This Memorial Day, the remake of the classic 1977 miniseries, Roots[i], will begin airing on the History Channel. While Roots is not a movie in the traditional sense, I still remember the impact the original had on me – a white, middle-class American who went to high school with less than ten African Americans in a school of over a thousand. Roots showed me how cruel human beings can be to each other solely based on being unfortunate enough to be born with a different skin color in a time and place where slavery was common. But let’s save discrimination for another movie.
The title of this post is a quote from “Chicken” George at the end of the original Roots miniseries. George and his family pull their wagons into a beautiful Tennessee field and George announces, “We is free!” But was Chicken George really free? Are any of us? I don’t mean the political freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. I mean being totally free in the thoughts we harbor, the actions we take, or even in the persons we are or hope to become.
I was raised in a religion where agency, or freedom of choice, is an overarching principle. Whether you are good or bad or something in between is often seen to be purely based on the conscious decisions you make. You choose to be good and receive the promised blessings, or you choose to be bad, and end up in hell. I personally believe it is not quite that simple. No decision we make is made in a vacuum. Decisions are influenced by many factors, most of which are beyond our control.
One of the most gut-wrenching movies I have seen lately is a foreign language film entitled Run Boy Run.[ii] It is the true story of an eight-year old Jewish boy in Poland during World War II. To protect him from being killed by Nazi soldiers, his dad sends him into the forest where he must learn to survive on his own, with the occasional help from a few sympathetic locals. Throughout the movie I was amazed at the lengths to which the Nazi soldiers would go in attempting to capture or kill this little boy, as if he somehow would make a difference in the outcome of the war. But, of course, the soldiers’ mission was not a military one as much as a social one, with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people. Here is the trailer from the movie:
That same week I saw another foreign language film entitled Labyrinth of Lies[iii], which tells the true story of Johann Radmann, a German prosecutor, who, beginning in 1958, seeks to bring to justice the German SS soldiers who committed grievous atrocities against the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Radmann and his team focused on those who committed such atrocities on their own volition, and not those who were just “following orders.” Radmann and others were successful in convicting hundreds of SS soldiers, but a postscript at the end of the movie reveals that none of those convicted ever showed any real remorse for what they had done. Here is a clip from that movie where Radmann and part of his team learn for the first time the extent of what happened at Auschwitz:
How could a group of soldiers have such hate against others, including children, to the point they would decide to commit such terrible acts against them? My father-in-law, who happened to have six children, liked to quote John Wilmont, who said, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” I have five kids and my wife and I learned, almost from the day our children were born, they came to us preprogramed. All were raised in the same basic environment, with the same family rules, teachings and opportunities, but each came with their own unique personalities, qualities and abilities. As we have learned in connection with a lot of things about life, genetics (our natures) are major keys in how we will turn out. But how we are raised (or how we are nurtured) also plays a major role in the person we become. Our religious and political views, our likes and dislikes, our professions, how we treat others, and even how we speak and act, are more often than not the result of the influence of our ancestors, parents, siblings, friends and associates. When you combine our natures with how we were nurtured, by the time we reach adulthood, can we really say that we are entirely free to choose who we are?
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying a person shouldn’t be held accountable for his or her actions. All of us should be. But perhaps how we treat people who do things that hurt others or themselves should be less about mere punishment and retribution and more about understanding, compassion, rehabilitation and prevention of similar acts in the future. Maybe that prevention should be centered in education and reprogramming. As we learn more and more about how our brains work – how our brains are constantly being rewired – I believe each of us can learn to better understand others and ourselves, and help others to change, along with ourselves. And maybe along the way we will learn a little more patience and understanding of those who aren’t doing anything wrong, but who choose to do things differently than we would.
I am a big believer in the power of heritage – not just genetics, but understanding our own roots, and how our ancestors, although imperfect like us, accomplished great things. They might be our own direct ancestors or just other members of the human race. But in the final analysis, we are all one family, regardless of race, culture, sexual orientation, or economic standing. Alex Haley became a better person by learning of his roots. Here is a clip from the original Roots where Chicken George and his son, Tom, reflect on their heritage:
I hope all of us will learn from the character of our ancestors, share those heritage stories with our own children and grandchildren, and encourage them to do the same.
Production: David L. Wolper Productions; Warner Bros. Television
Directed: Marvin Chomsky; John Erman; David Greene; and Gilbert Moses
Screenplay: William Blinn; M. Charles Cohen; Alex Haley; Ernest Kinoy; and James Lee
Starring: LaVar Burton; John Amos; Leslie Uggams; Ben Vereen (and many others)
[ii] Run Boy Run
Production: Bittersuess Pictures
Directed: Pepe Danquart
Screenplay: Heinrich Hadding, Pepe Danquart
Starring: Andrzej Tkacz; Kamil Tkacz; Elisabeth Duda
[iii] Labyrinth of Lies
Production: Claussen Wőbke Putz Filmproduction; Naked Eye Filmproduction
Directed: Giulio Ricciarelli
Screenplay: Elisabeth Bartel; Giulio Ricciarelli
Starring: Andre Szymanski; Alexander Fehling; Frederike Becht