Digging up Roots
Digging up Roots
By Don Aucoin
The Boston Globe
There had never been anything on television like it before, and
there hasn't been anything quite like it since.
Twenty-five years ago
this month, the multigenerational saga of slavery titled Roots made TV history
by dramatizing the ugliest chapter in America's past. It aired over eight
consecutive nights, and more than 130 million viewers tuned in to at least part
of the 12-hour miniseries. It still stands as the third-highest-rated program of
all time. But the impact of Roots can't really be measured by ratings, for this
wasn't a TV show that was "watched" in the usual passive sense.
it was talked about, agonized over, absorbed into the national psyche. Seldom
had the power of mass culture to shape attitudes been more evident. Wrapped
within the compelling story of one family's arduous journey from freedom to
slavery and on to freedom again, Roots revealed the complex threads of
African-American identity to a national audience and, however briefly,
revitalized the dialogue on race.
"For the first time, it presented
slavery and discrimination from a black historical point of view," said Dr.
Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a
consultant on The Cosby Show. "It wasn't like you were seeing Birth of a Nation.
It was: This is what it was like, this is what happened."
In a medium
often constrained by timidity, 1977's Roots was path-breaking in its
"unflinching portrayal of aspects of American history that many Americans would
have preferred to forget about," said Columbia University historian Eric Foner.
"Roots was a statement against a kind of historical amnesia. It was an important
step in white America being willing to understand that you can't talk of
American history without slavery being central to it. ... The long history of
inequality in this country was now out there for people to encounter."
A look back
On Roots -- Celebrating 25 Years:
The Saga of an American Classic, a one-hour special that airs Friday, executive
producer David L. Wolper suggests that the miniseries was not an easy sell when
he first took it to network television. "Roots did not sound like a good idea --
at the beginning," Wolper said. "Here's a story where the blacks are the heroes
and the whites are the villains, in a country that's 90 percent white and 10
percent black. ... But there was something about that family story that struck
everybody who heard it."
As the ultimate "water-cooler show," discussed
in workplaces around the country before VCRs and scores of cable channels
fragmented the audience, Roots opened lines of communication between blacks and
whites. "It came at a moment when race relations were very tense in the country,
and many people were looking for a way to affirm a common sense of nationality,"
said Foner. With its focus on the strength of family ties, he added, "It
combined a critique of American culture with an affirmation of American
The sense of an awakened understanding of slavery's legacy and
a dialogue between the races is underscored by average citizens featured in the
But how enduring were the social effects of Roots?
That depends on whom you ask and which effects are under discussion. There's no
question that Roots triggered an interest in genealogy -- what Poussaint calls
the "Who am I? Where did I come from?" phenomenon -- that continues to this day.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, the acting president of Mount Holyoke College and author
of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other
Conversations About Race, said the segments of Roots set in Africa made the
crucial point to black and white viewers that "there was a history before
There is general agreement that the movement toward
multiculturalism was partly fueled by Roots, with its depiction of the proud
African heritage of Kunta Kinte, whose kidnapping and enslavement sets the story
in motion. "It changed the way Americans think about assimilation and the
melting pot, and made it possible to think about where they come from with
pride," said Katya Gibel Azoulay, an assistant professor of anthropology and
Africana studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. "It popularized the concept of
hyphenated identities." Poussaint said Roots inspired many black Americans to
visit Africa or explore African art and culture, and to "look for the
Afrocentric view, how the African experience affected our behavior."
contributed to us using the words 'African-American.'" Missed
Yet Poussaint and other analysts say that in certain
crucial respects, the message of Roots was not acted upon by the country that
embraced it as a TV drama. "People felt it would lead to a kinder, gentler
attitude toward blacks, but it didn't live up to all those expectations," said
Poussaint. "It probably made many white people more culturally sensitive to the
issues and experience of black people. On the other hand, I don't think it had
much of an effect on policies affecting black people. Police brutality,
discrimination in jobs, racial profiling continued."
Azoulay said that
while "Roots opened up a story," it "depoliticized" and diluted its message by
not detailing the extent to which slavery was the underpinning of the national
In a way, such expressions of disappointment about the lasting
effects of a TV program reflect how powerful a phenomenon Roots was. It was
based on Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, which traced Haley's
family back six generations to Kunta Kinte, who had been kidnapped from West
Africa at age 16 in the late 17th century and brought to the United States as a
slave. It chronicled the journey of Kunta Kinte and his descendants over 150
years through slavery and into freedom.
Haley's account of his family
history was challenged in several highly publicized instances. In 1978, Haley
admitted that some passages from another author's novel on slavery had "found
their way" into Roots, and he paid the author $650,000 in an out-of-court
settlement. Another author later sued Haley for plagiarism but lost.
Whatever the blend of fact and fiction, Poussaint noted, "There was a
larger truth that he captured: That we were brought here against our will, we
were mistreated, we progressed, we had survived, we were a strong people who
could keep going on, despite this experience, and become part of America."
A nation galvanized
Roots seized the public's
imagination immediately. According to Alex McNeil's Total Television, all eight
episodes of Roots ranked among the 13 highest-rated episodes of television
history. "This was 1977, when we were still in the network era," noted Robert
Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular
Television. "This was one of the last gasps of that period where an
entertainment show could galvanize an entire nation." Added NPR commentator and
TV historian Steven D. Stark: "To have slavery illustrated for people on a
night-by-night basis: That had never been done before. That was probably the
largest mass exposure of the black experience in slavery that America will ever
Network executives were among those watching: Poussaint said the
popularity of Roots helped "open the doors to networks feeling more comfortable
with putting on black shows. So they accepted The Cosby Show [in 1984], even
though they might have in earlier years rejected it."
Roots won nine
Emmy Awards and showcased numerous black actors such as LeVar Burton, Louis
Gossett Jr., Leslie Uggams, John Amos, Cicely Tyson, Richard Roundtree and Ben
Vereen, along with white actors including Ed Asner and Chuck Connors. Its
success spawned a boom in the miniseries genre and showed that audiences would
not reject weighty subject matter, leading to such dramas as Holocaust (1978).
A 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, brought the story of Haley's
ancestors up to 1967. Airing over seven nights, it did not attract the massive
viewership of the original, but it demonstrated the story's staying power, as
all seven episodes ranked in that week's top 11 shows, according to Total
Yet among today's younger people, "Roots has faded,"
according to Stark. "If you ask people younger than 35 about it, they won't know
what it was, whereas if you ask them about the Beatles or Ali or Malcolm X, they
"It was a unique moment in television which will never be
Copyright © 2002, South Florida
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel