Google the definition for the word “root” and you will see: “the basic cause, source, or origin of something” and “establish deeply and firmly.”
When you think about the plight of people of African Descent in America there is one true fact (not an alternative fact.) Many of us are not deeply rooted. As Garvey explained, we don’t have the knowledge of our past history, origin and culture and therefore we are like a tree without roots.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of ABC airing the mini-series Roots. Published by Alex Haley in 1976 and aired on national television to a record 130 million viewers, Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped from Gambia and brought to the shores of Maryland as a slave. The series takes us on a journey of the life of his descendants all the way down to Alex Haley.
As a child, watching Roots was an annual tradition. I honestly looked forward to it every year. ABC would play it for 5 or 7 nights, I can’t quite remember. But I do remember my family and I sitting and watching it every single time. In school I never watched Roots or read the book of even talked about it. There was definitely a line drawn between home life and school life and learning about my roots.
As a High School history teacher, I had to make room for my students and I to watch Roots, which meant becoming very creative with lessons and topics discussed. Because with only 45 minute class periods to watch a 9.5 hour movie…you do the math. Eventually, I created my own tradition with my students. We would watch Roots after school during the month of February. Watching it after school gave us so much more time to talk and really dig into the topics and emotions that the film unearthed. Eventually, my principal gave me the opportunity to teach an elective English class through movies and Roots was the heart of that class. We also watched Shaka Zulu, which ABC used to play annually, Sankofa, which, to my knowledge has never been played on network television and The Harder They Come. Yall don’t know nothing about The Harder They Come. That is a straight West Indian movie. My step father and I watched it relentlessly when I was a child and I added it in as a tribute to my Caribbean culture and my students who were also Caribbean.
ABC no longer plays Roots every year but in 2016 the History Channel took up the mantle and produced a Roots remake. I won’t sit here and lie and say I’ve watched it. A part of me is nostalgic and wants to hold on to the imagery of my childhood. But I’ve already decided to watch it during the month of February.
So my dear educator, I ask you, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Roots, why don’t you watch it, again or for the first time, the original and I guess the remake. And not just watch it, but watch it with the idea of how you can incorporate it into your classroom. But let me give you the serious WARNING. Showing Roots and crafting curriculum around it, requires deep thought and contemplation and deep forethought and preparation.
You can’t…you shouldn’t just be like, hey kids, today were going to watch Roots. You should expect that most of your students have never seen it before. You should expect that your kids will be traumatized psychologically and emotionally. You should prepare for DEEP EMOTIONS from anger, to sadness, to numbness, and students may withdraw psychologically while they’re still in your room. This is not a movie to just press play and watch until the bell rings.
Each day I had to prepare my students for what they were going to see, ensure we had time to deconstruct what they saw and allow time and space for emotions. And in times like this, with a fascist as President, a racist soon to be sworn in as the head of the DOJ, state sanctioned police violence against black bodies and the return of outright in your face racism and hate against Black people, Roots will be a reminder that the African is not welcomed here in America.
Which means, you must ask yourself, why am I showing this film to my class? What is my hope for them as we watch this? What feelings did I have when I watched it? Why did Alex Haley author this masterpiece? What was his intent? With my students, I always connected the watching of Roots with the writing of their own autoethnography. If I was still in the classroom now, I would add on the piece of finding out their own African Ancestry and investigating the culture of their lineage.
So, I’m wondering, what are you doing in your classroom to celebrate Black History month? Maybe watching a film, Roots or otherwise would be a great idea. And if you’re thinking about doing that, please PLEASE prepare accordingly; yes, that means appropriate do now’s, homework assignments, reflection prompts AND it means prepare for and make room for feelings, emotions, or the absence of them.
Happy 40th Anniversary Alex Haley and Roots.
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