Roots often lie within truth

Almost anyone who has ever believed in Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, who's visiting millions of homes next week) can understand that part of what we call "growing up" is a process in which the lies of childhood (whether we call them fairy tales, fantasies, mythology) are either destroyed or put into their proper perspective.

Santa Claus is a little crass, as few children ever really believe in him, any more than they believe in the tooth fairy. So it's tough to call the "realization" that Santa doesn't exist a traumatic experience. However, I must confess that there was one childhood myth which died an awfully hard death, and it may have never completely died: the national morality tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. That's because it wasn't presented to me as a Santa Claus tale, but as factual history, and an important lesson in morality.

When I learned that there had been no cherry tree, and that the whole story of George with his little hatchet and "I cannot tell a lie, father!" was made up, I became indignant. A hell of a way to teach honesty, I thought. It bothered the hell out of me, and did much to instill a certain contempt for "hypocrisy" which took years to go away (and which may haunt me for the rest of my life). I mean really! Put yourself in my position as a child: if (I reasoned childishly) our national morality tale about the value of always telling the truth turns out to be a lie, what does that suggest about other things that might be a lie?

Hell, I'm lucky I didn't grow up to be a full-scale Deconstructionist!

I hate to say this, but what saved me was the realization as I grew older that it is possible for a story to be "false but accurate." No one imagines that a race was ever run between Aesop's imaginary turtle and the hare, any more than the ant and grasshopper have widely divergent, um, "value systems." It might not have been a good idea to graft George Washington into a myth, but there is nothing wrong with a boy admitting to his father that he did wrong.

I've been thinking about George Washington and the cherry tree as I revisit the "Roots" saga on DVD. It was almost thirty years ago -- in 1977 to be exact -- that the country was captivated by this TV series, and I think it's fair to say that it played such an important role of shaping modern American race relations that it's part of our history.

In terms of numbers of people affected and cultural "impact," Roots might even be in competition with George Washington's cherry tree.

It's about as factual. (Author Alex Haley committed plagiarism, much of the story was factually untrue, Haley paid a $650,000 settlement which was covered up, his Pulitzer Prize was never revoked, the BBC reported all of this in a 1997 documentary never televised here, etc. . .)

But the factual "Roots" is less interesting than the cultural "Roots."

Roots is, was, and are, well, relative.

At the risk of sounding dark and cynical, my favorite "Roots" memory has nothing to do with whether the story was fictionalized (which it was, but on the other hand, many events such as those portrayed in "Roots" did take place), but with an actual incident which happened to an acquaintance. A clueless gay American expatriate who'd been living in England for several years (and a man best described as a "queen") flew back to the States for a visit when "Roots" was in full swing. He'd heard nothing about the show, and was walking down the street in Oakland, California when he heard angry cries in his direction from the other side of the street, which he tried to ignore. Suddenly, a bottle whizzed a few inches past his head (barely missing him), and crashed on the sidewalk.

He looked over, trying to figure out what was going on.

"ROOTS, motherfucker!!" was yelled, as if that "fact" should have been obvious.

While the angry young men in the crowd were black, and the expatriate queen was white, he didn't understand the racially motivated nature of the attack until much later, when he had a chance to relate it to his friends.

He'd spent the day wondering how those black Americans had figured him out! His hair was dyed, and his roots were showing -- but only a little. He couldn't understand how they could have spotted such a detail all the way across the street, nor could he understand why they would be offended by another white boy with dyed hair (not an unusual phenomenon at the time).

It's a funny story, but it does impart a lesson about the important role of television in this country. Ignore it at your peril.

As television programs go, "Roots" was simply a masterpiece. Americans of all races were glued to their sets, and of course it was all considered gospel truth.

And, like George Washington and the cherry tree, to a thoughtful person it really shouldn't matter whether much of it turned out to be plagiarized or made up. That there doesn't seem to have been a "Kunta Kinte" really isn't the point. Historically, slavery was evil, and terrible things were done. No reasonable person would deny this.

Roots is interesting as nostalgia is interesting, but even more interesting as history. Not actual history in terms of the events in the series, but as American cultural history. Seen merely in the context of the history of television, "Roots" is historically unparalleled. The lead male white characters are almost a Who's Who in the history of popular television.

  • Bonanza's Lorne Greene, without a doubt America's most trusted and beloved Western series patriarch of all time, still sports his stern-but-fair ethos. But the more the character unfolds, the more he reveals a self-pitying alcoholic who finds himself with "no choice" but to abuse his slaves.
  • Sea Hunt's Lloyd Bridges -- still the hard-boiled realist, but a sneering, ex Confederate one, whose hard-boiled "reality" consists of exacting revenge by tormenting black people.
  • Possibly the most avuncular man in America -- beloved folksinger Burl Ives -- morphs into a crooked Southern Senator who cooks up the Ku Klux Klan so cleverly you almost expect him to sing a light-hearted song about it.
  • Ed Asner, star of Lou Grant (once the American epitome of trust) is now a slaveship captain whose chained and abused captives die by the dozens, and who ends up screwing young female slaves despite his fervent moral opposition to the idea.
  • Combat!'s stalwart sergeant Vic Morrow is still in combat -- but as an experienced battle-hardened overseer who whips Kunta Kinte nearly to death.
  • The Brady Bunch's Robert Reed plays a doctor you spend two episodes wanting desperately to like, but who in the end tears Kunta Kinte's daughter away from her parents and sells her to a horrid rapist played by the Rifleman's Chuck Connors (once a hard-bitten, hardscrabble cowboy but now a hard-bitten, hardscrabble, malignant drunken maniac).
  • To a man, the acting is superb, but what's creepy is that they all do too good a job of ensuring their well known (and much loved) former roles are right there! Each one still has his beloved television ethos, but we come to the sickening, inescapably horrifying realization that while they may look like their old selves, they are in fact despicable and depraved villains. Every one of these once-loved white American male family patriarchs is still there, but now exposed as decadent evil (the message being that the evil was there all along, throughout our racist history). After a while, this all-star parade of white evil after white evil makes it numbingly clear that white America was guilty, is guilty, and will always be guilty, guilty, guilty!

    It's with this deliberate, relentless infliction of guilt where I must take issue with "Roots." I don't think life or history is that simple. (Ditto the movie "Crash.")

    Nor do I believe in inherited sin. People living in the present are not responsible for the behavior of people who lived in the past. And I don't think it's productive to make people -- any people -- feel morally obligated to atone for their ancestors, any more than they should go back in time and emulate cultures they have never known and can never know.

    But "Roots" was intended a moral indictment -- not of white America past, but white America present. It's hard to ignore its timing (just after America's bicentennial), and snarky references to the American revolution (such as "I'm glad white folks are free!") make it quite clear that the timing was important. (Um, maybe the whole point.)

    For students of history and culture, it's well worth renting and seeing in its entirety.

    It really doesn't matter whether the story was true.

    Because the story has roots in our culture.

    (Now showing!)

    posted by Eric on 04.09.06 at 10:29 AM


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Roots often lie within truth:

    » True Lies? from Cinema Veritas
    Nothing has been posted here for a while. In lieu of writing something right now, take a look at this slightly disturbing post by Eric at Classical Values. He beginsAlmost anyone who has ever believed in Santa Claus (or the... [Read More]
    Tracked on April 9, 2006 6:08 PM


    Great post! I've never seen Roots but have similar feeling about All in the Family. Watching reruns as a little kid I loved Archie and hated Meathead because he was disrespectful and, as far as I could tell, a bum. I didn't get the racial overtones. It was years before I realized you weren't supposed to like Archie, lol.

    In Archie's case it makes more sense to think of prejudice as a mistake rather than as indicative of character. For that generation maybe it is true, but not today's... But what do you say about anti-Semitism in France- do you think of it as a disease or an indication of character?

    Intersting topic. Interesting minefield to walk though- when do you excuse racism, bigotism, etc., as something even good people believe in because society considers it a norm, as opposed to someting only bad people believe in because they are bad.

    Harkonnendog   ·  April 10, 2006 6:10 PM

    Racism and prejudice are as changeable as the individual mind. Yet the things that bigots hate people for are usually the things that cannot be changed -- like race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. Scolding people for things they cannot change -- such as the crimes of one's ancestors -- is a classic form of bigotry.

    What's worse is inflicting guilt is upon an individual for belonging to a race alleged to have done wrong to another race even when that individual's ancestors had nothing to do with the crimes! Descendants of people who immigrated here in the 20th Century are held accountable for crimes of slave importers in the 18th Century, and slaveholders in the 19th Century.

    It's massive fraud, and I don't know how they get away with it.

    Eric Scheie   ·  April 10, 2006 9:42 PM

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