I remember the first (and only) time I watched Roots. I was 16 years old, and there was a Roots marathon that came on one of the more obscure TV channels. My Mum told me she remembered watching it when it first came out, and that it was something every black person should see. So I sat through 10 hours of brilliant acting, of exquisite displays of terror, hope, rape, violence, calculated deceit, community spirit and the indomitability of love. I sat through 10 hours and wept through most of it. Emotionally, it felt torturous. I remember sitting in the sofa as the credits rolled, snotty wads of tissue surrounding me, shell shocked, angry, and emotionally and physically exhausted.
Some white people (and some stray blacks) like to exclaim that ‘slavery is in the past’, and that we should all move on from it. However, the turn out for films such as Roots, 12 years a slave, and Selma is generally good. (On a side note, I think the British public are more comfortable with these films because they are set in America and white Brits are under some delusion that Americans were the primary beneficiaries and promoters of slavery, and that the British slave system was far more benign and cuddly). Perhaps a lot of white people who watch these films come away thinking “Gosh, that’s awful – isn’t it great that we’re pretty much equal now and only a few people are racist”.
If I’m honest, I don’t have any control over what they think, neither do I particularly care, in the sense that it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things. I do care though, about how we as black people think about ourselves, and I do care about how emotionally useful these films are to me. There are some black people who need to see these films. They need to be shocked into the reality of how utterly destructive and malicious the system was, is and can be. They need to understand that the scenes depicted in Selma happened when my parents were both teenagers, so they are not as far back in the past as some people would want you to believe. They need to understand the connection between these events and our current condition. They need to be inspired by the courage and commitment of the leaders and ordinary people displayed in these films.
I however, from experience know that these films are not useful for me. I have an understanding of how brutal the events that happened were. I have read accounts, I have watched documentaries, although I am by no means a scholar when it comes to Black history. I know enough about the brutality. What I don’t know enough of, is my history before it intersected with Europeans in a way that was destructive. I don’t know enough about pre-slavery African trade systems or about the cultural heritage that was passed down to the Caribbean slaves, or the amazing contributions Africans made to history prior to colonialism and slavery. And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’m wondering whether constantly seeing ourselves depicted in our oppression is wholly positive?
I do not say any of this to take away from the abilities of the actors, actresses, directors and producers of films such as Selma, and their desire to tell our story in our own words. I think that is commendable and I would never say that that they should stop doing that work. Neither am I putting the onus on these talented people to inform me about other parts of our history – that’s my job.
I’m just at the point personally where I prefer to watch a film that showcases black achievement outside of overcoming some aspect of white racism. Maybe, I’m just not emotionally strong enough to deal with the brutality, and that’s ok with me.
How do you guys feel?