Roots and the Revolution to End Slavery In America

07/06/2011 01:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

Her heart drops and her stomach turns. It's 2 a.m. and she's awoken again by the sound of barking dogs in the gated California suburb. The squeal of the garage door grinds at her with every turn as she cradles herself in bed and prays for the miracle that will carry her back to Colombia into her mother's arms. Worst of all is the dull bump of those familiar footsteps creeping up the stairs. Her breathing stops and, in a drowning panic, her mind removes her from that tiny room, out beyond the yard into the distant night where she screams and screams for help. Then, quickly, she wipes the tears from below her eyes so they won't stream across the hand that covers her mouth - that makes him angry -- as he takes her from behind without a word of comfort or of anger. The house is silent, as are the dogs and the neighbors and the distant night.

Shortly afterward, Alma rises before dawn, like always, to prepare the children for school and to erase another day's long list of chores. This wasn't the job she had been promised. This is modern-day slavery.

You'd be surprised what a provocative word slavery can be. Some people take offense when you use the word in a contemporary context because they feel it's an insult to their intelligence knowing full well that the real slavery was abolished long ago. Others become confused when they're unable to connect their dated perception of slavery to any possible modern scenario. Still others are resigned: This is a tragedy! Those poor people! But, really, there's not much we can do. Crime happens, we pay taxes and we trust the police will do their best. These are anomalies like serial killers or mothers that murder their children. This can't be prevented can it?

The truth is: slavery exists all around us. It's a thriving illegal industry as lucrative now as it's ever been because the motivation for slavery was never abolished. Whether there are one million, one thousand or one hundred humans held in bondage, we're living in a country where slavery is being allowed to exist. We have a choice about how we will proceed -- we can decide to look the other way (Newton's Law of Inertia suggests that, since we're doing nothing now, it's likely we'll continue to do nothing) or we can declare that the rights of the person next to us do matter and, collectively, end the exploitation of our neighbors for sex and for labor whomever they may be.

Ok, it's easy enough to call for the end of slavery, but how do we defy Newton and convince an entire nation that this is a freedom worth fighting for? See: History.

Believe it or not, history can help us understand some of our most difficult problems whether we call upon our personal histories or those that are shared. 112 years after the end of the Civil War, ABC Television aired Alex Haley's Roots. The program bridged a sizable knowledge gap to help us comprehend the institution of slavery that had existed in this country since 1619. In late January of 1977, an estimated 85% of U.S. households with televisions watched all or part of the landmark miniseries. The Roots finale still ranks as the third-most viewed television program in US history.

More than 150 million Americans sat with me, bearing witness to the orderly infliction of misery by one group of humans upon another in the name of profit. Is it possible that mine was the only heart, during that winter week, crossed and sworn to forever oppose slavery?

Prior to Roots, my knowledge of slavery in America was cursory at best and could easily fit into a single chapter of a U.S. History textbook. I know I wasn't alone in my ignorance. Perhaps our slave-holding past was too perilous a subject to address in a larger public forum. Maybe we didn't care to know the truth. However that muted reality came to be in the generations before mine, Roots altered it and it altered me as well.

Roots gave me, it gave us all, a deep understanding of how the human trade worked at that time and how it works today: slaves are captured, they resist, they're beaten once, they resist again, they're beaten harder, they submit in order to survive and they're controlled by their own fears. This is done now for the same reason it was done then: to reduce labor costs - the one variable in the delivery of goods and services that can be drastically manipulated in order to increase profits upon the sale of those goods and services.

If you experienced Roots like I did, nearly 35 years ago, not as entertainment but as an essential life lesson, you already know why this issue must be addressed now. If you've never seen Roots, watch the series today for free on You Tube.

At some point in our lives, we all have to draw a line. I was ready to draw my line against slavery when I was 14 years old. This fall, I'll finally have my chance. And, for the millions that watched Kunta Kinte define for them the value of freedom, let his fight come alive inside of you and join me.

There's a revolution coming to America this fall. Are you ready?

Follow Robert J. Benz on Twitter @DouglassFamily