When I first saw the clip of rapper Snoop Dogg telling his fans to boycott the History Channel’s remake of the 1977 landmark miniseries Roots, I joined the collective eye-roll among most African American history professors and scholars.
But many people share his opinion.
Some African Americans are ashamed of this history, despite the fact that “the shame is not ours.” This period marks a time when we were literally branded, whipped, raped, demoralized and separated from our most precious family members.
Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to condemn Snoop for not wanting to go there.
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Some whites believe we use this history to shame and blame. They find it hard to acknowledge the racism, savagery and greed of their ancestors. And they do not want to delve too deeply into this history lest they be forced to acknowledge the ways that it has benefited them.
Still, slavery is an ugly, agonizing, brutal, yet seminal chapter in the history, prowess and struggles of this nation. I agree with the current miniseries editor, Will Packer, who said in his response to Snoop’s criticism, “This is a story that’s important enough it should be told in repeated ways.”
That said, Snoop’s comments suggest that scholars may need to do a better job of showing how this history is important for dealing with racism today.
Examining enslavement in the United States touches upon two crucial flashpoints: the utter disregard for black humanity and the ways the legal system implemented and maintained this profound dehumanization and alienation.
As slavery took form in the legal system, a series of laws accompanied its development and institutionalization.
Laws that made lifelong servitude for Africans acceptable went on the books as early as 1640. By 1662, laws were written saying the offspring of enslaved mothers would be enslaved, thus making them also the property of the slave owner.
Over the centuries, more laws followed: laws requiring passes for blacks traveling unaccompanied by whites, laws preventing blacks from gathering in large numbers, laws making rape a crime only if the victim was white.
Even after the Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for a crime.”
Officers used trumped-up vagrancy charges on newly freed blacks. Once in police custody, these women and men would be forced to labor on plantations and work on farms and chain gangs across the South.
In places like Pennsylvania, black freedom was met with a fortified criminal justice system and the establishment of the nation’s first penitentiary.
In other parts of the country, African Americans were systematically targeted by police.
In a lot of ways, slave patrols and night watches were the forerunners of modern policing.
We must confront slavery because it shows how this country’s approach to policing and justice is inherently racially biased.
The history of slavery calls attention to the dire need for serious reform in the current justice system, beginning with the legal codes right on down to revamping police forces nationwide.
Here is where Snoop and I agree: At the same time when we need popular representations of enslavement, we also need different kinds of stories about African American history in general. Just as we don’t begin with slavery, we also don’t end with civil rights.
Kali Nicole Gross is an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.