Addressing the root of it all

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Liz Dwyer

Thirty years have passed since the name “Kunta Kinte” was etched into my memory. The miniseries Roots was my first real education about the chattel slavery that held this nation in its grip for so many generations. I vividly remember sitting on the couch in my family’s den, curled up next to my mom and dad, watching Kunta Kinte getting brutally whipped for trying to escape from the plantation.

A couple weeks ago, TV One rebroadcast the miniseries in its entirety, showing two hours every night. I wanted to watch it, but I also knew my two sons would want to see whatever I was watching. I found myself feeling unsure about if I should let them watch Roots or if I should pop Happy Feet into the DVD player in my bedroom to distract them.

I absolutely want to educate my boys about the true history of race in this country. That certainly includes the horror of slavery. After all, how can they be advocates for racial unity if they don’t understand the history behind why things are the way they are?

What is the right age is to start to talk to kids about slavery? Although my parents certainly ascribed to “the earlier the better” school of thought, I figured my youngest son didn’t need to see it because at three he’s just too little. However, my eldest is six, two years older than I was when Roots was first broadcast. I have yet to discuss slavery with him so I wondered if watching Roots would be a good entry point into the conversation.

I also remembered how violent and brutal many of the scenes are and I knew I didn’t want him seeing scenes of beatings and rape. I figured I could just boot him from the room when those scenes were about to come on. I’ve done that successfully with Pirates of the Caribbean so why not with Roots?

A much bigger worry was that he might not be interested in the subject. Forcing him to watch Roots didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know if I could handle him saying, in the middle of Kunta getting chased by the slave catchers, “This is boring! Can I go play video games?”

And if he wasn’t interested, what would that say about me as a parent? Would it mean that I am failing to instill a strong black identity in him? And would he start asking his white kindergarten teacher, “Mr. Wagner, do you own slaves?”

Despite my worries and uncertainty, the first night of the Roots broadcast finally came. While LeVar Burton gave his amazing performance as Kunta Kinte, my youngest son was busily playing in his room with his Thomas the Tank Engine train set, only emerging to unsuccessfully beg for cookies.

However, my eldest son was absolutely riveted. As he watched, he had a million questions. Some reflected the fantasies of the six year-old mind. “Why can’t Kunta just use his superpowers to get away? That’s what I would do!”

Other questions reflected his worries. “Are slave catchers going to try to catch me too?”

I explained that slavery ended 144 years ago and since it was in the past, he didn’t have to worry about slave catchers. He was relieved about that. (I’m pretty relieved about that too!)

Then he asked, “If I lived back then, would I be a slave?” I had to tell him, “Yes, most likely. Unfortunately.”

“And so the white people would own me?”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of shock on his face when I told him, “Yes.”

My son was absolutely outraged. “But that’s not right to own other people or be mean to them just because they’re black!”

Of course, I agreed with him. And then he said something that made me realize that children are much smarter than we give them credit for.

“It must have made those white people really sad to be so mean to the slaves.”

At first I wanted to cynically reply that they weren’t that sad since they were getting rich off the backs of the slaves. But then I realized that my son was, on a rudimentary level, grasping what so many of us adults miss, that slavery (and the racial residue it’s left behind) negatively affected everyone, not just black people.

After about an hour, he asked to go play his video game and I felt fine letting him go. He popped back out a few times just to check and see if Kunta had escaped. Upon discovering that the escape still hadn’t materialized, he fervently shouted at the TV, “Use your superpowers, Kunta! Don’t give up!”

I’m honored to be my son’s first teacher about slavery and I’m glad I decided to let him watch Roots. I can only hope that in another 30 years when he’s showing the miniseries to his own kids, that our collective journey to racial unity will be achieved.

Liz Dwyer lives in Los Angeles with her husband of seven years, Elarryo Bolden and her two sons, ages six and three. Her great sense of adventure and desire to learn about diverse cultures took her to Guangzhou, China where she taught English to third and fourth graders, picked up some Mandarin, and managed to get into seven bike accidents. Liz also taught in Compton, CA for three years and now works for national education non-profit, Teach For America. She loves to write and reflect on the world around her and has blogged for over two years at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness.

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