A New ‘Roots’ for a New American Era – The Daily Beast

Good piece on ‘Roots’ and how a reboot needs to reflect the current era:

As the great literary and cultural critic Leslie Fiedler noted time and again, Americans only valorize the Other when we know he or she is thoroughly vanquished; The Last of the Mohicans could only be written after the Indians were thoroughly contained in or effectively banished from upstate New York. At the same time that white ethnics were transforming their downscale heritages into sources of pride (Polish Power, anyone?), black Americans in the post-Civil Rights era were doing the same thing: finding a source of cultural power in a history of exclusion and oppression.

Prior to Roots, Haley was best-known as the amanuensis of Malcolm X, compiling an “autobiography” based on interviews conducted between 1963 and Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. In What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society (1982), Fiedler writes that Roots was for Haley a natural extension of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which combined elements of Booker T. Washington’s gospel of segregationist self-sufficiency and the confrontational politics of the Black Power movement into a message of militant uplift.

Yet Fiedler notes that Roots, despite Haley’s attempt to write a “final Happy Ending” in which African Americans become professors and government functionaries and world-famous authors, replicates the same irresolvable racial tensions that fueled earlier novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (which became the basis on D.W. Griffith’s execrable The Birth of a Nation), and Gone With The Wind. “Scenes of rape and flagellation are as essential to [Haley’s] vision as to that of Mrs. Stowe or Thomas Dixon, or Margaret Mitchell, though his victims are, of course, always black,” writes Fiedler.

Though the brutalization of his ancestors, especially at the hands of slave owners, means that Haley is himself part white, he cannot acknowledge that part of his ancestry. Try as he might, Fiedler argues, Haley doesn’t offer a way out of an unbridgeable gap between the races. Instead, he describes the lurid, racist fantasies from the victims’ point of view.

Roots 2016

History Channel

That of course is no small accomplishment and the fact that Roots—the book and the miniseries—made black history visible to white America en masse explains its success. White ethnics especially, who often clashed with blacks in the restricted neighborhoods to which both were remanded by zoning and custom, could understand a far deeper and long-suffering oppression lived out in the golden streets of America.

So here we are now, in the 21st century, eight years into the presidency of a mixed-race president, in a country where the percentage of foreign-born residents is rapidly approaching figures last seen in the 1910s and ’20s. On a profound level, we are more at peace with one another than ever before. For 20 years, the Census has included a “multiracial” category to accommodate  basic reality and support for interracial marriage approaches 100 percent (even same-sex marriage, unthinkable even just a generation ago, pulls 60 percent or more approval, with the number bumping each year).

Yet in a commencement speech at Howard University, Barack Obama observed that even as things have markedly improved for African Americans since he himself graduated college, his “election did not create a post-racial society.” To be sure, there is much work to be done. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as their white counterparts and the unemployment rate for blacks is twice that for whites. The rise of Donald Trump is fueled in no small part by grievances among poor whites who are the one group in America whose lifespans are actually shrinking. Black protestors, especially on college campuses, are at times more inflamed than the Black Panthers ever were — despite objectively better conditions compared to 45 years ago in terms of opportunities.

We have stuck in a dialectical conversation where the horrors of our racial past have been represented poignantly and memorably. What we need now is work that shows how most Americans—black, white, and every other type—have moved beyond to a world that, while replete with problems, allows us to be kinder and better to one another.

Source: A New ‘Roots’ for a New American Era – The Daily Beast

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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