Leonard Pitts Jr.: ‘Roots’ kindles courage
Everything was different, the day after.
f you are a child of the millennium, if you’ve never known a world without 500 networks, it may be difficult for you to get this. You might find it hard to appreciate how it was when there were only three networks and no DVR nor even VCR, so that one major TV program sometimes became a communal event, a thing experienced by everybody everywhere at the same time.
So it was on a Sunday night, the 23rd of January, in 1977. I was a senior at the University of Southern California, working part time at the campus bookstore. When I went to work the next day, you could feel that something had shifted. Your black friends simmered like a pot left too long on the stove. Your white friends tiptoed past you like an unexploded bomb.
We had all watched the first episode of “Roots,” had all seen the Mandinka boy Kunta Kinte grow to the cusp of manhood, had all borne witness as he was chained like an animal and stolen away from everything he had ever known. Now we no longer knew how to talk to one another.
I had a friend, a white guy named Dave Weitzel. Ordinarily, we spent much of our shift goofing on each other the way you do when you’re 19 or so and nothing is all that serious. But on that day after, the space between us was filled with an awkward silence.
Finally, Dave approached me. “I’m sorry,” he said, simply. “I didn’t know.”
It is highly unlikely the new version of “Roots,” airing this week on the A&E television networks, will be the phenomenon the original was. There are, putting it mildly, more than three networks now and, with the exception of the Super Bowl, we no longer have communal television events.
But the new show will be a success if it simply kindles in us the courage to confront and confess the history that has made us. I didn’t know much about that in 1977. Sixteen years of education, including four at one of the nation’s finest universities, had taught me all about the Smoot-Hawley tariff, but next to nothing about how a boy could be kidnapped, chained in the fetid hold of a ship, and delivered to a far shore as property.
As a result, I had only a vague sense of bad things having happened to black people in the terrible long ago. It stirred a sense of having been cheated somehow, left holding a bad check somehow, but I didn’t really know how or why.
I was as ignorant as Dave.
Small wonder. The history “Roots” represents embarrasses our national mythology. As a result, it has never been taught with any consistency. Even when we ostensibly spotlight black history in February, we concentrate on the achievements of black strivers — never the American hell they strove against. So you hear all about the dozens of uses George Washington Carver found for a peanut, but nothing about Mary Turner’s newborn, stomped to death by a white man in a lynch mob.
We don’t know what to do with those stories, so we ignore them, hoping that time, like a tide, will bear them away. But invariably, they wash up instead in mass incarceration, mass discrimination and the souls of kids who know their lives are shaped by bad things from long ago, even if they can’t always say how.
Almost 40 years later, I’m embarrassed by the righteous vindication I got from Dave’s apology. Dave Weitzel, the individual man, had not done anything to me. But like me, he had never been given the tools to face the ugly truths America hides from itself, had never been taught how to have the conversation.
So we had only his shame and my anger. Had we managed to push through those things, we might have found common humanity on the other side. But we couldn’t do that because we didn’t know how.
Indeed, as best I can recall, we never talked about it again.