Wasn’t it nice?
Wasn’t it nice?
Slavery was so cool.
And all you had to do was wear derbies and vests and train chickens
And buy your way free if you had a mind to.
Must be the devil.
It wasn’t no whitefolks.
- Amiri Baraka “Dope”
The Memorial Day debut of the refurbished version of Alex Haley’s Roots didn’t captivate a hundred million viewers like the 1977 rendition. Maybe the audience dwindled because OJ Simpson wasn’t re-cast? Regardless, the updated mini-series entertained millions and enjoyed widespread appreciation for providing a historical context for racial turbulence in the United States in the era of Black Lives Matter.
The Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts Jr. and a multitude of others insist that when it comes to slavery and the history of Racism, Whites and blacks alike are often ignorant; we’ve “never been given the tools to face the ugly truths America hides from itself, [have] never been taught how to have the conversation” about the American empire being founded on shackled black bodies.
That bit of racial rhetoric is oft repeated, always false.
Whites cannot flunk Racism.
Smartphones and Hollywood are making it increasingly impossible for Whites to claim obliviousness about the ceaseless pillaging of black people. Eric Garner (a black male choked to death by New York police in 2014) and Sandra Bland (a black female found hanging dead in a Texas jail under suspicious circumstances in 2015) garnered more television time than many of the 2016 presidential candidates. While the box office and Netflix hemorrhage viewing options of chained, bludgeoned black people.
Before the Roots reboot and FOX’s Empire there was: The Book Of Negroes (2015), Belle (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2013), DJango Unchained (2012), Case départ (2011), Feasts of All Saints (2001), Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000), Beloved (1998), Amistad (1997).
This is a stingy sample of the plantation genre and excludes oddities like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), documentaries like Katrina Browne’s insufferable Traces Of The Trade (2008), and exemplary projects like Halle Gerima’s Sankofa (1993).
Whites haven’t ignored these flicks; they’ve directed, financed and doled out Emmy and Academy Award nominations to a sizable number of these projects. Authentic or dramatized, Whites maintain an insatiable appetite for depictions of black misery.
Black suffering made America great. Seeing Kunta Kinte lashed, mutilated and broken affirms White Power. White historian Amy Louise Wood authored Lynching And Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, which deconstructs the White thirst to visually consume blacks being castrated and brutalized. Her theory applies to the hundreds – often thousands – of Whites who attended lynchings, the dispersal of photographs and postcards of ceremonial White terrorism, and films like Birth of a Nation – and probably either version of Roots. She writes:
The rituals, the tortures, and their subsequent representations [impart] powerful messages to whites about their own supposed racial dominance and superiority. These spectacles [produce] and [disseminate] images of white power… white unity and… [serve] to instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators. Lynching thus [succeeds] in enacting and maintaining white domination not only because African Americans [are] its targets but also because white southerners [are] its spectators.The “re-imaging” of the routine rape of Kizzy - which was an everyday trauma for enslaved black females, males and children -and the YouTube postings of Oscar Grant’s life being snuffed out to christen 2009, are the necessary “terror porn” that solidifies the worthlessness of black life, verifies undisputed White might. Woods corroborates that Whites recognize “the ways in which entertainment [is] bound up with violence, as well as the ways in which violence itself [is] a source of visual amusement.”
We commit a colossal error thinking White viewers digest Roots or any other portrayal of black agony with guilt for the barbarism their racial ancestors meted out to our black relatives. Watching Kunta lose a foot won’t compel presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders to recalibrate his stance on reparations. LeVar Burton, Anika Noni Rose and Forest Whitaker’s best dramatizations fail to convince Arizona rancher and federal lawbreaker Cliven Bundy to reconsider; the southwest outlaw believes negroes were “better off as slaves, picking cotton.”
White jurists and former prosecuting attorneys like Staten Island, New York’s Dan Donovan (now a Congressman and a Trump supporter) and Ohio’s Timothy McGinty watched authentic footage of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice being killed and concluded it didn’t even warrant a trial – much less a conviction. A celluloid recounting of antebellum black lives undeserving of White respect does little to alter 21st century dedication to White Supremacy.
If anything, a growing chorus of Whites openly wishes for a return, a reconstruction of earlier eras of White Supremacy when the only Obamas at the White House were butlers or mammies. White teenyboppers at Grosse Pointe South High School, a Detroit, Michigan suburb, summarized their presidential platform for a potential 2040 campaign: "Bringing back slavery, burning black people with brands and sending them back to Africa." After four decades, Roots returns to the airwaves when presidential front-runner Donald J. Trump’s political rallies have often rhetorically and literally echoed the flagrant White sadism of plantations where black people are mauled with impunity.
The commercialized rape of black bodies made America great.
Must we see it again?