'Roots' of a new conversation about race

Story highlights

  • John McWhorter: 'Roots' remake prompts question of what does it mean to "reckon" with slavery?
  • To have authentic national conversation about race we need to define our terms, he says

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As we take in the new version of "Roots" this week, we have heard, and will hear again, that both versions of this miniseries, as well as Alex Haley's novel which inspired it, challenge America to "come to terms with" its history in slavery.

The original "Roots," which aired in 1977 to record audiences still flushed from America's bicentennial, seared slavery into the American consciousness in an unprecedented way. Never before had the whole nation seen slavery enacted so vividly and with such tragic pull.
    Staying up past my bedtime night after night to see the show with my parents remains one of the most arresting memories of my childhood. There was no home video yet, so I was never sure how I might ever see such a show again.
    John McWhorter
    There is a case to be made that in the 1970s, "Roots" did indeed push the U.S. to "come to terms" with slavery. Certainly much recent cultural and public dialogue about slavery traces its way back to "Roots": Consider the feature films "12 Years a Slave" and "Amistad," the African Slave Burial Ground in New York City, the New-York Historical Society exhibit about slavery in New York, the discussion of reparations for slavery in the late 1990s, black Americans' interest in tracing their genetic ancestry, and even criticisms that the smash Broadway musical "Hamilton" is remiss in downplaying the role of slavery in its characters' lives.
    However, at this point we must ask a question. How do we define the "terms," and at what point can we say that they have been met?
    Many will argue today -- and with good reason -- that we still haven't "come to terms" with slavery. We haven't "reckoned with" it. But in 2016, our discussion of such matters would be more constructive with a clearer sense of what those words -- "terms" and "reckoning" -- actually mean. If the original "Roots" series, the current History Channel remake and the ample discussion of slavery across so many forums don't qualify as "coming to terms," then the meaning of the phrase is less clear than we may think.
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    For example, will coming to terms with slavery require granting slavery's descendants reparations of some kind? This outcome seems unlikely, but if this is indeed the "reckoning" intended (or needed), then we should be clear about that.
    Or, does "coming to terms" instead mean more general awareness about the history and impact of slavery? If so, we still need to zero in a bit. America's intelligentsia and educated class are grievously dismayed about slavery. They would appear, that is, to be very much "reckoning" with it in the conventional sense of that term, as grappling with and processing something difficult, contradictory, or irreconcilable.
    But if there are people who still feel that America hasn't "come to terms" with slavery, then they are claiming that in an America in which Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" is a megahit best seller.
    If that America is one in which slavery is still not reckoned with, then I assume that the problem is that the rest of America -- "out there," as blue-state America likes to term such people -- still hasn't come to the terms in question. That is, the logger in Washington state, the Indian immigrant shopkeeper in Queens, the small-town white grandmother in Kansas who works the voting tables at election time, that guy working in the toll booth -- collectively, they don't care (or know) enough about America's roots in slavery.
    Is this why so many people think that America hasn't "come to terms" with slavery? One might ask just what it would do for black people's everyday lives if, say, the TSA guy and the hairdresser truly "reckoned" with slavery. One might also question how practical it is to expect that this reckoning could ever be so universally accomplished in as vast, heterogeneous, and troubled a society as ours.
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    I might be accused of caricaturing people by calling for "reckoning" here. "No one has said the guy who installs your cable has to 'reckon' with slavery," one might object. Many viewers who respond to this new version of "Roots" may say we still haven't "come to terms" with it, despite how widely discussed the topic has been in this country in the past few decades.
    But if "coming to terms" refers neither to reparations nor to all Americans understanding how slavery has shaped their nation, then the phrase must have lost what we would call meaning long ago.
    When we say "coming to terms" in reference to slavery and race, or talk about America "reckoning with" it, it seems more like a refrain than information, like singing "tra la la" or "Hey nonny nonny" in antiquated song lyrics.
    But maybe it only seems that way. I sincerely hope that people talking about slavery do so with intention and a belief that change can happen in the world we live in. I hope that they aren't actually using a kind of liturgical language, in which the incantation that "we haven't come to terms" is the end in itself, a generalized expression of anger about the past and dissatisfaction with the present, disconnected from any plan for the future.
    A real discussion about race needs clarity about, well, the terms of the conversation. The "Roots" remake is, of course, but one occasion that gets people talking about how America has yet to "come to terms with" race, with an implication that a certain shoe has yet to drop, that some kind of judgment day is to come. But as with all long and hotly discussed issues, it has gotten to the point where people often use words more as rhetorical strategies than as vehicles of precise meaning.
    Back in the 1970s, I could sense that "Roots" had changed the conversation on race in America by burning slavery into the national mind in a newly urgent way. Here in 2016, I see the fact there is even a remake as evidence that a lesson was well learned and is being passed on.
    And I sincerely wonder: what more terms are there to come to? Opinions will differ, but the question is worth asking.