By Daniel Garrett
“Darling, in you I found strength where I was torn down.”
—Ashford and Simpson, “You’re All I Need to Get By”
On Who and What We Choose to Be and Do
We do not have to choose between remembering the past or living in the present, any more than we have to choose between knowledge and love, or purpose and happiness, although sometimes we are encouraged by personal pain or certain people to do so. I know that the original broadcast of the television program “Roots,” based on African-American writer Alex Haley’s imaginative reconstruction of his family’s history, was an important cultural and historical event, presenting at once to all of America a history—the history of the capture and enslavement of Africans—that had been referred to but rarely discussed at length or widely. The program was a sensation and a corrective to political amnesia; and it inspired many people to research their family history. It presented one family, beginning in Africa with a manhood ritual, and moving on to the capture of a young man among others, and the ocean journey—with more than one-hundred and fifty persons chained together in a ship—and their hard work and humiliating treatment in America over several centuries. The servile manner dictated, the splitting up of families, the rape of women, the whipping and killing of men, and the selling of children are all here. So is the tension between those blacks who remember the past and Africa, and those who accept their present life in America; and tension between those who attempt friendship and those resigned to bitterness.
The drama is enacted by some of the popular performers of the day, including Cicely Tyson, Ed Asner, Ralph Waite, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Leslie Uggams, Chuck Connors, Ben Vereen, Richard Roundtree, Sandy Duncan, Ben Vereen, George Sanford Brown, and Lloyd Bridges. Ralph Waite’s natural acceptance of the way things are—slavery and its immorality—as a shipman on a slave ship is perfectly smooth and startling for that reason. He, like many of the other performers here (particularly Sandy Duncan and Lloyd Bridges), had a likable public reputation, and to have him play such a role must have been a rewarding exercise of his talent as an actor even as it encouraged the (possibly shocked) viewer to remember that those involved in slavery as slave-catchers or owners were human too, though they were morally reprehensible. The performances that impress me now are probably the same ones that impressed me and others upon first viewing: Levar Burton as young Kunta Kinte, Madge Sinclair as Belle, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy, and Ben Vereen as Chicken George (though the Stan Winston makeup on some of them—or how that is photographed—is sometimes distracting; for instance, in life Vereen has a brown-in-black complexion, like black coffee, but the aging makeup gives his skin a black tone with some gray in it). Someone like Chicken George, a man who enjoys and is good at training and fighting roosters, and likes wearing good clothes and bringing presents to his family, stands out for his independence and skill, for his individuality despite the times. I like that we see some masters try to be decent, and I was pleased as well to see a young Brad Davis as a poor, loving young white man who is befriended by, and befriends, the blacks; and, though I am not sure his performance is entirely consistent and rooted (he is very sweet for someone who has had a hard life), watching Davis I thought of James Dean. The program, which is driven by dialogue and plot rather than aesthetic beauty or reverie, was moving; and it remains a necessity, as that history is still not as known or as understood as it could be, though creative writers such as Margaret Walker, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones have explored the subject, as have film directors in works such as Glory and Sankofa and Nightjohn(and, of course, scholars.
It was possibly surprising that the writer Charles Johnson, who wrote Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale, two novels exploring the enslavement of Africans, has written that it is time to create narratives that move beyond the fact of slavery and the history of segregation and the known abuses to embrace the new opportunities and facts of success in African-American lives, individual and collective lives. In a piece in the journal The American Scholar on the subject, and available Summer 2008 (and as of this writing), Charles Johnson aligns storytelling with philosophy, acknowledges the longtime paradigm of the victim through which the African-American experience has been interpreted, and, recognizing the ongoing travails of class, affirms the diversity of African-Americans and states, “In the 21st century, we need new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present…These will be narratives that do not claim to be absolute truth, but instead more humbly present themselves as a very tentative thesis that must be tested every day in the depths of our own experience and by all the reliable evidence we have available, as limited as that might be.” I would like to read those new stories, but it would do us well to remember that there have been in the African-American modern realist novel, which has some speculative and experimental aspects too—Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man, James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Alice Walker’s Meridian, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, to name but a few and not the most current works—a grappling with the individual in society, and with his (her) personality, potential, and problems. There has been more than one way of seeing and storytelling, which is not to deny the validity of Johnson’s point, that the state of the victim has been a consistent subject in many African-American works; and that new realities exist to be explored.
The movement from enslavement and disenfranchisement to civil rights was facilitated by men such as W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the efforts of ordinary men and women living their lives with dignity and purpose, but the vision of African-American humanity has been kept alive through the decades also by caring, intelligent artists. It was interesting to see “Roots” and then to contemplate the new monument to the preacher and activist Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington. I have not walked around the monument itself, but have seen a photograph of it in the September 5, 2011 issue of Time magazine (available the week of August 22, 2011). The magazine’s writer Richard Lacayo declared that “As a work of art, the stiffly modeled sculpture of King at its center has its problems. But as a work of visual rhetoric, a device for summoning feelings about one of the greatest Americans, the first monument on the National Mall devoted to a man who was never President—and the first for an African American—gets a lot of things right.” Lacayo describes the sensation of walking around and through the site. It is an impressive looking work, of course; and it is easy to imagine it becoming a destination for many. It is a work that adds something to the telling of the American story, but it is impossible not to think of how long it takes public knowledge and manners to catch up to the creativity and liberty in individual human hearts.
Liberty survives in human hearts. We do not have to choose between remembering the past—Africa, enslavement, segregation and discrimination, struggle and slow progress—or living in the present, with its quickened speed and opportunity and frustration. The statue of King, erected during the term of the first African-American, Barack Obama, as president, has historical and sentimental appeal; and we can look at it and think of the past, of its troubles and accomplishments, and of the problems that remain to be solved, whether those problems are in employing, health care, housing—or in human hearts and mind. The election of Barack Obama is a sign of progress.
I did not, and do not, expect everyone to like or admire Barack Obama. How could they? He is a very particular man with a very particular agenda, one that may be in part or whole opposed to that of others, but I did anticipate that it would be instructive to have him as president. I think he has been a good president, though not a great one; for him to be great in my eyes, he would have to end the country’s wars, and regulate Wall Street and its financial practices; and then begin to advance his more progressive programs and ideas with greater momentum. Yet, I have been surprised by the extreme, hysterical, and negative opposition to him in certain quarters, public and private; and surprised by the inclination of others to misinterpret him, though he is among the most articulate, clear, and logical of men. I have been displeased to read, hear, or see that some people—who consider themselves progressive—criticize him for not being ideological (narrow-minded) or militant (vicious) enough, not focused primarily on African-American issues or more obviously determined to destroy his conservative political opposition. The president is a pragmatist, an insightful one; and many of his critics are deluded, dangerously deluded.
I used to admire the theologian Cornel West, and I admired him for a long time, but Cornel West and television journalist Tavis Smiley, two black men, two public activists, have spoken and acted in ways disrespectful to the president; and their insidious speculation about the president’s character and motives have forced intelligent citizens to question their integrity: the two men have proven themselves again and again to be vain and spiteful in regard to the president, less concerned with programs and projects and progress than with taking offense at what they see as the president’s inadequate regard for their masculine and self-centered pride. They seem to expect a conformity to their expectations and views that would be, in fact, nothing more than a form of spinelessness, if not idiocy. Why do they expect conformity? (I do not.) Of course, I do not know or like every black person, nor the perspective or philosophy of each African-American: I never have and I never will—and to say that is but a fact of human society, of life. When a friend recommended a piece by West that appeared in the New York Times (“Dr. King Weeps From His Grave,” August 25, 2011), I read it and immediately saw that it was a piece that took the celebration of the King monument as another chance to state, “The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy.” I thought about what West wrote, but, more than that, I thought of my own hope for the kind of work an African-American intellectual might do, remembering that I thought once that Cornel West and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. would do that kind of work; and I wrote, quickly and roughly, to my friend:
I just read the Cornel West piece, and I was not impressed. West and Gates have genuine gifts and great opportunity; and both could have been as great as Freud or Marx, producing original, transcendent, world-changing visions, but that is not what either has done. In different ways, to different degrees, they, like Baldwin, began to pander to black people and lazy white liberals—people who expected easy answers and a lot of flagellation of supposed enemies. Transformation begins with the self, but everyone, especially the downtrodden, must begin that work; and then the public work begins, and it is not easy, it is not quick, and it is intellectual, spiritual, and political. Barack Obama is president, but he cannot do everything alone. What remains true is how little genuine thought and how little genuine activism exists now in America; and there is nothing new or invigorating, as far as I can see, in Cornel West’s opinion piece. It’s the same old recycled rhetoric (and a key to that is the line about King crying in his grave—when a philosopher says something so truthless and melodramatic, everyone should be on guard: this is the language of a demagogue)… I’m just disappointed in West, and tired of his whining about Obama. He has made his point, good or bad, and it’s time to move on with something more productive and useful…It must be noted that I have been a “fan” of both West and Gates since I was young; and I expected great things from both. (Gates’ recent book The Henry Louis Gates, Jr Reader is a compendium of some of his work, demonstrating his mastery of the language of his field, and his diverse interests; but regrettably, as scholar and critic, he could have paid much more attention to the emergence of gifted writers, from David Bradley and Charles Johnson to Edward P. Jones and Michael Thomas. With his current focus on biology, Gates returns us to a discourse on body and blood, on the accidents of birth, rather than on consciousness and choice.) They have good public reputations, but I don’t know how much of their work will genuinely last or is genuinely important…And, it is suspect when the only thing a black man is expert on is on being black. Freud and Marx did not make being Jewish their subjects; they wrote about the human condition, about society at large…
Why do West and Smiley speak and act as if all are expected to agree with them —even a president with more knowledge at hand, and more responsibility than both of them have ever had? Why do they expect conformity? How is it that these two men, who no doubt consider themselves sophisticated, have continued to maintain such deep and hateful provincialism? Is it that their view of the past has narrowed their view of the present? Is it that they cannot see beyond their own mirrors? They seem to have forgotten that we do not have to choose between remembering the past and living in the present; nor do we have to choose between personal growth and cultural solidarity, or between cultural solidarity and political sophistication. The president, who has claimed his human inheritance and is preparing his own significant legacy as an American of African descent and a public servant, is proof of that.
It takes more than dreams, more than words, and more than good intentions to change one’s self, one’s family and community, one’s world: it takes strength and effort, discipline and planning, real work.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Todayand international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction,and Wax Poetics. This commentary on “Notes on the television program “Roots,” Black Narratives, the new King monument in Washington, D.C., and Barack” was originally available August 30, 2011 on Daniel Garrett’s internet log The Art Notes of A Solitary Walker, focused on art and cultural issues. Minor changes were made to that draft October 2014.