocity, strength, and constant rejection of English culture and tradition to his daughter, Kizzy. By the end of the episode, viewers understand that Kizzy was taught well by both her father and mother, lessons that would have to serve her for a lifetime.
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.