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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Roots Matter in the Diversities of Life, Culture and the Arts

Roots Matter in the Diversities of Life, Culture and the Arts

People Like to Be Rooted - Bill
In an age of ever-extended families and diverse communities, peoples’ need to know where they come from and belong to is reflected in their arts.

From Genesis in the Bible on the one hand and Darwin’s Origins of Species on the other, to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes (Go to War) (1984), everything from religions, traditions, lifestyles and world-views are determined by people’s roots.

Heritage-search companies offer programs to research family trees for probate, adoption or interest in genealogy. Military records from the first world war (1914-1918) are now accessible on line. Interest is high in getting a picture of how a great grandparent lived and died.

In 1977 historical epic Roots aired. It‘s an early example of a TV mini-series, based on the studies author Alex Haley made into his own family history. The saga followed the tribulations of young warrior Kunta Kinte, kidnapped by slave traders in the late 1700s from Africa, taken to America, sold into slavery and then of his descendants to the present.

It inspired sequels, Roots: The Next Generations (1979), Roots: The Gift (1988) and Queen (1993). More importantly, it created interest in family lines and blood ties and shed fresh light on the historical abomination of human slavery.

People’s Roots Inspire the Arts

British writer Arnold Wesker wrote the ‘self discovery’ play Roots (1959) about a rural Norfolk family coming to terms with their daughter going to London and falling for a Londoner, with his city/modern views. The family prepared to meet him, but he didn’t show. He sent a letter saying it wouldn’t work, the mix of cultures. It made Wesker famous, became part of a dramatic trilogy, and demonstrated how family roots both feed and bind people.

Roots was a 1996 album by Brazilian metal band, Sepultura. The Lamont Dozier song Going Back to My Roots (1981): ‘Zippin’ up my boots/Going back to my roots, yeh/To the place of my birth/Back down to earth’ was performed by Odyssey in the 1980s. There are at least seven versions, including disco mixes, some recorded by the man himself.

The same title named a greatest hits album by Bob Marley and The Wailers (1998). A slight title variant, same theme, Back to My Roots, was a reggae hit for Lucky Dube. A different set of lyrics were created by Steel Pulse, another reggae piece. Roots inspired computer games and RuPaul and Bobby Womack both recorded songs/albums with the title.

Roots in Literature

To take one nation, Sharon Marshall on South African Info (1999) said: ‘The dawn of the new South Africa spawned a quest for ancestral roots and the “real” story of how the Rainbow Nation got here in an increasingly wide range of literature’. She picked out a selection of (2004) books written in search of what President Thabo Mbeki called ‘the holistic truth’, a yearning for understanding roots.

Islands by Dan Sleigh (2004) dipped into the racial inter-mix that began in colonization; insight into 19th century mixed marriages came in The Caliban Shore by Stephen Taylor; using archives, Theresa Benade created romance and heartbreak, touching on mixed-rooted South Africans in Kites of Good Fortune; Echoes of Slavery by Jackie Loos published for the UN Year Against Slavery documented intimate accounts of slaves; and Every Step of the Way by Michael Morris analyzed the factors that preceded and created apartheid, bringing history alive for readers tracing ancestral and national roots.

According to Karmel Melamed on Iranian American Jews (2007): “It took Iranian Jews in the US nearly three decades in exile from the land they called home for roughly 2,700 years to appreciate their rich history and culture preserved in their Judeo-Persian literature….. the Persian language written in Hebrew characters by Jews living in the countries modernly known as Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and some parts of India during the last 1,000 years’.

There is a Sikh Roots website; there are sites devoted to American literature and people and sub-cultures’ roots, including one, for instance, on ‘swampland/southern roots’. The indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, North America, Africa, Asia, Europe find, interpret and preserve roots of their language, traditions, racial hallmarks to give them identity.

Roots As Movie Theme

Movies illustrate this desire. On one rural, parochial, small-town level, there was Dogville (2003), a Brechtian epic about a woman running from the mafia agreeing to work for everyone in an isolated, claustrophobic community as the price for being ‘accepted’ into their midst.

On similar lines, Straw Dogs (1971), saw an American and his English wife facing hostility evolving into violence, because he was from a culture and background that was alien to the community, he was not rooted there, so was fair game. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) was about a peace-loving remote tribe enslaved by bloodthirsty dictators. Avatar (2009) was built around the total, tragic clash of cultures with diametrically opposed roots and belief systems.

Focussing on the family unit, The Addams Family (1991) and both Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004) demonstrated how family traditions and shared history make it difficult to move on. This is a common feature of relationships involving people from different backgrounds, cultures, communities, generations; in short, virtually everybody. That these films were comedies, doesn’t alter the fact that they were about roots, old and new.

Semi-closed religious communities, such as the Amish, fascinate movie directors. Witness (2005) showed the outside world penetrating the time-honoured values (roots) of a community leading to conflict, the stuff of films, of course. Some saw Clash of the Titans (1981, 2010) as anti-Islamic; Men In Black (1997) was viewed by others as propaganda against inter-racial unions.

Aliens, particularly the invading, hostile, clash-of-civilizations variety included: interplanetary conflict in This Island Earth (1955); War of the Worlds (1953); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); V (1983); Independence Day (1996); Mars Attacks! (1996) and Signs (2002). The list is in reality very long.

Whenever cultures conflict, there is the tension demanded of drama and writing. Everybody is born into some place, tribe, community, culture and history. Everybody is the product of mixed genes. People like to know their roots, however tangled.

First published on Suite 101, 23 November 2010.

Photo: People Like to Be Rooted – Bill

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