It was 1977 and a provocative new mini-series was debuting on television. Alex Haley's "Roots" would change the way we would look at, think about, and talk about slavery and race. The day after the first episode, in my small Kansas town, something changed in our unselfconscious way of life. An unsettling something --- a kind of unrest that felt like fiber glass dust began to settle upon us, and with it came a raw and edgy kind of anger, fear, and mistrust.
Over the ensuing nights, watching plantation rapes, brutality, and the disintegration of black families (right from the comfort of our own living rooms), the unrest soon became as heavy as the chains and shackles we saw. It began to feel as though puncture wounds were being inflicted on our hearts and minds and, night after night, small droplets of blood were beginning to surface until one day we looked down and saw that there was a large seeping stain, spreading over our chest like a red bulls eye.
I remember walking down the hall at school and hearing a couple of white boys laughing and joking about the naked slave girls they'd seen on the television the night before, and I was 15 years old and furious. How was it that bare-breasted black women could be shown in prime time without much controversy? And then to have red-necked teenagers snickering and making lewd comments was just too much. Anger, frustration, and tension was the natural outcome of what we perceived as disrespect, ignorance and insolence. And when righteousness, decency, and justice fail to do what they are supposed to do, a thin blue line forms in society, sides are chosen, and sooner or later Ferguson becomes a watchword. And almost always, someone or something --- innocence, trust, honor, friendships --- dies.
In my small town, over the eight days that Roots aired, there were a few fights, nasty notes left on desks and lockers, and quite a bit of name calling. For some it was a shock to be called a "nigger" for the first time, while for others, like myself, it only confirmed what I believed to be true. Our town police force was called in to keep the peace and they did so by becoming a presence in the parking area where the black kids parked their cars. Every so often when we'd congregate in groups, an officer would place his hand on his hip, his fingers touching his revolver and he would yell, "Y'all need to git on now! Git on home or wherever it is y'all go!" And mumbling or cursing under our breaths, we moved slowly to our cars or began our walk home.
After the miniseries ended, that "dust" remained and still does after all of these years. Hurtful words and actions are deeply embedded in those irritating little flecks of evil and they continue to float across the tracks and back again and then on to other towns and cities, landing whenever and wherever they so desire.