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Heidi W. Durrow Headshot

My Father's Silence, a Kind of Grace

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I was about 10-years-old when I tried to read Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Roots.

I had read my first "big books" in fourth grade and I knew a 900-page novel would be a real challenge.

But it wasn't just the size of the book that got me interested: it was that it seemed forbidden.

A couple of years earlier my father hadn't let me watch the TV mini-series with him.

"It's not for kids," he said simply and sent me to my room. I didn't understand.

All I knew was that Roots had something to do with slavery. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and it all happened a long time ago. It seems, well, childish to say, but how could the story of Roots be bad for kids to watch like a horror film was?

My dad stopped me from watching the TV mini-series, but he wasn't going to stop me from reading the book.

I read the first pages with true delight: I was going to learn what he didn't want me to know.

But my curiosity quickly became frustration. The vocabulary proved challenging and it was difficult to remember what the foreign words meant.

Roots was nothing like the other chapter books I had loved like: Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, and Julie Andrews' The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. The fantastical worlds of those books seemed to have more to do with me than Kunta Kinte's African village of Jaffure.

After about 100 pages, I gave up. I was disappointed that I hadn't even discovered what my dad thought he was protecting me from.

I recently had the chance to finally read the book, and I'm glad now I chose to abandon the book when I was a kid.

Roots -- published in 1976 -- was a ground-breaking book that helped cure the country's collective amnesia about the brutality of American slavery.

I don't know how well my fifth-grade self would have dealt with the searing descriptions of Kunta Kinte's capture and his humiliating and degrading Middle Passage voyage. Even as an adult, I could barely read through the chapters describing Kizzy's brutal and repeated rapes.

Yes, Haley's story offers us a chance to see the humanity, dignity and wellspring of resistance in the Africans who were enslaved. But I'm certain that had I finished the book as a kid, it wouldn't be the connection to past ancestors that stuck with me, but the horror of their everyday lives.

I guess I should mention here that my father was black. He never talked about his childhood growing up in the segregated South. I think he longed for amnesia from the pain of his past, and lamented he didn't have the power to bestow that amnesia on me.

But in a way he could. I was a kid. I was his kid. And with his silence, he could let me be a kid a little bit longer.