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Digging up Roots

Digging up Roots

By Don Aucoin
The Boston Globe

January 17, 2002

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.

Rather, 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 culture."

The sense of an awakened understanding of slavery's legacy and a dialogue between the races is underscored by average citizens featured in the one-hour special.

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 slavery."

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."

"It contributed to us using the words 'African-American.'"

Missed message?

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 economy.

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 have."

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 Television.

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 know.

"It was a unique moment in television which will never be replicated again."

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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