Nothing screams I’m ignoring my whiteness like denial of slavery. But this week with the premier of the Roots Remake, we’ve once again been confronted with our ugly shared history. White, black, yellow and purple; we all sat around watching the story of Kunta Kinte, remade for this generation with music by Questlove, appearances by Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburn, T.I. , Mekhi Phifer, and introducing Regé-Jean Page and Malachi Kirby.
What makes this time around different is that we have the emotional distance to at not just the pain and despair of enslaved Africans. We can also look closely at the actions and lives of the white slave owners. Granted their stories are never told in full, like those of Kunta and Olaudah Equiano, and Harriet Tubman. But the stories of those southern white folk matter to our collective healing.
In fact those stories are so incredibly important for understanding where we are now, how we got here and how to get out. Roots showed just as much about white supremacy and white pathologies as it did about the story of slavery. The story of slavery is the story of white supremacy. When we look at the white characters presented in Roots, we can take in their apathy and their guilt in full.
White people spent so much time observing black life and culture that they had no choice but to absorb some of the customs. We witnessed this as Massa watched on and commented on life during Chicken George’s wedding and in the way Kizzi’s song is passed throughout the South by the end of the series. The voyeurism, remaking and taking of black culture is a specific kind of cultural appropriation that is still widespread today. Of course, in Kunta’s fictional world that appropriation was not only legal, but the norm, because those of African descent weren’t even worthy of owning their culture.
The sadism presented in Roots was just as prevalent. The overseers from book two seemed to enjoy whipping and raping the slaves. Many of the adjacent white characters, nameless as they were, seemed to find satisfaction in their treatment of enslaved Africans.
This is what was passed on to generations of white Americans. This legacy of cruelty caused so many to schism away from their moral selves in a brilliant display of cognitive dissonance. White people were expected to be ‘good people’ on the outside while also upholding the institution of slavery, the degradation of a race of people, and white supremacy.
These daily, monthly, decades-long observations of the lives and enslaved Africans lived in the consciousness of white Americans just as the knowledge that if they showed weakness within the system they would lose status and power.
Often the performance of slave master is overlooked. Chicken George himself, Kunta Kinte’s grandson and the first of his children to gain his freedom, said it the best when speaking to his former owner after returning from twenty years of enslavement in Europe “Yo whole damn life you was a slave too..”
In order to maintain a master-slave relationship white people had to perform in ways that were not natural. They learned these habits in their youth and grew them into a complete system of disregard for black human life.
The habits and actions of white people during slavery are severely underrepresented in media, scholarly study and common thought. We like to think of slavery as something bad that happened to black people, but it also happened to white people. It happened to white children who learned by the age of five that they were superior to, better than and deserved more than black children.
Then there was just everyday life. Things around the plantation went on whether Nat Turner was rebelling or not, but when something did happen- like a new slave joining the plantation, or a runaway, or even simple disobedience- that adrenaline and sympathetic nervous system kick in white people immediately returned to those lessons of greater than, less than learned in their youth. Witness how quickly Massa was able to separate himself and his livelihood from that of his slaves during Nat’s rebellion. Witness how easily he sold Chicken George away when he lost his wager.
Witness how quickly the other white men in the story, the ones without backstory but with guns, fires, horses and ropes, were to burn down slave quarters, whether or not they were a part of the rebellion. These militia men became our police force. No wonder they shoot first ask questions later and kill with impunity. But those who weren’t militia were also affected. Franklin was part of the Confederate army, his role was bound up in preserving the system of slavery, but at the end of the series, after emancipation-we see Chicken George shoot him point blank as he riled to a fight with Tom Lea Jr .
That instinct to get riled up when black people are ‘out of place’ is what was passed on to the everyday teachers, nurses, and business owners that we interact with on the daily. This is the seat of our microagressions- derived from the contentious relationships of slavery.
What does it do to your psyche when you can rape and kill with impunity? How do you reconcile your humanity when you’re allowed to rape and kill the people you grow up with? What does it do to your personhood when you’re not only allowed, but encouraged to cheat, kill, break up families, and steal? This is the history and present of whiteness.
But we rarely take this approach at looking at our collective history. We’re very focused on the plights of black people and the thousands of dead before their time innocent youth. We forget the entire other side of the story.
All these white people and their histories and family stories are not told because whiteness hides them. It works with racism to refocus our attention on black pain and sorrow, creating a sort of tunnel vision where blackness can again be consumed on a voyeuristic level but not understood on a human level.
The collective white subconscious that runs this country and Hollywood allows the story of slavery be retold again and again, but neglects the story of how those owners became ruthless, savage, sadistic, beasts. And this is a shame because, since we don’t acknowledge that part, it continues to rule us.
Are whiteness and violence inseparable? Of course not, but we haven’t examined the ways white people reject interpersonal and systemic violence in the same ways that we’ve seen two TV specials full of dying and suffering black people. The only reason for that is because the system itself is set up to keep us from the inquiry.
What does it mean to be a young white man of conviction in the Antebellum South? We saw Nancy be strung up violently and lynched when she dared to stand in solidarity with Jerusalem- by the very white men who were bent on protecting her the entire film. When we start asking white people and whiteness to look itself in the face we begin a new chapter of healing and reconciliation for this nation.