With the discovery of a highly offensive and racist photo associated with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, the country has been forced to grapple with yet another instance of blatant racism. According to CNN, the same Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook is filled with numerous other racist images believed to be unassociated with Northam, a fact speaking to something much larger than the individual Governor currently debating whether or not to resign. As inconceivable as it may be to some in the year 2019, racism is still very much a part of our collective societal framework.
Coincidentally, my family and I recently worked our way through the television series Roots,a production based upon a book by Alex Haley. Originally aired in the 1970’s, it immediately captivated the nation, ranking as one of the most watched broadcasts in the history of this country. Perhaps this story is one to which we should return, in order to inform the debate currently raging in Virginia, and by extension, the nation as a whole.
The story begins with Kunta Kinte (played by LeVar Burton), a native of Gambia born around 1750. He is captured as a teenager by slave traders, taken to America and sold into slavery. Kinte marries and has a daughter, and the show follows Kinte’s family line. Eventually, the Civil War brings freedom; and, more than a hundred years later, his relatives pay homage to his memory by recounting the story of their African past.
“You can't understand many of the most destructive issues or policies in our country without understanding our history of racial inequality,” Bryan Stevenson said in an interview earlier this year. Stevenson, a Harvard Law graduate, is the founder and executive director of theEqual Justice Initiative. In his memoir, Just Mercy, he writes of encountering what he describes as institutional racism as a young lawyer in the deep South circa 1983. He argues that racial discrimination still plagues our nation, and in some ways, is baked into our legal system (especially in the Deep South).
Leading one to wonder, is racial reconciliation even possible?
The bonus features included with Roots contains a moving scene. The entire Murray family (both Caucasian and African-American members) gathered together for a reunion in Tennessee. Nearby is a cemetery, filled with ancestors long since gone. They eat and drink, enjoy each other’s company. No animosity can be detected, no sense of hate. They make their way into a church, and Alex Haley takes a moment to address the group.
“Somehow, our coming together now…symbolizes things that are true across this nation,” he says. He carries on, illustrating how so many Americans have forefathers who arrived in this country from another. “I see us sitting here and I think of different kind of ships, immigrant ships from Europe, slave ships from Africa. And it seems to me that now that we can gather…we sort of symbolize the best potential of this country,” he declares. The ability to join together, regardless of race or creed, past pain or sorrow. A scene exemplifying the power of restoration, and the hope and promise of America, embodied by her people.
As we once again grapple with the bias and prejudice still painfully prevalent in our society, I wonder if Haley’s account offers us a way forward. In helping us see each other in a whole new way.
“By now, the response worldwide has made Rootsmore than just a book or a television event, because people’s everywhere have been moved to search after their own roots,” Haley once said. “And in making us realize how alike we all are, Rootsreally may have become a bridge to a greater understanding between all peoples…”
Perhaps we can combat racism and attitudes of hate by walking across this “bridge.” By making every effort to celebrate cultural differences, instead of choosing to traffic in the use of stereotypes and generalizations. By treating everyone we encounter with both dignity and respect, regardless of race or ethnicity. By working to eradicate all pockets of racism present throughout all facets of our society, even among our leaders.
Undoubtedly, Ralph Northam should resign. However, whether or not he chooses to do so, we can all do more to combat racism wherever and whenever it is encountered.