Forty-five years ago this month, the televised miniseries “Roots,” based on a book written by Alex Haley, uncle of Kansas State Senator David Haley (D-Kansas City), premiered. The series reintroduced this nation to a tortured history it has tried to forget.
Few people in America have a more interesting vantage point on critical race theory — or just race — than Sen. Haley and his family.
“Roots,” which depicted the Haley family’s direct lineage, remains one of the most-watched programs in network broadcast history. It traces the journey of the family’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, from capture in West Africa, his harsh transportation across the Atlantic and sale into a lifetime of American slavery. It beamed countless barbarities experienced by people whose lives were so lived because of their race into millions of homes.
Sen. Haley said through this lens, he has viewed the sometimes hysterical debate about critical race theory as a marketing torch igniting fears in a particular voting bloc. Purveyors of these tactics know they work. Americans rarely disappoint racial fear peddlers.
Sen. Haley said he chooses to remember, however, how our country watched his family history unfold over those eight nights. Perhaps for the first time in 100 years, Americans began wrestling with the hidden-away horrors of dividing a society by color. This wasn’t simply his family’s story, but our national story: America’s true history.
“We need this unifying spirit now,” Sen. Haley said. “We’re losing our sense of empathy as a nation.”
Deep learning often happens in discomfort. We heal only after fully acknowledging our history and addressing its legacy. But no one supporting this crusade against honesty in education will address just how our students will be able to study Kansas history.
Sen. Haley had important questions about the classroom repercussions of dodging discussions about America’s racial past. He wondered, for example, if prohibitions against racial content would mean teachers couldn’t discuss slavery.
“Without slavery, what does Kansas as a ‘free state’ even mean?” Sen. Haley asked.
He asked if students could read “The Learning Tree,” Gordon Parks’ epic work, and discuss the violent racism that drove him from Fort Scott and kept him estranged from the state until late in his life?
And what about literary icon Langston Hughes, who lived in Lawrence? What does the Harlem Renaissance or “New Negro Movement” mean without racial discussions?
Could students discuss John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas?” You know, the guy immortalized in a painting inside the Capitol. The one with the rifle and the Bible and the blazing eyes. Are we supposed to just walk by the mural and pretend we don’t know who he is?
Sen. Haley also questioned whether the people concerned about CRT would cancel recently departed Bob Dole.
“Sen. Dole knew race mattered,” Sen. Haley said. “We know this because of his support for Section 8(A) provisions, which set aside a portion of federal contracts for minority (and later women) business development.”
“I also have to wonder if ‘Roots’ itself could even be taught or viewed in classrooms,” he said.
“Roots” delivered transformative content into American homes. It transformed Sen. Haley, too. He’d just entered Morehouse College, and in a week, he “went from just another freshman to Kunta Kinte’s descendant.”
It also connected past to present. Black Americans endured and continue to endure disparities in median income, household wealth, life expectancy and more.
White Americans saw this, too, but they winced and looked away.
Some now propose the historical version of don’t ask, don’t tell, regarding our racial past. It’s a tacit admission that what Black Americans have suffered is so objectionable, it would demand immediate justice. The truth is so resounding, it can never be uttered.
Given this history, it is understandable, Sen. Haley said, that “Roots” stood a whisker away from the title “Before This Anger.” His Uncle Alex, however, wanted “Roots” to speak to the collective pride of Black Americans at how they’d survived such barbarity.
This fear of any racial discussion feels craven. Americans are supposed to face and overcome challenges, not hide from them. But that is what opponents of CRT propose. Deflect Native American history, hide Asian contributions and ignore our Latinx past. Deny any and all antecedent truths.
Many races and cultures helped build this great country.
Sen. Haley rightly asks if we want to send our students into an incredibly diverse society unaware of much of America’s history. Aspects of our history are ugly, but our beauty emerges from struggles against such ugliness.
We must choose.
We can continue filtering the past, picking and choosing through the grimy lens of incomplete history, or live up to America’s greatest aspirations of honesty and truth.
Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, and a contributor to the Kansas Reflector, which first published this essay.