When the original Roots aired in 1977, nearly 85 percent of American homes watched some part of the eight-night event on the saga of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) and his descendants. The finale alone attracted 100 million viewers, which is astounding when you consider that this is before most Americans had ever encountered acronyms like DVR or VCR. But even more shocking than the historic ratings, is that the fact that Roots ever got made at all.
When Roots hit the market, it went to the top of bestseller lists for 22 weeks. That’s all well and good for people who read books, but ABC was still taking a chance on the miniseries. There was no guarantee that a largely white audience would tune in to see a then-unknown Burton being tortured at the hands of white people. They was no certainty that the audience would keep coming back for seven more nights to watch Kinte’s kin raped, beaten and swindled, but they did. Roots was so successful that it won nine of the 37 Emmy Awards for which it was nominated, as well as a Golden Globe and a Peabody, and it spawned spin-off series that did well in their own rights.
The success of Roots was not without controversy, however. After a lawsuit alleged that parts of the book were plagiarized from a novel by Harold Courlander called The African , Haley settled out of court, admitting that certain passages were, indeed, lifted from the earlier work. Then there was the issue of whether Haley truly had traced his family’s lineage back to a single person in Gambia. Most scholars came to doubt that, with Harvard professor (and host of the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots) Henry Louis Gates telling The Boston Globe in 1998: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.” Still, the novel remains a testament to the horrors of slavery, if not of Haley’s own family. Roots paved the way for modern works like 12 Years a Slave and even Django Unchained, and is, without doubt, still a relevant document.
OPINION|OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR Why America Forgot About ‘Roots’ By MATTHEW F. DELMONT NEARLY 40 years ago, “Roots” transfixed Americans — first as an overnight best seller by Alex Haley, then as an ABC mini-series, which drew 100 million viewers, still the record. It made the slave trade and black history inescapable parts of national popular culture and produced a unique moment when ordinary Americans talked about slavery in workplaces, bars, churches and schools. This Memorial Day, the History, Lifetime and A&E channels will start broadcasting a four-night remake of the series. And while it’s a good bet that it will also draw millions of viewers, it’s an equally good bet that for almost all of them, the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants is at best a dim cultural footnote. For all that “Roots” says about American slavery, its career as a cultural artifact speaks even more about how America talks about its own history. “Roots” was a hit because no one had ever read or seen anything like it. Popular memory of the antebellum South was still dominated by images of happy slaves and benevolent masters. The most watched TV program before “Roots” was “Gone With the Wind,” the 1939 Civil War epic that NBC broadcast over two nights in 1976. When “Roots” dethroned “Gone With the Wind” the next year, it wasn’t just about ratings: It seemed to displace the power of racist fictions like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” to “write history with lightning,” to quote the phrase President Woodrow Wilson is said to have used to praise the latter, D. W. Griffith’s own Civil War epic. Haley wrote with an entire lightning storm. He tried to marshal the power of history on a mythic scale to advance black history. Haley’s unapologetically commercial story asked readers and viewers across racial lines and national borders to identify with the sorrow, pain and joy of enslaved black families in ways that were unusual in mass-market fiction and unprecedented on broadcast television. Its huge popularity made “Roots” a sort of template for representing slavery. It provided a baseline from which to create and appreciate more nuanced and challenging treatments of slavery, like Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage.” Before “Roots,” the Middle Passage, the trans-Atlantic journey to the New World endured by enslaved Africans, had rarely been depicted in literature, and never on television. But “Roots” fell out of favor almost as quickly as it rose, in part because Haley’s story started to unravel as soon as it was in print. He relied heavily on an editor to finish the book and later paid over half a million dollars to settle a plagiarism suit. Other people were upset with the way ABC, Haley and Doubleday, his publisher, seemed to be wringing money from the history of slavery. It was also hard for people to pin down “Roots.” Was it fact or fiction? Haley, who died in 1992, said it was a bit of both, a mix of archives, oral traditions and imagination in a composite narrative he called “faction.” The television version complicated matters further, insisting that the production was based on a true story while billing the series as an “ABC novel for television.” If “Roots” was too fictional for most historians, its version of historical fiction was not literary enough for English departments. “Roots” is notably absent from The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which runs to nearly 3,000 pages. The literary critic Arnold Rampersad described “Roots” as being “so innocent of fictive ingenuity that it seldom surpasses the standards of the most popular of historical romances.” He has a point: Over nearly 600 pages, “Roots” unfolds in a straight line from Kunta Kinte in the 1760s across seven generations to Haley in the 1970s, with little tension or narrative sophistication. This commitment to continuity almost immediately put Haley out of step with how modern writers and artists approached slavery. But there is another reason “Roots,” as a cultural phenomenon, may have been forgotten. Americans choose to remember slavery at some moments and collectively forget it at others. The 1970s saw an explosion in progressive, black-centered television and culture, just as blacks were starting to make real socioeconomic gains as a result of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. But by the 1980s, those gains had begun to slow, and then reverse, while black representations on TV became fewer. In the minds of middlebrow America, Kunta Kinte was replaced by Bill Cosby. “Roots” has not been completely forgotten; artists like Kara Walker and Edgar Arceneaux have made reference to it, as have rappers like Missy Elliott and Kendrick Lamar. It inspired Henry Louis Gates’s PBS genealogy shows. And yet today there are more books on recent critically lauded television shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” than on “Roots.” It’s fitting that “Roots” has been remade now, when the history of slavery is being debated with fresh urgency, including reparations discussions at Georgetown University, textbook controversies in Texas, battles over Confederate monuments and symbols, and disputes at Yale and other campuses over buildings named for slaveholders. And yet the experience of “Roots” reminds us that while this moment of renewed attention to America’s original sin is important, it is not guaranteed to last. The effects of slavery touched nearly every aspect of economic and social life, yet it remains one of the subjects Americans are most uncomfortable discussing. Given this, what “Roots” accomplished four decades ago is remarkable. It encouraged more people to engage seriously with the history of slavery than anything before or since. “Roots” introduced millions of people to African-American history, and the book and television series made it clear that American history does not exist without black people. The 40 years since “Roots” have underscored how uncommon it still is to have black actors, culture and history featured in a major television production and how difficult it is to speak honestly about slavery. If we appreciate what made “Roots” a cultural phenomenon, we can better understand what it takes to make Americans reckon with slavery and its legacies.