By Marian Wright Edelman
President, Children’s Defense Fund
via George Curry Media
On the 40th anniversary of the publication of Alex Haley’s landmark book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a new television adaptation is bringing renewed attention to the story that opened so many eyes to the harsh truth about American slavery and its aftermath – an aftermath that continues under new guises despite much progress.
Roots’ 1976 publication came at a seminal moment in American history. Cities across America were hosting celebrations of the nation’s bicentennial and the founding creed set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded our nation and world on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that America had never fully lived up to that promise: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check, which has come back, marked ‘insufficient funds.’
With Roots, Alex Haley provided an epic lesson in American history through the story of his American family – slavery from the enslaved people’s point of view. His book spent months on the bestseller list and the original television adaptation of Roots aired in January 1977. It shattered viewing records as it gave tens of millions of people a visual, visceral experience of the true horrors of slavery. For the first time descendants of slaves, descendants of slave owners and people of all backgrounds were sharing a common experience and understanding of America’s original sin whose aftereffects still radiate across our land. Acknowledging that truth together was a transformative experience.
In the past year we have seen a welcome surge prodded by new books on slavery, campus debates, and student protests of new commitments by some universities and other institutions to confront the truth about their own histories. This is especially the ugly legacies of slavery and Native American genocide. Black Lives Matter protests denouncing indefensible deaths of Black youths and citizens at the hands of out-of-control law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York City, Texas and elsewhere. The shocking racist vigilante citizen killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the massacre of praying Black church people in South Carolina has heightened the need for greater racial awareness and national action.
I hope the renewed interest in Roots will spark a much greater and sustained interest in an honest retelling of our history and promote new dialogue about the ways today’s structural, cultural, racial and economic inequalities reflect racial seeds from our violent past of slavery and Jim Crow. These that still poison the soil and political discourse of our nation. Only confronting the truth about our nation’s profound birth defects and struggling deliberately to overcome them with open eyes, hearts, minds and deeds can make us all free.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has a special connection to Haley. In 1994 CDF bought Haley’s 157-acre farm in Tennessee for servant leadership development, intergenerational, interfaith, and interracial dialogue and spiritual renewal. The Harlem Children’s Zone was conceptualized in Haley Farm’s lodge by Geoff Canada and a cadre of Black Community Crusade for Children® leaders. Faith leaders gather each year for spiritual retreats, great preaching and renewal, and young leaders come to learn from elders about nonviolent strategies for seeking racial and economic justice.
The largest annual gathering at Haley Farm brings together about 2,000 college aged young people who train intensively to return to their local communities to teach about 12,000 children in CDF Freedom Schools® programs designed to staunch summer learning loss, close the educational achievement gap, and empower children to make a difference in their schools, communities, nation and world. This year they will hear from leading educators, historians, children’s and young adult book authors and faith leaders.
We will discuss how to truthfully teach history to help children of all races understand our nation’s roots, including Native American genocide, slavery and exclusion of all women and non-propertied men from the electoral process in our beginning years. We also will discuss how they can make a difference in closing the gaps in their communities between America’s dream and reality. Together they and all of us must help write the next chapter in our ongoing struggle to make America a more perfect union.
That struggle must continue until the prophet Zechariah’s vision of “the city full of boys and girls playing in its streets” – safely and joyfully ¬- is realized all over our violence-saturated land. I thank Alex Haley for reminding African Americans and all Americans of our roots, our strengths, our struggles, our courage, our faith, and our God-given human capacity to overcome adversity
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org