I have a confession to make: I never watched the television series “Roots,” nor have I read the Alex Hailey novel “Roots: The Saga of An American Family,” on which it was based. This despite the fact that the television series took the nation by storm in the late 1970s, summoning some 130 million viewers.
It’s not that I don’t think American history is important. I do. And it’s not that I think the history of race relations in this country is unimportant. It is. But I am wary of the uses to which history can be put. When current readers view the past as material to create their own contemporary identity, history seems more like politics than scholarship.
I’ve always been wary of the uses of history. As a child, I read stories of the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, seeking religious freedom. I resisted the urge to identify with the Puritans. I mean, that was hundreds of years ago. I’m not the descendant of these folks. When my forebears came here, they didn’t kiss the rock; they came looking for opportunity.
There has always been something false about all this fawning we do over the “founding fathers.” Yes, I am grateful for the Bill of Rights – or what remains of it given the panoply of exceptions to core freedoms. But, as law students are taught in Constitutional law, the founders present us with the “dead hand” problem. What has the dead hand of history to do with us, today? Originalism can veer into something like hero worship, or a secular beatification of men who struggled to do right, but were far from demigods.
I’m no fan of the “living Constitution” and the ability of judges to read whatsoever their intuition inspires them to see into federal law. If originalism means respect for the past and tradition, then I get it. But please don’t ask me to kiss the originalist blarney stone.
“Roots” struck me as political advocacy akin to fetishizing the founders, but moreso. “Roots” was fiction, after all. The sage of the American family it portrayed was that of an African-American family. I suspect that Hailey, whose previous works included “An Autobiography of Malcom X” and a screenplay, “Superfly TNT,” wanted to make real in some politically significant way the past to those living in the present. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Annapolis, Maryland, has a public monument to one his fictional characters, “Kunta Kinte,” a slave brought to the United States in the mid-eighteenth century.
Hailey’s project has taken flight in our time. There is talk of reparations for African-Americans. Kunta’s kin deserve compensation for all their forebears suffered. We require a “racial reckoning” in this country to account for centuries of racism. We’re asked now, in the name of “justice,” to read back into the past and to identify with the suffering of our forebears.
“Roots” is the new woke originalism.
A young lawyer and friend who is a person of color contacted me the other day. Among other things he told me he still respected me despite what others “in the community” were saying. “What are they saying?” I asked. He mentioned the name of another friend, also of color. “What’s wrong with your boy, Norm?” said one to the other. My response: “What’s wrong with him? Reparations? Seriously?”
I no more intend to play Kunta Kinte than I do George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. My family arrived here early in the 20th century. They enslaved no one. Were there racial tensions extant in the United States at the time they arrived? I am sure there were. I don’t claim that jokes about Greeks and hot dog stands are akin to animus against people of color. So far as I know, no Greek was ever lynched for his occupational choices.
But I also know no Greeks who lynched a person of color. “White privilege” didn’t get my father much, nor did it much benefit my mother.
I reject the rhetoric of race and critical race theory because I think it is dishonest. When everything is “structural racism” and I am a “racist” unless I agree with you, I smell the scent of closeted bigots on the make. I believe in the ubiquity of sin and the need for grace. History is a cycle of pain and despair. The newly arrived righteous haven’t found the secret key to bring heaven down to earth. Augustine warned against that species of pride centuries ago in the City of God, distinguishing the City of God from the City of Man. Believing in original sin doesn’t make me a “white supremacist.”
There are no woke saints.
We’re playing with incendiary stuff. There is a crisis of legitimacy in the land. It’s sources and origin have very little to do with race. The United States seems some days to be a failed state in the making. We are incapable of governing ourselves, and things seem to be in decline. I suspect we’re a foreign policy crisis away from demonstrating to the world how irresolute and lost we’ve become.
But we’re far from civil war, I say to folks. That’s because there aren’t really issues that polarize us into easily identifiable camps capable of taking up arms in the name of conflicting visions of justice and the good life. At least, not yet. When I see the reparations bandwagon gathering steam, I see signs of an anger that could morph into something dangerous. Does anyone really believe that a majority of Americans will be content to pay race-based taxes?
I can’t for the life of me see that as realistic. I doubt that even Alex Hailey imagined it to be possible.
Let’s get back to work. The pandemic has lasted long enough. We’ve slumbered for a year. Reality beckons.