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February 5, 1977
On February 5, 1977, the arts and entertainment section of the New York Amsterdam News focused on the television miniseries Roots. Roots traced Alex Haley’s family history from West Africa through slavery and emancipation in the United States. Published by Doubleday in the fall of 1976 and broadcast by ABC in the winter of 1977, Roots was read by millions and watched by millions more. “In the wake of this monumental event in the history of popular culture,” the Amsterdam News wrote, “Americans of all colors are reflecting on just what this amazing phenomenon meant, what impact it will have on shaping a new American mass consciousness and just how it will influence the future of race relations in this country. In a way, ‘Roots’ was one long overdue American history lesson delivered with the kind of perspective rarely depicted in conventional history books.” Roots became a cultural phenomenon in large part because it was a large-scale commercial production (an “epic” book and a television “event”) that readers and viewers could enjoy in the private, everyday spaces of their homes. The newspaper also called attention to the “curious irony” of “the historical timing of ‘Roots,’ coming in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s ascendency to the presidency (aided by the overwhelming support of Blacks) and appearing only a few months after the television showing of ‘Gone With The Wind,’ that other epic film dealing with race relations in the Civil War South. ABC must feel justifiably proud of having the vision to air ‘Roots,’ a show unprecedented in the history of American television. However, it is lamentable that commercial television chooses as its normal fare the kind of programming that is directly antithetical to ‘Roots.’ ‘Roots’ is the exception to T.V.’s norms” (click to view PDF).
I have been thinking a lot about Roots over the last couple of years as I have been researching and writing Making Roots: A Nation Captivated, which will be published in August 2016 by University of California Press. I have created a Scalar companion website for the book that includes a map of the lectures Alex Haley gave about his family story in the decade before Roots, a selection of letters to the editors of newspapers across the country about Roots, lyrics from hip-hop songs that reference Roots, editorial cartoons related to Roots, and interviews about Roots with scholars of black history and culture.
One of the scholars I was fortunate to interview is Alondra Nelson, author of the new book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. On the connections between Roots and The Social Life of DNA, see Nelson’s essay “Roots and Genes” in Aeon Magazine.