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Local View: Sharing truth about America's past doesn't have to be divisive, harmful

From the column: "Only through ongoing conversations about history and racism in books, films, and in our classrooms (can we) hope to make things better."

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Dave Whamond/Cagle Cartoons

If only Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis would watch the classic TV series “Roots,” he might gain the insight that his Ivy League education apparently failed, somehow, to convey.

Based on Alex Haley’s novel about an African American family tracing its history from royalty in Gambia, Africa, to enslavement in America, “Roots" was broadcast in January 1977 over eight consecutive nights.

It seemed every person I knew or talked to watched it, a fact later confirmed when Nielsen ratings showed there were 130 million viewers, which was a record for a TV mini-series. It was the blockbuster television event of the year, earning a Golden Globe and nine Emmys.

Why such an explosive impact?

Before "Roots,” most Americans had been raised with an intellectual notion of slavery as an unfortunate economic and political controversy leading to the Civil War, as portrayed in textbooks by white historians.

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But new perspectives were achieved 46 Januaries ago when ABC brought slavery into everyone’s living room, subjecting beloved TV actors like John Amos, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, and Lou Gosset, Jr., to graphic episodes of torture, lynching, and sexual abuse. Adding to the shock value was that the sadistic perpetrators were portrayed by familiar TV favorites like Chuck Connors, Sandy Duncan, and Ralph Waite, the gentle and empathic patriarch of “The Waltons.”

Though "Roots" was categorized as a work of fiction, the accuracy of rape and other acts of violence committed by slave masters had been well established by scholars and historians.

I was 28 years old at the time and in my fifth year of teaching writing and literature at Chicago Vocational High School, which had 99% African American enrollment.

Walking into my classroom and facing my students after the first episodes, I felt the acute discomfort from which DeSantis seems to want to shield white people. It’s the apparent reason his Tallahassee legislature rubber-stamped his anti-woke legislation banning books and teachings that expose America’s history of racism. His rationale was that white students should not be subjected to literature or lessons that are “divisive” or make them feel guilty or uncomfortable.

But what I felt from watching "Roots" had less to do with discomfort, shame, or guilt than with horror and regret over our country’s legal enslavement of indigenous Africans in order to maintain America’s robust economy. Our ancestors bought and sold (kidnapped) and treated millions of human beings like cattle, purely for profit.

Nor was “divisiveness” a consequence of the TV series. DeSantis maintains that teaching the truth about racism only fosters “hate” in schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. A week’s exposure to slavery’s horrors did not make my students hate me. A collaborative learning climate had already been established in September, since I started each year teaching Richard Wright’s “American Hunger,” based on the true story of the dehumanization of Black maintenance workers at a Chicago research hospital.

And contrary to what DeSantis may believe (or pretend to believe to curry favor with the Trumpian base), African American students are intelligent enough to distinguish between despicable personages in history and their current teachers, classmates, and friends.

What is divisive and harmful, however, is when DeSantis and others censor or deny the truth about America’s past. For it’s only through ongoing conversations about history and racism in books, films, and in our classrooms that we can hope to make things better — or, at the very least, prevent destructive reoccurrence.

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The importance of history, particularly those portions painful and regrettable, is an absolute truth likely valued by every Harvard professor DeSantis sat before. Which is why I have a sneaking suspicion that he doesn’t wholly believe in his outrageous claims and initiatives but only espouses them to curry favor with a vital segment of Republican voters, as he contemplates a run for the presidency.

His Machievellian strategy is disturbingly reminiscent of that of another recent president whose reign was a disaster for the United States. Let’s hope that segment of history doesn’t repeat itself either.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is an author and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@ yahoo.com.

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David McGrath

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