Roots : Overcoming mental slavery

Student name : SeungJe Cho




I found this TV series while searching about transatlantic slave trade on a Korean portal site. There was a blog posting by a Korean about the drama, which was mentioning about the brutality of the process of transporting slaves to the New World and separating them from their families. I was a bit surprised to find out that the series was made in the 1970’s and that it was the most-watched TV show in US history by then. Little did I expect that such a many people could love a story that happened more than two centuries ago. However, after watching it at the Suzzalo library, I could find something special that everyone, regardless of their race or age, can relate to in this series. The title of the series “roots” itself is so meaningful and casts a universal question to anyone; what do roots mean for a man and why do people often care so much about their roots?

Roots is based on a famous novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976. “Haley spent his early years living in Henning, Tennessee, from where the inspiration for Roots began. During the years Haley’s family lived with his maternal grandparents in Henning, his grandmother often told him about their family’s history in America and Africa.” (Browne 2013) He, as a professional writer, embarked on an extensive research and finally published the novel. After the release, the book enjoyed an immediate success and inspired ABC to adapt the book into a TV series.

I was especially drawn to this drama because it reminded me of how Japan colonized Korea and forced some Koreans to leave their land, be uprooted, and to adopt different lifestyles. Some were enslaved and forced the dirtiest and the most dangerous works just like black slaves and others were forced to live in other countries like Russia or the US. What I became particularly interested while watching the series was that while black slaves including the main character, Kunta Kinte were coerced to abandon their own culture by their masters and the system of slavery, they tried to maintain their own way of life, or at least compromise between the different lifestyle and the original lifestyle at the risk of their lives. This tension between two different lifestyles can also be seen throughout the lives of Koreans who emigrated to Japan, Russian China and so on. Stalin of Soviet Union claimed to support assimilation of all minority groups into the Russian society and denied any separation from the one and only one Russia and the situations were quite the same in the other countries as well. However, many Koreans in these countries persisted in keeping Korean culture. It is true that most Russian Korean don’t know how to speak Korean, however it is also true that they have developed their own literature, music, and food. I could see that this tenacious effort of trying to hold onto their own culture and unique identity was present in these two uprooted peoples; black slaves and Koreans who emigrated during the Japanese colonialism. The TV series resonates with me probably because of this connection I made and I thought this connection deserves more thinking and discussion.

Apart from my personal feelings about the drama, it conveys a vivid illustration of Atlantic slave trade and slave experiences during the Middle Passage. It displays that slave trade was a lucrative business for Europeans and therefore how Africans were treated as goods along their journey to the New World. For example, a slave trader explains to the Captain Davies that thumbscrews are an effective tool for controlling black slaves on board while not damaging their value as goods. Also, the conditions of the voyage were so inadequate that people kept dying. “These slavers carried 1.6 slaves per register ship’s ton, with 5 to 7 square feet of deck area given to each slave. Most of the ships were outfitted with partial decks and platforms in the space below the main deck and above the second or ’tween deck.” (Klein, 2010) The drama depicts how Africans endure seasickness, dehydration and digestive problems in this tightly-packed accommodations.

The violence of the whole process was not confined to the physical aspect. Though less apparent, more long-lasting and destructive results were on the spiritual and cultural sides. Africans were forced to give up their religions, languages and cultures and eventually and most importantly their spirituality and will. For instance, in the drama, the main character Kunta Kinte gets whipped until he says his name is Toby, not Kunta Kinte, the proud and precious name granted by his father. Under the strange and harsh conditions of slave trade, black people experienced “mental slavery”.  “Mental slavery is a state of mind where discerning between liberation and enslavement is twisted. Where one becomes trapped by misinformation about self and the world. So someone can claim to be conscious, they can read all the books they can recycle the popular rhetoric but still be unable to balance real-world priorities and self-interest” (Shahadah, 2013) I find this term appropriate to describe the spiritual and cultural devastation of black slaves during the transatlantic slave trade.

Coming back to the discussion of roots, I would like to argue that roots of a person mean his identity. Furthermore, keeping track of one’s roots, in other words, trying to maintain connections with ancestry is very important because by doing so, a person can ensure autonomy over his/her life. In both Korean and African diasporas, there were persistent efforts to maintain their own culture and to remember who they are. By holding onto their religions, forming kinship ties, creating their own music, black people in this country were fighting back mental slavery and expressing their free will as intact human being.


Work cited


Browne, M. (2013, April 17). Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, inspired influential TV series By Murphy Browne April 17 2013.


Klein, H. (2010). The Atlantic slave trade (2nd ed., New ed., New approaches to the Americas). Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.


Shahadah, A. (2013, February 18). MENTAL SLAVERY The Most Insidious Legacy of Slavery. Retrieved from


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