Slavery’s Wages

I was in grade school when the television show Roots, based on Alex Haley’s famous book, first aired. It was a big deal, at least among adults, and my parents insisted that my sister and I watch it. We dutifully sat down in the front the walnut-veneered TV cabinet as my father adjusted the rabbit ear antennas to get a good signal. For an eight-year-old, Roots was disorienting, often boring, and occasionally very disturbing. The images of LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte enduring the brutal Middle Passage and of the slavers throwing the sick Africans overboard are still with me today. Sitting in an air-conditioned living room in a California track house, I didn’t quite grasp what it had to do with me. This all happened a long time ago, I thought. It seemed like another one of the period costume dramas that my mother watched on PBS, but with many more examples of vicious behavior, a lot more black people, and much better production values. I identified with the black slaves as the protagonists of the story, but I felt little connection with any of the people depicted. The landscapes, accents, clothing, and architecture were all unfamiliar. Most of the white people were inexplicably cruel and heartless. The black people were as unlike me and my family as the slaves in Spartacus (and I kept waiting for what I naively assumed would be the inevitable slave uprising that would provide the story with its cathartic ending). When I went to school, where I was one of three or four other black students, some of the kids started calling me Kunta Kinte. I was annoyed but brushed it off, until I was cornered by a group of older white kids. Kunta Kinte! Kunta Kinte! Go back to Africa where you belong!

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