I can’t watch Alex Haley’s TV miniseries without going back in time to my childhood. I loved it, because it said something I rarely heard growing up. It said family was important. Not in the family that is rich or influential way, but in the knowing who you are, where you came from as a clue to where you are going, way. Nature versus nurture is a surprisingly old debate.
Sadly the idea of viewing people as a “blank slate” goes back to 1690 and was used to justify the taking away of children from their parents, to train them to be servants and slaves. Genetics was most unpopular when purist behaviorism dominated from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. It kept my grandfather (a geneticist) from continuing his studies with dogs in the 1930’s. It encouraged psychologists and psychiatrists to recommend institutionalizing children with autism and schizophrenia, since it blamed mothers as the cause. And it allowed child protective services to take children away suddenly and permanently.
Then in 1976 Alex Haley wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family and in 1977 it aired on television. In 1979 the sequel Roots: The Next Generations finished the amazing story.
It changed so many things. Suddenly, everybody was interested in genealogy.
Was it a coincidence that the Indian Child Welfare Act that stopped Native American children from being taken from their tribes became law in 1978? Prior to the act 25 to 35 percent of Native American children were removed and thus grew up absent their culture.
As Louis La Rose (Winnebago tribe of Nebraska) testified:
“I think the cruelest trick that the white man has ever done to Indian children is to take them into adoption court, erase all of their records and send them off to some nebulous family … residing in a white community and he goes back to the reservation and he has absolutely no idea who his relatives are, and they effectively make him a non-person and I think … they destroy him.”
In my own experiences with protective services, I was very aware every time I was visited how lucky I was that it is now seen as in the child’s best interest to remain in their family and culture.
Thank you Alex Haley and your ancestor Kunta Kinte. Though it took you 200 years to go home, you have led many more to remember that nature and roots matter. Knowing our parents, grandparents and beyond helps us to find our true paths. Would I have managed to keep my family together, would I still have my son, with out your help? I hate to imagine.