A view from the hold
—and meeting Barry Jenkins' gaze
Sometime last summer, I stumbled across Harold Courlander’s 1967 book The African. It’s a slow, careful accounting of a young boy snatched from his homeland off the coast of West Africa and transported across the Atlantic, first to French-controlled St. Lucia and then to Georgia. Alex Haley later used Courlander’s story to develop his book, Roots.
In the hold of the ship that carries him west, and in conversations with other captives in the open air of the deck, Hwesuhunu slowly recognizes his abridged childhood, the betrayals that have destroyed his home, and the unmooring of his culture and his gods.
He looked out over the sea, searching hungrily for the sight of land, but there was no land, only the endlessness of the water. The greatness of the ocean came upon him, and with it he felt sharply what he had only understood before. He said: ‘I think I shall never go back to Dahomey.’
Dokumi said, ‘Perhaps no one here will return. Yet each day we shall have a message from our country. The sun rises in Africa.’
I watched the 1977 Roots series the following spring. I’d read the book in high school and so knew enough about it not to be surprised by the plot, but I’d never seen the television event, and lots about it moved me.
For the first time, I saw the story that transformed John Amos into the adult Kunta Kinte, and turned Madge Sinclair into his wife Bell—both of them ancestral avatars for the four generations above me on my family tree.Thousands of Black people in the US and across the western hemisphere followed Kunta Kinte’s journey and the journeys of his children and grandchildren; thousands of families were inspired to ask new questions about their elders, and their elders, and theirs.
I followed along too, four decades after that first Roots audiences, mapping one side of my family past the threshold of emancipation to the mid-1840s. While I ran those searches and clicked through archival records, I also watched the first release of Barry Jenkins’ miniseries, The Underground Railroad.
It’s a sweeping, sometimes surreal portrait: people seeking sanctuary from relentless hunting; towns, states, an entire country riven by racism and jealousy and fear; dream sequences, counter-realities, and performances within performances; and the wickedest, most compelling young actor I’ve ever seen.
As Jenkins and The Underground Railroad crew filmed those stories, they also created a wordless tribute to the unnamed ancestors they all carry with them.
It’s called The Gaze. Look:
Early in production, there was a moment where I looked across the set and what I saw settled me: our background actors, in working with folks like Ms. Wendy and Mr. and Mrs. King – styled and dressed and made up by Caroline, by Lawrence and Donnie – I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on the The Underground Railroad and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of... them.
There’s a power and a palpable gentleness here, and that blend is just right.
Writers and researchers from across the Black diaspora are reflecting on the influence of Dionne Brand’s book A Map To The Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Bookshop | The Beast). Panels, readings, reflections, all this week.
Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley laid out the existential stakes at this year’s United Nations climate conference: “The pandemic has taught us that national solutions to global problems do not work... If our existence is to mean anything, then we must act in the interest of all of our people who are dependent on us. And if we don’t, we will allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.” Listen (or read).
adrienne maree brown’s latest poem invokes both wonder at all that is nature and the hope “to never be busy again.” Witness.
See you next time,
Amos and Sinclair later appeared together in the classic comedy Coming to America. Only as an adult have I realized how many Roots allusions and cinematic side-winks the writers of Coming to America and Trading Places gave us.