Leonard Pitts: History not obliged to make you feel good
Dear Snoop Dogg:
You could have been honest about it. If you had, I’d still think you wrong as two left shoes, but at least I could give you points for guts.
As it is, I can only shake my head in appalled wonder at your entirely gutless Instagram attack on the remake of “Roots” that aired last week on the A&E Networks. You called for a boycott, saying, “They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. … When you all going to make a (expletive) series about the success that black folks is having? The only success we have is ‘Roots’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’?”
Thus spoke the star of “Soul Plane.” And it raises a simple question: Negro, are you out your d—n mind?
Allow me to share some Wikipedia research. No, that’s not a definitive source, but the results were still persuasive. Know how many productions — TV, feature film and documentaries — about the 246-year epoch of American slavery I was able to identify? Forty-six. That’s since “Birth of a Nation” in 1915. By contrast, I found 136 American productions about the 12 years of the Holocaust, which ended in 1945.
Somehow, I have never once heard the complaint that there are too many Holocaust movies being made. And it is simply inconceivable to me that a Jewish entertainer would say something so asinine.
Yet, here you are complaining about too many slave films. Not that you’re alone. Every time some film or TV program dares recount this grim history, I hear some white people argue that telling these stories is “divisive” and even “racist.” “’Roots’ is depressing,” writes columnist Cal Thomas.
Few people ever really tell the truth, ever admit the real reason they say such things. People like Thomas do not admit they fear feeling blame and guilt at seeing what ancestors did. People like you do not admit they fear feeling shame and fury at seeing what ancestors suffered.
I learned long ago that white guilt is about the most useless emotion there is. Anything that makes you feel guilty, you will eventually resent and react against. So I don’t need or want white people’s guilt. I’d be happy to make do with their acknowledgment of historical and present-day reality and maybe a little simple human compassion.
As to black folks’ shame and fury, well, I can’t imagine it’s a barrel of laughs for a Jew to watch “Schindler’s List,” either. Admittedly, a Jew doesn’t walk out of that movie and rub shoulders with the heirs of Nazi Germany while you and I do live side by side with the heirs of antebellum (and Jim Crow) America. In that sense, at least, ours is the heavier emotional burden.
Still, I think Jews, by and large, understand something that escapes people like you and Thomas: History is not obliged to make you feel good. Its job is to tell you who you are and where you came from so you can pass that down to your children, and maybe anchor them in identity — and purpose — beyond that imparted to them by the video channel.
I suspect Jews also understand that if you don’t tell your story, others will, and in the end, you won’t recognize it. A docent on a Southern plantation recently wrote of white visitors asking if slaves got paid for their work, signed up for jobs they wanted, or “appreciated” how well cared-for they were. It’s safe to say none of them were ever “depressed” by “Roots.”
It’s a funny thing, Snoop. Back when rappers like you were being condemned for your profane tales of street life, you defended yourselves by arguing that you were simply reporting the truth of urban America. This was real, you said, and you challenged critics to deal with it.
So it’s ironic, a quarter-century later, to find you whining about “Roots.” You want real? Brother, this is as real as it gets. And it turns out the one who can’t deal with it is you.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.