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June 1, 2016 1

Why the ‘Roots’ Remake Matters

rootsBegin­ning on Memo­r­ial Day and for four con­sec­u­tive evenings this week, the His­tory Chan­nel will air its 2016 ver­sion of ‘Roots,’ a remake of the 1977 tele­vi­sion minis­eries based on Alex Haley’s clas­sic novel Roots: The Saga of An Amer­i­can Fam­ily.  The book is an his­tor­i­cal por­trait of Amer­i­can slav­ery based on Haley’s her­itage dat­ing back to 1750 in the West African vil­lage of Juf­fure and how his family’s saga unfolded over seven gen­er­a­tions. Dur­ing the orig­i­nal air­ing of the minis­eries, 130 mil­lion view­ers watched, rep­re­sent­ing 85% of U.S. house­holds. The orig­i­nal ver­sion received 36 Emmy nom­i­na­tions with 9 wins.

Exec­u­tive Pro­ducer Mark Wolper, son of the orig­i­nal ‘Roots’ exec­u­tive pro­ducer David Wolper, explained that he cre­ated the new ver­sion because ‘Roots’ needed a reboot for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple. In attempt­ing to show the orig­i­nal ver­sion to his chil­dren, he real­ized that while they under­stood its impor­tance, they thought it was dated, didn’t have much rel­e­vance to them and found it bor­ing and luke­warm.  He thought to him­self, “Wow! Per­haps we need to remake it with a dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­ity and with a dif­fer­ent set of actors.”

The His­tory Channel’s ‘Roots’ explores the lives of enslaved indi­vid­u­als and spans mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions; the lin­eage begins with young Kunta Kinte, who is cap­tured in his home­land of The Gam­bia and trans­ported in bru­tal con­di­tions to colo­nial Amer­ica where he’s sold into slav­ery.  The minis­eries con­tains some very graphic and intense scenes depict­ing the phys­i­cal and sex­ual vio­lence endured by enslaved peo­ple. It is rated TV-14 and is not rec­om­mended for chil­dren under 14.

Slav­ery is an impor­tant topic to teach and at the same time, it can be chal­leng­ing and over­whelm­ing, espe­cially for young peo­ple. The facts are com­plex and there are many lay­ers to teach­ing it com­pre­hen­sively. In addi­tion, emo­tions can run very high in class­room dis­cus­sions. As a result, many teach­ers shy away from the topic at a great loss to young people’s edu­ca­tion. When teach­ers do have the oppor­tu­nity to teach about slav­ery, there are a wide vari­ety of top­ics to focus on includ­ing: the roots and his­tory of transat­lantic slav­ery; the rich, com­plex and var­ied his­tory and cul­ture of African coun­tries and peo­ple prior to slav­ery; chal­leng­ing stereo­types of peo­ple of African her­itage; the root causes of slav­ery includ­ing white supremacy and its impact on soci­ety; the enslave­ment expe­ri­ence in the U.S.; resis­tance and rebel­lion of enslaved peo­ple, abo­li­tion­ism; the Civil War; the Recon­struc­tion era and much more.

Accord­ing to the His­tory Channel’s Edu­ca­tion Guide, the key themes explored in the 2016 ‘Roots’ minis­eries, which are also ele­ments of anti-bias edu­ca­tion, include:

  • Iden­tity and nam­ing: the words Kunta Kinte hears as a baby—“your name is your spirit, your name is your shield”—guide him and his fam­ily through generations.
  • Resilience and strength: Despite the hor­rors of slav­ery, the fam­ily sur­vives through their con­nec­tion to each other and their history.
  • Fam­ily: Ded­i­ca­tion to fam­ily and car­ry­ing on tra­di­tions are pri­mary val­ues of Kunta and the gen­er­a­tions after him. Fam­ily her­itage and con­nec­tion to the African past help them persevere.

In addi­tion to these themes, the con­cept of resis­tance that is present through­out the series is an impor­tant one to explore with young peo­ple. As Levar Bur­ton, the orig­i­nal Kunta Kinte in the 1977 ver­sion and co-producer of the 2016 ver­sion, says, “The empha­sis is on resis­tance and rebel­lion as a path­way to redemp­tion.” When­ever we teach young peo­ple about a time in his­tory of oppres­sion and injus­tice, it can feel very demor­al­iz­ing and dis­em­pow­er­ing if we only tell them about the per­se­cu­tion.  Instead, it is impor­tant to con­vey we (as indi­vid­u­als and the col­lec­tive we) are not pow­er­less in the face of injus­tice and we can stand up and fight back. Sim­i­lar to teach­ing about the cul­tural and spir­i­tual resis­tance dur­ing the Holo­caust, we want to high­light for young peo­ple that peo­ple resisted and that they overcame.

The rel­e­vance to today’s issues raised by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, specif­i­cally vio­lence against peo­ple of color and the racial dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, are ones that can be explored and con­nec­tions made. It is impor­tant that peo­ple know and under­stand their his­tory and her­itage and reflect on con­nect­ing the past to the present. Malachi Kirby, the 26-year-old British actor who plays Kunta Kinte in the new series said: “These things hap­pened. And they’re hap­pen­ing today.”

The 1977 ‘Roots’ was a pro­found Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, its impact deep and vast. The reboot will bring the topic alive for young peo­ple today and pro­vide edu­ca­tors and fam­i­lies with a con­tem­po­rary con­text within which to explore mod­ern day man­i­fes­ta­tions of racial injustice.





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April 22, 2016 Off

A Passover Reflection on Vestiges of American Slavery

By Lau­ren Jones, Civil Rights National Counsel

As Jews gather around the Seder table to tell the story of the Exo­dus from Egypt, we are com­manded to tell the story as if we had per­son­ally fled slav­ery. We will read from the Hagad­dah, “This year we are slaves. Next year may we all be free.”

Photo credit Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit Wikipedia Commons

In grade school we learned in his­tory classes that the 13th Amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery in the United States in 1865. What fewer learn or remem­ber, how­ever, is that there is one crit­i­cal excep­tion: the 13th Amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery “except as a pun­ish­ment for crime.” For decades after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, South­ern states engaged in “con­vict leasing”—the prac­tice of send­ing peo­ple con­victed of crimes to work on plan­ta­tions or for pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions like rail­way con­trac­tors. Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, nine-tenths of peo­ple impris­oned were black.

In 1893, in The Rea­son Why, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass wrote this of African Amer­i­cans caught up in the abhor­rent system:

Pos­sess­ing nei­ther money to employ lawyers nor influ­en­tial friends, they are sen­tenced in large num­bers to long terms of impris­on­ment for petty crimes. The People’s Advo­cate, a Negro jour­nal, of Atlanta, Geor­gia, has the fol­low­ing obser­va­tion on the prison show­ing of that state for 1892. ‘It is an astound­ing fact that 90 per­cent of the state’s con­victs are col­ored; 194 white males and 2 white females; 1,710 col­ored males and 44 col­ored females. Is it pos­si­ble that Geor­gia is so color prej­u­diced that she won’t con­vict her white law-breakers? Yes, it is just so, but we hope for a bet­ter day.’

Thank­fully, the United States no longer engages in con­vict leas­ing. But the shame­ful his­tory of a sys­tem that incar­cer­ated an over­whelm­ingly African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion and con­tin­ued to enslave them after the offi­cial abo­li­tion of slav­ery plagues us to this day. Almost 125 years after Fred­er­ick Dou­glass wrote those words, racial injus­tice still runs through­out our crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion in the United States con­tin­ues to have a disproportionate—and devastating—impact on com­mu­ni­ties of color. Although approx­i­mately thirty per­cent of peo­ple in the United States are African Amer­i­can or Latino, almost sixty per­cent of pris­on­ers are. In 2006, one in 14 African Amer­i­can men was incar­cer­ated, com­pared with one in 106 white men. Today the United States incar­cer­ates a higher per­cent­age of black men than South Africa did dur­ing the height of apartheid. If cur­rent trends con­tinue, one in three African Amer­i­can male babies born today will spend some of his life behind bars.

Stud­ies show that crime rates do not account for the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Rather, laws that pun­ish par­tic­u­lar behav­iors more than oth­ers, as well as sys­temic racism that under­girds poli­cies and prac­tices, all con­tribute. For exam­ple, stud­ies con­firm that whites are just as likely to use drugs as African Americans—and are as likely or even more likely to deal drugs—but police are twice as likely to arrest African Amer­i­cans for drug crimes as whites. In some states, African Amer­i­can men are serv­ing time for drug-related charges at a rate that is twenty to fifty times higher than rates for white men.

Racial dis­par­i­ties per­vade each step in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system—from stops to arrests, pros­e­cu­tion to sen­tenc­ing. For exam­ple, pros­e­cu­tors are approx­i­mately twice as likely to file charges against African Amer­i­can defen­dants that include manda­tory min­i­mums, and African Amer­i­can men on aver­age serve ten per­cent longer sen­tences for the same crime as white men. In Geor­gia, where a “two strikes and you’re out” law imposed a life sen­tence for a sec­ond drug offense, for exam­ple, dis­trict attor­neys invoked the law one per­cent of the time in pros­e­cut­ing white defen­dants accused of a sec­ond drug offense, but 16 per­cent of the time in pros­e­cut­ing African Amer­i­can defen­dants accused of a sec­ond drug offense. The result was that 98.4 per­cent of peo­ple serv­ing life sen­tences under the two strikes law were African Amer­i­can. Race—including con­scious and uncon­scious biases—clearly con­tin­ues to play a deeply trou­bling role through­out the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

As we begin the Passover cel­e­bra­tions, and tell the story of the lib­er­a­tion from slav­ery in Egypt, may we also think about the ves­tiges of slav­ery here in the United States. May we com­mit our­selves to end­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion and work­ing towards more jus­tice in our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. As Fred­er­ick Dou­glass hoped for a bet­ter day, may we com­mit our­selves to cre­at­ing one. And next year, may we all be free.

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April 20, 2016 15

White Supremacists Up in Arms over Tubman on $20 Bill

Harriet Tubman. Photo Credit: Ohio History Connection (OHC) via U.S. Treasury Department, dated circa 1887 by H.G. Smith, Studio Building, Boston.

Har­riet Tub­man. Photo Credit: Ohio His­tory Con­nec­tion (OHC) via U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment, dated circa 1887 by H.G. Smith, Stu­dio Build­ing, Boston.

On April 20, the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment announced that famous abo­li­tion­ist and res­cuer of slaves Har­riet Tub­man will be the new face of the $20 bill, replac­ing Andrew Jack­son (who moves to the bill’s back). The move is intended to answer a long-standing call for more diver­sity on America’s paper cur­rency. Tub­man, a for­mer slave her­self, helped hun­dreds of other slaves escape into freedom.

Ini­tial reac­tions were largely positive—but not among racists and white suprema­cists, who wasted no time react­ing to the news with ferocious–and unsurprising–venom. “Talk­ing mon­key Har­riet Tub­man to replace Indian killer Jack­son on $20 bill,” Andrew Anglin, edi­tor and founder of the white suprema­cist Daily Stormer web­site, announced on his blog.  A forum mem­ber on the white suprema­cist mes­sage board Storm­front warned, “Just make very sure you don’t ‘inte­grate’ this new $20 bill into your wal­let. You’ll likely find the rest of your money miss­ing in no time.”

Other Storm­front con­trib­u­tors posited the idea of “hav­ing fun” with the new bill by defac­ing it. One sug­gested he would make a stamp with a “white nation­al­ist cross” and the words “White Pride World Wide” to embla­zon on every $20 bill he encoun­ters. Yet another pledged never to use the new $20 bill, to demand to be given other bills instead.

On Face­book, racist com­ments also sur­faced quickly. Some­one post­ing as “Pete Lam­bro” wrote, “Who the hell is har­riet tub­man [sic]…if Obama want to put an african amer­i­cans [sic] Pic­ture [sic] on some­thing how about food stamps or ebt cards.”  In another Face­book post­ing,  a “Nick Fran­cis” com­plained that “now we have to stare at a mon­key every time we get paid.”

Oth­ers were quick to intro­duce anti-Semitic con­spir­acy the­o­ries, alleg­ing that the Trea­sury Depart­ment announce­ment was the brain­child of the Jews.  One anti-Semite posted to his Face­book page the com­ment “More Zion­ist Jack Jew,” refer­ring to Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Jack Lew.  A Storm­front poster using the screen­name Proud_White_Chap asked, “Who cares who Jews put on their fake paper? Andrew Jack­son fought against them and they besmirched his mem­ory by plac­ing him on the 20 dol­lar bill.” This seems to be a ref­er­ence to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews con­trol the bank­ing sys­tem and to the fact that Jack­son dis­man­tled the U.S.’s national bank.

A Trea­sury spokesper­son said the design for the new bills will be made pub­lic in 2020, the cen­ten­nial of women win­ning the right to vote. The actual cur­rency, how­ever, won’t be in cir­cu­la­tion until 2030, giv­ing white suprema­cists plenty of time to gnash their teeth and accu­mu­late other denominations.

White suprema­cists will prob­a­bly be no hap­pier with the new $5 and $10 bills, how­ever, which are to fea­ture five women’s suf­frage activists, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and African-Americans Mar­ian Ander­son and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., on the reverse sides.

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