Deep-Rooted by Jeneé Skinner

Emerging Writer Series

Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Deep-Rooted” by Jeneé Skinner. Jeneé has a degree in Creative Writing and studied abroad at the University of Oxford to study Renaissance Literature and the Italian Renaissance. Her work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review's MiCRo Series, Passages North and is forthcoming in TriQuarterly. She attended a residency at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She has received fellowships from Tin House Summer Workshop and Kimbilio Writers Retreat. Additionally, she was a finalist for the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress and received an Honorable Mention for the Miami Book Fair Emerging Writer Fellowship. Currently, she is the Writing in Color Book Project Fellow for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her work has been nominated for Best Microfiction 2020. Fayetteville, Arkansas is where she resides and is at work on a historical magical realist novel. The book includes Igbo and Christian folklore, swamps and mangroves, snakes, alligators, a haunted house, the African-Diaspora, and chattel slavery.

The night I decided to watch the 2016 remake of Alex Haley’s miniseries, Roots, was also the night I decided to take out my 3-month-old box braids. The pandemic was raging in Arkansas. Unable to find a professional to do my hair, the duty of freeing my scalp was on me. I thought the eight-hour, four-episode miniseries would be long enough to unravel all the braids; I didn’t know it would take me down too. 

Building on the 1977 classic of the same name, the Roots remake is the family saga of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian teenager who white enslavers stole from his home and dragged into slavery in America. Somewhere between Kunta’s capture and his forced voyage on the floating graveyard that was the Middle Passage, my arms began to ache. By the time I saw the heads of rebel Africans placed on spikes on the enslaver ship Lord Ligonier, my spine was angry, the soreness rippling down my arms and into my chest. But I couldn’t stop; it was only the first episode and I had put off unpacking my hair for long enough. There was still so much work to do.

I was never really taught how to take care of my hair. Up in Rochester, NY, where I’m from, my mother kept her hair cropped short and simple, and so did my nana before her. By the time I was a toddler, my thick, tightly coiled locks must have worn my mother out because she chemically relaxed them. By the time I was 10 years old, she’d completely surrendered and left me to figure my hair out on my own, which I never quite did as a kid. Like my womanhood, my haircare came in unguided fits and starts. By the time I was fourteen, I’d just cut it all off, in a short natural style I maintained well into adulthood. Braids were not just a release from worrying every day about what I was supposed to do with my hair, they were also supposed to be a protection. But as I carefully excavated my hair from the extensions, leaving a pile of discarded, crinkled strands next to me in the trash, I saw my own broken, matted strands mixed in too. When the roots are unhealthy, everything is liable to break.

Haley’s Roots was first published in 1976 as a novel that was sold in the non-fiction section of bookstores, touting Haley’s research into his own genealogy as well as oral histories passed down through his family. By 1977 when the original miniseries aired, Haley was hit with plagiarism lawsuits, and acknowledged with a large out-of-court settlement in 1978 that parts of his story of Kunta Kinte were copied from Harold Courlander’s novel The African. Even with the best intentions and sincerest curiosities, reconstructing the past can get messy. Sometimes the answer we find, or the ones we choose, are wrong.

Though I distinctly remember my unraveling happening between the hours of 8 PM and 4 AM, time also became non-existent, as my tired arms swayed to the sound of Fiddler’s violin and the shots fired during the American Revolution and again in Nat Turner’s rebellion and again in the Civil War, each generation marked with a blessing of Kunta’s descendants under the night sky. Though flawed and muddled, broken and distorted, the stories of Kunta were still passed down from age to age; a gilded wound of an inheritance.

After all of the second episode’s trauma, my bones were tired from “rememory.” I went to the bathroom for a break and washed my hands clean in water so hot that it made the faucet sweat. Flakes of dandruff aged my shoulders like I’d been sitting in the same place for years, collecting dust. I watched the steam on the mirror as I made my hands slippery with soap. I fingered the free patches of hair my mother gave me. It wasn’t her only gift.

“All the women in our family have depression,” she told me a few years ago while sitting on the couch, a football game flashing across the screen. My question, “Mom, what ailments come in our family?” came and went like a commercial, wanting more attention than it got. I sat across from her on the floor, leaning against the coat closet, waiting for more of an answer, but heard only the fan blowing hot air around us like a mouth in need of water. Maybe the stale September air made it hard to focus on anything other than staying cool. And the question could burn both of us if we touched on it for too long.

So, it wasn’t a conversation. Just a statement. A thing for me to understand and get used to carrying. With more generations to hold it, you might think it’d be a lighter load, lighter still since I was more from the bodies, spaces, voices, that once trapped the women in my family. Instead, it expands with each generation, bottomless and hungry. An incurable virus, drifting through bloodstream, weaving into genes and bone, holding us down. The struggle she identified had long since bloomed in me. I wasn’t able to name it before then.

At the time, only curiosity probed me to ask about health and lineage. Maybe then, I subconsciously wanted to know that I wasn’t alone with my fatigue and sadness, that it wasn’t all my fault for not wanting to get out of bed or forgetting I had a purpose in this world. I didn’t have the words to massage my question or my mother’s response into more questions and responses. Nor did she have the energy to learn and speak the depth of other women’s lives to me, when she could barely hold her own. No, it would be another five or so years before I learned that in order to tell my stories, I needed to see my ancestors’ faces, hear their histories and learn why we were so heavy, and how to spread the burden of it out with words. To see that they were more than the maiden/married names, the children bouncing on their knees in pictures, or whatever other flat surfaces scrapbooks mashed them into. I wanted to see the curves of them, that held life and hope, proof that our lives were not just our own.

My grandmother had no stories for me other than “I was busy raising my own kids.” She could barely remember the lives of her siblings, the taste of her own childhood. Single parenting had filled too much of her, forced her to make a home away from home, where she could only see the parts of herself that her children demanded. Hungry children couldn’t feed off the memories of despondent matriarchs.

Depression. It starts as a complete lack of motivation to do anything, creeping up from your toes to the ends of your hair. An endless, cloudy, nothing. An emptiness so deep it fits the souls of every woman in my family tree. Depression because of sexual abuse, closed spaces, sacrifices, labor, motherhood, husbands and lovers, unanswered prayers and unspoken gospels, or for no reason in particular. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe if we all existed together, ancestor and descendant alike, we would cry for each other, give each other the hugs and kisses we were taught to withhold. If only memory could become flesh.

I thought about Kunta’s daughter Kizzy. Enslaved her whole life, it was impossible for her to imagine a world where she could be free from the constant rape of her enslaver and the son she bore at his whim, Chicken George. Even when an opportunity for freedom and real, consensual love was offered to her, she couldn’t take it. She couldn’t allow herself the selfishness of leaving her son behind. Or maybe freedom without her son wasn’t any kind of freedom at all. I wondered, after a lifetime of torture, if Kizzy even believed she deserved the love that was being offered to her. She resolved herself to stay with her son and protect him as best she could, struggling to break the cycle.

I wondered about my mother’s total shutdown when it came to mothering me; she didn’t teach me how to use a menstrual pad or sew or cook or drive, let alone to comb my hair. After generations of forced labor, and no room to rest when you want, it’s no wonder the body shuts itself down and can’t be roused to care about something as simple as hair. Maybe her bones were just tired of laboring, of remembering. Maybe shutting down was the only way she knew to rest.

When I’m depressed, my hair is the first one to let you know. I shut it up, uncombed and tangled, with a silk scarf. After Roots, I left it muzzled for a week, frizzy and flaky, uninterested in the responsibility of managing it; unable to bring myself to comb or style or even wash it. I felt the ghosts of unknown ancestors, their shuttered potential hovering above me. I couldn’t fall asleep with them lingering in my muscles, forcing me to wake up in a cold sweat.

            That week, I was angry; the kind of anger that could get me fired from my job if I’d let it all the way out. My body was raw with uncomfortable vibrations that I couldn’t shake off. It seeped from my skin when white students in my graduate program looked over me to my white co-worker for answers that only I possessed. I ground it between my teeth when my white supervisor rambled on about the white heroines of the literature she loved, but shut me down when I mentioned Tomi Adeyemi, N.K. Jemisin, and Ibi Zoboi’s works. Another white co-worker peeked over my shoulder to ask me about this essay I’m writing, and then shrugged off my explanation of the way the series about my ancestral trauma connected to my present Black identity. Walking out of the building was the best I could do with my anger. His ability to disconnect from black pain, my pain caused by white predecessors, likely including some of his ancestors, was unbearable. The way white “allies” got to choose when to weave in and out of empathizing with our suffering was infuriating. How could they be trusted?

As I slowed down my breathing and tried to meditate on my walk, I remembered Anna Paquin’s character on the show, a Union spy named Nancy who was found out and hanged along with her partner in crime, Jerusalem. As sad as this scene was, it was necessary to remember that there were white people then and now who are willing to give up their power and their lives for justice, regardless of what’s “trending”. I wish I could know who was who.

In the last episode of the series, a recently freed Chicken George and his son Tom were confronted by Union soldiers after the death of President Lincoln. One soldier complained to George and Tom that he was tired of all the trouble Black people caused during the course of the Civil War; how much fight and blood white soldiers gave for Black people’s freedom. Tom promptly responded, “What about the blood we gave to this country – for years?” There would be no blood to shed for Black people’s freedom if white people had stayed out of Africa in the first place.

But they didn’t. And for centuries, Black people’s poverty has made them rich; Black culture—mocked and stripped from us—has become yet another commodity for white wealth. Black labor, which built this country under pain of death, continues to do so today as enslaved labor has transferred from a private enterprise to a state operated one through the prison industrial complex. Black bodies, Black talent, Black pain, Black joy, Black sex, Black language all stripped, stolen, sold for generations of white profit. It’s a wonder we still have anything left.

Just before the pandemic holiday season, my mother’s depression almost consumed her. It wasn’t just the pressure of a worldwide virus. Like me, she had been struggling financially for years. Over three years, she’d lost weight, believing that she was getting “healthier.” She was happy, for a time, with friends and strangers congratulating her appearance, speaking to her as if she’d been reborn, shiny, new, and whole. But health is more than skin deep.  

Bills had accumulated for years that she’d meant to get to, but never did, with her hoopty car quitting on her time and again, making her late for work and taking up the money she needed to live. Though she had made well over the poverty line for years, her untreated mental illness only exacerbated financial issues and housing insecurity. She prayed with each move that this house would be more than temporary, that the next one would remind her of what having a home felt like.

Finally, endlessly exhausted, she wrote a letter to her mother, wrote another to her landlord and then attempted suicide. Thankfully, the landlord saw the cry for help in her words, found her alive but unconscious in bed, and called 9-1-1. A delayed text message reached my phone at 5AM. “I love you. I am so proud you. I’m sorry I wasn’t the mother you needed or deserved. Tell your brother this too. Again, I am sorry bambina.” I don’t remember the last time she’d apologized to me, if she ever had.

Her coma lasted for days. When she was better, I went to visit her. I’ve spent months now trying to understand her better and getting her to understand me. All my life, when there was a problem, my body had learned to shut down; my mother wasn’t going to commit the energy to solve the problem, so why should I bother saying anything? But silence was no longer an option for her, or our relationship—if we wanted to resuscitate them.

Now that mom has therapy and medication, we’re beginning to untangle the ugliness and pain of our history. Some days we walk this journey together, other days we do it alone or with other loved ones. Certain truths are out of our reach and will take time unpack because they’ve been denied for so long. Certain places only she can go, because I don’t have the energy or space in my body. But we love and talk and see each other in ways we didn’t before. There are days where we fail, and days that fail us—threaten to break us, but my mother and I, we try. We pray, rest, laugh, cry, accept, forgive, and then try again.

One morning, in the week after I watched Roots, I awoke to find my scarf had fallen to the floor. My neck and head and hair had conspired in the night. No more hiding; it was just us now. I got out of bed and brought my shampoo, conditioner and towel with me to the kitchen sink. I turned the water on and drenched my hair. After piling on the sweet-smelling suds, I gently plunged my fingers deep into the roots and remembered how much I loved the feeling of my fingers on my scalp. I gave my hair the loving tenderness it thirsted for as I slowly untangled each strand. I relaxed into the hours of work I had ahead of me, knowing the process wouldn’t always be easy or pretty; knowing that sometimes I would need the help of a professional to handle it all. But with my circling fingertips, I made a promise that day: I will remember that it is mine. That’s enough reason for me to wrestle with it, to tend to it, to protect it, to love it, to never give up on it. The beauty and the struggle, it all belongs to me.