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 terbrary 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. Check out her commentaries on episodes one, two, and three.
For the past four nights, Americans have been captivated by Roots. In every episode, viewers have been reminded of the importance of tradition—the passing down of practice and the retelling of stories from our ancestors. In January 1977 I watched the original Roots with my parents and sister, and this week my husband and I watched the new version with our son. Journalist, genealogist, and griot Alex Haley gave America a story that is more than a cultural phenomenon; it is now a tradition.
Episode four once again transports viewers across the Atlantic, but this time we travel to England. In an interesting departure from the original miniseries, we arrive in Hampshire in 1849 to find an older Chicken George, still immersed in the sport of cockfighting. Sold to an Englishman to cover a gambling debt, George has been stripped from his family, enduring the same pain as his mother and grandfather had before him. While I appreciate the director’s attempt at exposing the use of enslaved labor across Europe and the world, there is a glaring historical inaccuracy in the setting of this episode that made me wince. After George wins another cockfight, his owner tells him that he will be released from slavery and given his freedom papers in due time. But as historians know, slavery in England and its Caribbean colonies had drawn to a close by 1838. Under British law George would have been set free shortly after his arrival in England and it’s doubtful that this information could have been kept from him for more than a decade. George refines his literacy in England and made it his business to know everything and to outwit everyone. If freedom had been an option, he would have taken it.
Despite the inaccurate chronology, the new series complicates the vague explanation of George’s disappearance in the original Roots. Viewers follow George on his reverse trip back to America, a journey that places his freedom in constant jeopardy. His desire to reunite with his family outweighs this serious risk. Arriving in North Carolina at the height of sectional tension before the Civil War, George discovers that his mother has died and his wife and children have been sold. Calling upon his superior performance skills, George tricks his previous owner, and father, Tom Lea, into revealing the location of his family. This encounter between enslaved person and former owner is powerfully symbolic. In 1860, the newly freed Black man possessed an unwavering sense of empowerment while the slave owner was close to extinction, as was the institution of slavery in America. An independent, wise, and unstoppable George confronts a downtrodden, sickly, and aged Lea. George’s wrathful parting words to his former owner are commanding: “Your whole damn life, you was a slave too, you just didn’t know it.” He leaves the farm and the man that had claimed many years of his life, but not before taking Lea’s gun—another symbolic gesture of a transfer of power.
And finally, the most anticipated moment arrives. One of the most moving scenes in episode four is when the enslaved men and women learn of their emancipation. No decree of liberation is read nor are there parades or fireworks. Instead, the enslaved on Benjamin Murray’s farm hear about their freedom via word of mouth. They rejoice, but also reflect on how much has been lost; the sale of children, the death of loved ones, the more than two centuries of unbearable suffering all temper their elation. Matilda, George’s wife, sums it up best when she states, “I can’t measure these days in flags and armies, only in the ones that I’m missing.” For the enslaved, their celebration of a right long-denied was understandably mixed.
In many ways Chicken George’s journey to reunite with his family foreshadows the postemancipation years when men, women, and children attempted to stitch torn families back together again. Black people would face the violence and financial vulnerability of the Reconstruction era, often choosing to leave their new posts as sharecroppers for opportunities in southern cities or for new settlements in places like Tennessee and Oklahoma. George and his family know that slavery has been outlawed but they are “still gonna have to fight to stay free.” This is perhaps the most poignant way to end this reimagined miniseries that has debuted in the midst of a Black Lives Matter movement.
Dunbar and colleagues Kellie Carter Jackson, Daina Berry, and Jessica Millward will 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.