Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Roots, the original TV miniseries

Roots In one of my early high school American History classes, we were studying the American Civil War and the teacher was talking about slavery and how slaves were considered 3/5th of a person. I couldn’t wrap my head around this concept. I had gone to integrated schools and lived in neighborhoods filled with many ethnicities, so I knew that black people were just as much of a person as white people. It was so obvious.
Since I had always read a lot about history, I had a general knowledge of slavery and knew it had existed at other times and places. After all, it’s even mentioned throughout the Bible. I knew it was the main cause of the Civil War and had always been happy that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But I didn’t know a lot of the background and details.
In the winter of 1977, not long after the New Year began, Roots aired on TV, over 8 consecutive nights. It was one of the first miniseries and remains one of the highest rated Tv specials ever. The multi-generational story of an African-American family, traced back to their origin and how it tied in with the history of this country, reflecting some of the ugliest practices of any country. The cast was excellent and their talents made so many of the characters memorable.
But what left a lasting impact was the treatment of the slaves. I was already very familiar with the horrors of The Holocaust and had begun reading about the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, so I knew that people could be horrible to each other on a large scale, but the details of slavery were shocking. At that time, in my late teens, I had no real idea how slaves were captured and seeing Kunta Kinte, as a young man on a hunting trip, being netted and kidnapped and then crammed onto a ship was hard to process. How would his family know what happened to him? Where on earth was the ship taking him? And the idea of not understanding the language and not knowing what awaited him at the end of the voyage was a terrifying idea. After he landed and was sold to a plantation, I admired his determination to regain his freedom, even though it would’ve gone easier on him had he given in. And how he kept as much of his identity as he could and the way his story was an inspiration to succeeding generations.Chicken George, who was Kunta Kinta’s grandson, was another memorable character, especially when he came so close to winning his freedom through a cockfight. The women in Roots were all strong characters, even when they were mistreated or betrayed. I could barely imagine how painful it would be to have one’s child taken away and sold. The way the miniseries ended, after the Civil War, with the family leaving and going to another state and then flash forward to modern day and author Alex Haley explaining how the family tree traces down to himself. But my favorite scenes from Roots was after a baby was born and the father would take him or her outside and hold them up to the starry sky and and intone “Behold, the only one greater than yourself!” It was a powerful moment and one that underscored the value of a child. And to my teenaged self, something absolutely cool.
There was a sequel, Roots:The Next Generations, which followed the story through the 20th Century and a couple stand alone movies focusing on specific characters. I watched all of them and read Alex Haley’s books. I was thrilled at the awakening of Americans of all sorts of backgrounds tracing their own families histories, which can be a fascinating subject, though sometimes with surprises.
This week, a new version will be airing on TV, for four nights starting on Monday. There’s been a lot of new research done in the interim which will be updated in the new series. From the commercial and publicity photos, some of the costumes look drastically different. It looks like Kunta Kinte is wearing clothes influenced by the Tuaregs and Chicken George is even more of a dandy. The women are pictured in some lovely dresses. The settings look more expansive, especially the outdoor scenes.
I hope that people watch the new version, especially young people who weren’t around for the first one.The 2016 series won’t have the same impact as the original. At that point, the subject hadn’t been explored in popular culture, as it has been in movies such as “12 Years a Slave” or “Amistad”, so it’s not going to be as startling. But it’s still an important story, about history and how to salvage something from a tragic situation and most importantly, the bonds of family and people you are connected to and the strength of their love.

One comment on “Roots, the original TV miniseries

  1. CJ
    May 30, 2016

    I remember what a huge event the first Roots was. I was a young teen at the time and my whole family watched it. I was enthralled by the story and also horrified. The series definitely raised my awareness of what slavery was like. I look forward to the new version.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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