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Remembering, reclaiming and honoring our roots

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 6/13/2016, 11:31 a.m. | Updated on 6/20/2016, 11:38 a.m.
On the 40th anniversary of the publication of Alex Haley’s landmark book Roots:

(George Curry Media) – On the 40th anniversary of the publication of Alex Haley’s landmark book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a new television adaptation is bringing renewed attention to the story that opened so many eyes to the harsh truth about American slavery and its aftermath – an aftermath that continues under new guises despite much progress.

Roots’ 1976 publication came at a seminal moment in American history. Cities across America were hosting celebrations of the nation’s bicentennial and the founding creed set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded our nation and world on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that America had never fully lived up to that promise: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

With Roots, Alex Haley provided an epic lesson in American history through the story of his American family – slavery from the enslaved people’s point of view. His book spent months on the bestseller list and the original television adaptation of Roots that aired in January 1977 shattered viewing records as it gave tens of millions of people a visual, visceral experience of the true horrors of slavery. For the first time descendants of slaves, descendants of slave owners, and people of all backgrounds were sharing a common experience and understanding of America’s original sin whose aftereffects still radiate across our land. Acknowledging that truth together was a transformative experience.

In the past year we have seen a welcome surge, prodded by new books on slavery, campus debates and student protests, of new commitments by some universities and other institutions to confront the truth about their own histories, especially the ugly legacies of slavery and Native American genocide. Black Lives Matter protests denouncing indefensible deaths of Black youths and citizens at the hands of out of control law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York City, Texas, and elsewhere and the shocking racist vigilante citizen killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the massacre of praying Black church people in South Carolina heightened the need for greater racial awareness and national action.

I hope the renewed interest in Roots will spark much greater and sustained interest in an honest retelling of our history and promote new dialogue about the ways today’s structural, cultural, racial and economic inequalities reflect racial seeds from our violent past of slavery and Jim Crow that still poison the soil and political discourse of our nation. Only confronting the truth about our nation’s profound birth defects and struggling deliberately to overcome them with open eyes, hearts, minds and deeds can make us all free.