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June 1, 2016

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

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

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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