How to talk honestly about slavery, featuring LeVar Burton and Jamelle Bouie.

How to Get America to Talk Honestly About Slavery

How to Get America to Talk Honestly About Slavery

Our defining institution, in nine lives.
Oct. 8 2015 7:25 AM

How to Talk Honestly About Slavery

Jamelle Bouie talks with LeVar Burton about remaking Roots and understanding American history.

Jamelle Bouie speaking during Slate Academy: An honest talk abou
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie speaks during the Slate Academy symposium on Sept. 17, 2015, at George Washington University.

Photo by William Atkins/George Washington University

“How do we get Americans to talk honestly about slavery?”

That question was the subject of a sold-out Sept. 17 symposium organized by Slate and George Washington University. It was a capstone event for the History of American Slavery, the inaugural Slate Academy hosted by history writer Rebecca Onion and chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie.

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What follows is a transcript of one of that evening’s conversations, between Jamelle and LeVar Burton, the actor known for his role in the 1977 television miniseries Roots. Burton is now executive producing an upcoming remake of the series for A&E Networks.

The event also featured speakers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, George Washington University, the Slave Dwelling Project, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, and others. You can listen to an audio recording of the complete event below the transcript.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jamelle Bouie: When Roots aired in 1977, it really sparked a national conversation about slavery in a way that hadn’t really happened before.

LeVar Burton: Right. It had never happened before.

Bouie: What was it like to be a part of that?

Burton: I am a child of the television age. I remember growing up and it being a big deal to see Diahann Carroll with her own television series. It was a big deal to Sammy Davis Jr. on an episode of The Rifleman. It was a big deal to see Clarence Williams III, with his huge afro, on The Mod Squad. It was rare and important when, as a child, I saw people of color represented on the screen in ways that countered the popular culture’s view of color in the ’60s and early ’70s.

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Roots was really revolutionary. It was the first time that the story of slavery had been told from the point of view of the black people.

Earlier in the event, people were talking about slavery and how, historically, it was taught. It was always referred to as this “economic engine” that allowed America to rise to the level of world power that it subsequently did. But the human cost of that economic institution was never really discussed—certainly not in popular culture. And not in a way as thorough or complete as it was in Roots.

It was revolutionary for its time.

It was a perfect storm. It happened at a time in America where there were basically only three channels—three networks and PBS. And it happened to be an incredibly cold winter, and it was on the heels on the civil rights movement.

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All of the factors lined up perfectly, and it was a common experience. People watched Roots at night over that first airing, eight consecutive nights of television, and then it became the national conversation in the days to come.

It sparked a national obsession with genealogy as well. People really going and finding out about their roots. But of course, that was really made possible more for what I consider to be my melanin-challenged brothers and sisters than it was possible for people who look like me. Not until the Human Genome Project was I really allowed to close that circle and to take a swab from the inside of my mouth, send it away, and get back the information of exactly where on the planet my DNA shows up.

[Roots author] Alex [Haley]’s story was really critical and pivotal. I think there’s a through line that runs from the reconstruction of the South, post–Civil War; the migration of populations from the South to the North and the West (which my family is a part of); the civil rights movement; Roots in the ’70s; and the election of Barack Obama. Remove one of those events, and the rest of history does not go down the way that it has. It is inextricable from that timeline.

So I think it’s a valuable story to retell.

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The full title of Alex’s book, a lot of people forget, is Roots: The Saga of an American Family. So it’s the story of white America as well as black America. It is our common story. It is a version of our common story that gives all of us an entry point emotionally to that cost—the price of slavery.

Bouie: The remake couldn’t be coming at a better time in that regard, because it seems like we are in this period of renewed interest in slavery academically, in pop culture. You have 12 Years a Slave; you even have something like Django Unchained, which inspired its own set of conversations.

How much are you deliberately targeting this new series as a centerpiece for conversation? Not just as an event that’s going to happen, but as a chance for Americans of all colors to come together and really talk about this.

Burton: It’s a large part of why I wanted to get involved, because I saw it as another opportunity to revisit this conversation.

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As we’ve explored here tonight, it’s not an easy conversation for Americans to have. It’s really difficult under the best of circumstances.

I love that one of the things that we seem to be discovering is that there really doesn’t need to be any formal structure. If we create the safe space, then we’re able to have the conversation. Whether that safe space is a museum or a slave cabin or in an auditorium. As long as we create that safe space and respect the humanity of all the participants, we’re going to be OK.

But slavery is the original sin that America has never atoned for and has never recovered from. And until we are really able to roll up our sleeves and talk about those things that are difficult to talk about, we will forever be bound by the ghosts of our past.

Bouie: I’m a little prone to pessimistic thinking. And one thing that gives me pause—I’m looking at the political world right now, and probably the most visible protest movement in the country is Black Lives Matter. But that phrase “black lives matter” has struck a backlash.

Burton: Yes, it has.

Bouie: And in this History of American Slavery project, we’ve encountered, people via emails and comments, who push back against this idea, that this is even something we should bother studying.

I, too, want safe spaces for discussing this. But are there people who we’ll have to drag into these conversations?

Burton: Well, by their own choice, eventually.

I recently came back from my very first trip to Israel. I spent a couple of weeks there and was really, profoundly impacted by that reality. Alex used to say all the time, “History is written by the winners.” When it comes to this conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, in many respects it’s really a conflict over control of the narrative, of the story.

History is a living thing; it is always and continually evolving. Unless you’re willing to come participate in the examination and exploration of that story, unless you’re willing to come and be present in that story, then you will be left out.

Because unless you are a conqueror, you don’t get to control the narrative—until now. Now we live in an information age where everyone has access to the information and the conversation. We are in a brand new period in history, where history is no longer necessarily being controlled by the dominant culture; it is being controlled by the culture at large who wants to know the story of itself.

I think that’s a major sea change in how we are evolving as a people in this nation and around the world.

Bouie: One thing that I have been thinking a lot more about, in doing this project and in my work as a political writer, is the role that changing demographics will play in telling the story of slavery and the story of the United States.

Something you hear quite often about slavery is, “My grandparents came here from Italy in 1900. This has nothing to do with me.” And there’s a response to that. The easy response is, “By virtue of your racial status, you are involved in this story whether you like it or not.”

But what if it’s 2015 and your parents are Asian American immigrants and you have no connection whatsoever—racially or whatever—to the story of slavery. My question is, for this coming cohort of people, what reason do they have to get involved in this story?

Burton: That’s a great question, Jamelle. The reason, for me, is really simple. If you live in this country, then you are a stakeholder in its evolving story. And understanding the underpinnings of the events that have contributed to the America in which we live today, it goes part and parcel with raising your hand and saying the pledge when you are inducted into this tribe and become a citizen.

It’s essential that you get America on its DNA level, literally. What that means not just biologically, but what that means spiritually and psychologically. Slavery is the crucible around which everything in America takes place.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, America would not be America if it were not for that economic engine that brought with it its own price on both sides of the color line.

Bouie: It reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his story last year, “The Case for Reparations”—that you can’t be an “à la carte patriot.”

Burton: Right.

Bouie: It’s a great phrase. If that story weren’t so famous, I would have just stolen it [laughter], but that’s exactly what you’re talking about, right?

Burton: Yeah. In buying into the idea of the experiment that is America, you’re in for a penny, in for a pound.

You cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. You cannot afford to divorce yourself. You have to acknowledge that everything that came before this moment in time happened, and even though I wasn’t there or present for it, I’m a part of the continuum of what this nation represents.

Nobody gets a pass. Nobody.

Bouie: In addition to the Roots remake, what other kind of work are you doing as an educator around slavery?

Burton: I think that the work that I’ve done on Reading Rainbow in the 26 years that I was the host and producer—and having taken over the brand now and reintroducing it to a new generation of emerging readers—is probably the most important work I will ever do.

Because I look at it through this lens: I come from a people for whom it was illegal and punishable by whipping if not worse, just the facility for knowing how to read. Being a literate black person was dangerous. And to have grown up to become a catalyst for literally tens of thousands of Americans to develop an intimate relationship with the written word—as the son of an English teacher who was the first person in her family to graduate from college, I find that a uniquely American phenomenon.

Bouie: I can say for myself as a millennial, I watched Reading Rainbow all the time as a kid, and it really did inspire me to read. And I write for a living now—so there you go!

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Listen to the entire History of Slavery symposium, hosted by Slate and George Washington University.

If you’re a Slate Plus member, you can also find this event audio in your members-only podcast feed.

Other featured speakers:

Access all features of the History of American Slavery at Slate.com/Academy