Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

I remember watching Alex Haley’s controversial television series “Roots” as a kid in the 70s. Many of you may be too young to know about Haley’s best-selling book and later the television series, which highlighted his endeavor to trace his family lineage. On his quest to uncover the truth, he discovers the hideous reality of his ancestors being captured in Africa and shipped to America and forced into slavery.

As a 7-year-old boy in 1977, I recall watching the brutal whipping of Haley’s distant relative, Kunta Kinte. In my opinion, the slave owner’s motivation for the painful flogging was to break down Kunta Kinte psychologically, to strip him of his identity and African culture in order to acclimate him to a mindset of inferiority and servitude.

The slave owner starts the process by whipping Kunta Kinte and demanding him to embrace his new name — Toby. As the whipping commenced, other slaves fearfully looked on. After witnessing such a sadistic beating, the line was drawn and the distinction was crystal clear as to who was in control and who had all the power. If you did anything other than submit to the slave owner’s authority, the punishment would be a brutal beating or possibly death.

As I continued to watch the slave owner callously and repeatedly strike Kunta Kinte’s Black skin, tears began to well up in my young eyes — I felt Kunta Kinte’s pain! I also felt his seemingly unbreakable strength, and his unwavering desire to maintain his African heritage and dignity in the face of opposition.

For the first time in my life after watching “Roots,” I became conscious of my Black skin. I was able to grasp the often unspoken differences between Black and White, between privilege and oppression, between the powerful and the powerless.

Although slavery has been abolished since 1865, the vestiges of slavery still exist in different forms: mass incarceration, institutional and systemic racism, and economic disparity coupled with marginalization. I am aware that because of my Black skin there are segments of our society that will forever stereotype me as being a criminal and that assume that I am inferior and I must be resigned to a subordinate position in all spheres of my Black life. Because of my Black skin, I am not supposed to be able to think independently.

Even though my Black skin seems to be surrounded with hurdles and obstacles, I’m given the strength to jump over the hurdles of racism, and the wisdom to break through the strategic obstacles that are cleverly disguised as “freedom and justice for all.” The truth is there is only freedom and justice for a few.

My Black skin is listed as America’s worst

My Black skin got you thinking I wanna snatch your purse

My Black skin is probable cause for a traffic stop

My Black skin is there until my casket drop

My Black skin is made in various tones

My Black skin has names like Mr. and Mrs. Jones

My Black skin is hated cause it don’t crack

My Black skin to your women is an aphrodisiac

My Black skin got you hoping… wishing you could be

My Black skin is proud cause my Black skin is me

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Charles Carpenter is a writer incarcerated in California. He is the author of "Handcuffed," an autobiography about his former involvement with gangs.