April 14, 2007

Roots, 30 Years Later...

TV One brought back LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen, Lou Gossett, Leslie Uggams and Richard Roundtree as hosts for a showing of 'Roots'. Roots, the television miniseries, run from January 23 to January 30, 1977, and attracted some 130 million viewers - it is still the top-rated miniseries of all time. That's pretty astounding when you think about it since the amount of media programming and number of television stations have increased dramatically since 1977. The powerful television series earned an Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody award.

Where were you when Roots was on TV back in the day? It was shown on eight consecutive nights, an hour or two each night. Each episode was complete within itself, ending in positive, hopeful note, except the sixth and seventh.

Roots, produced by ABC, starred Ed Asner, Chuck Connors, Carolyn Jones, O.J. Simpson, Ralph Waite, Lou Gossett, Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, LeVar Burton (as Kunta Kinte), Ben Veeren (as Chicken Geroge), Lynda Day George, Vic Morrow, Raymond St Jacques, Sandy Duncan, John Amos, Leslie Uggams, MacDonald Carey, George Hamilton, Ian MacShane, Richard Roundtree, Lloyd Bridges, Doug McClure, Burl Ives. It is striking that most of the Black stars in the miniseries were not able to parlay their visibility into strong movie or television roles afterwards.

I didn't go into this past weekend with the intention of watching the miniseries again. I was channel-surfing and came across the first episode, set in the African village with LeVar Burton hanging out with his friends tending goats. Oddly enough, one of his village buddies was Raj ... the guy who wore the glasses in 'What's Happening' sitcom. There were many powerful images from Roots that still resonated with me this weekend. Watching Kunta Kinte growing up as an enslaved man in America ... and watching the constant tearing down of his spirit. At one point, the adult Kunta (played by John Amos) says, "they won't even let us have us."

Obviously, one of the most powerful images was when the overseer beat Kunta again and again until he was forced to say, "My name is Toby". Fiddler (played by Lou Gossett) holds Kunta in his arms and consoles him with the knowledge that it doesn't matter what they called him ... in his heart he would always be Kunta Kinte. He ended the scene by looking into the camera and saying "there will be another day". Sometimes, I wonder when that day will come.

Many years after Roots I began to research my genealogy. I have not uncovered my roots in Africa as of yet. Perhaps I'll do this DNA testing that is becoming all the rage. Anyhow, I ended up watching most of the miniseries over again this weekend. I may end up rejuvenating my genealogy research as well.

Where were you 30 years ago when this miniseries was shown on ABC? What are the scenes or actors that had the most impact on you from 'Roots'? Do you think that you will ever sit down and watch the miniseries with your children? Let your village voice be heard!


WrightHandBlogger said...

When I first saw Roots, I was a member of The U.S. Army Band. (Pershing's Own is part of its official name.)

The Band was located in the Military District of Washington, DC and is the one that plays for Presidential Inauguration, military funerals, etc.

I mentioned this because of the dynamic changes happening in the country at the time what with the Bicentennial and Watergate still being fresh in our minds.

As a young African American man in Washington, DC, Roots evoked all kinds of emotions in me: from exhiliration, to disgust, to shame, to raw anger, to pride, to hope, to determination and the full range of human emotions.

No wonder its still doing so well more than 30 years later.

But, unfortunately, the shackles that bound Kunta Kinte have been replaced with invisible shackles - shackles which may be at least as damnable and as devastating as that heavy metal used to be.

Thanks for sharing this with us, Wayne.


LegalBEAT said...

When I first saw Roots, I was 7 years old and this was my first introduction to SLAVERY in its rawest sense.

The progression from village life in Africa to the slave trade and all of the atrocities that occurred during the time of slavery and beyond, really hit me hard. I can say that I didn't watch the movie again but so many scenes from the movie linger vividly in my head (i.e. when Kunta kente had his foot cut off is still a very clear memory).

Everyone has a different experience from watching ROOTS but I grew up in rural southern Arkansas with family in Arkansas and Mississippi and so that movie really left a lasting impact.

I think this movie is one that should be played in classrooms throughout the country because as society moves further and further away from this era, there may become more of a disconnect (as if it never really happened) and we must never forget the importance of this movie.


Keith said...


I remmeber very well where I was when Roots came on. I was a sophomore in college, and I'll never forget the tension between the white students and black students when it was on. The only TVs were in the dormitory common rooms, so the black students pretty much "seized" most of the screens. Thing was, a lot of whites wanted to watch the show too, but were nervous about watching it with a bunch of angry brothers and sisters. As for us, we weren't too keen on the idea of watching the show with them, either.

Looking back, that whole thing was both a little comical as well as sad. The truth is that we NEEDED to be watching that series together and dialoguing honestly about it, but then the world is what it is. And now that I'm older and much more jaded, I wonder how much good that would have done if any..

Yep, that one takes me back. Good post as usual.

Villager said...

Vincent - What instrument did you play in the band? Yes, the movie did bring out the full range of emotions. The vast majority of the African American roles in the mini-series were brave and determined people ... even if they had to be so behind closed doors. I agree that our shackles are invisible ... and too many of them are self-imposed.

legalbeat - Yeah, the scene where Kunta gets his foot cut off is deep ... especially if you recall that the slave-catcher gave him a choice of losing his foot or losing his manhood. If you have the opportunity to watch the movie again ... I recommend you do so. Seeing it as a grown man is different than we saw it as children or teenagers.

Keith - America is still divided in much the same way as your dorm lobby was back in the day. Do u recall how we looked when we heard the OJ Simpson verdict (criminal, not civil)? I wonder what white folks felt about the Brad Davis character. He is the white guy who befriended Chicken George's children right before they moved to freedom in Tennessee. Anyhow, seeing 'Roots' again was mesmorizing in many respects. I appreciate TV One for making it available again.

peace, Villager

Villager said...

All - One of my favorite moments in the miniseries occurred twice. Kunta Kinte's father ... and later Kunta himself ... both lifted their naked child up in the air under the night stars and said, "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself..."

That was a cool visual and line.

peace, Villager

Lori said...

Hey Villager,
Dog gone it, you beat me to it (smile). My favorite scene is when Kunta raises his newborn towards the heavens and says, "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself."

The scene where Kunta is made to say his name is "Toby" and is comforted by Fiddler leaves me in tears every time. And the one scene that gives me an evil sense of pleasure is when Kizzy spits in ole girl's water (LOL).

I was in my early teens when ROOTS was first broadcast. I watched it every night with my Mom. A year or two later, when it was rebroadcast I watched a segment of it with the three little white boys I was babysitting at the time. What has always fascinated me about the latter is that the three boys (all under 12) really seemed intrigued by the show.

Yes, I do plan to watch it one day with my own son who is now in elementary school. We may possibly try an episode or two this summer. We'll see.

Latimer Williams said...

I remember being in front of the TV, watching it with my family. My parents, My brother and sister and my grandmother. Though I don't remember everything(I was 5) I do remember Kunta getting beat until he said Toby and I remember Kizzy spitting her former playmate's water as she didn't remember her and treated her like dirt even though they were suppose to be friends for ever. And who could forget Chicken George!

There was feeling that we all shared in that story of that family. Most of us more than like can trace that exact story in our geneology.

I went on to actually read the book and enjoyed that even more than the mini-series. My Dad, Grandmother , and sister have died since that series was on TV but it just one of the happy times that I take with me everyday about family. A theme that is a repeating theme in Roots.

Villager said...

Lori & Latimer - thanx for sharing your recollections. I'm reminded of another scene that I enjoyed. The adult Kunta (John Amos) escapes and finds his way to the other plantation where his childhood sweetheart, Fanta, lives. The two of them spend the night together ... but, in the morning she loudmouths the brother as she is opening the barndoor and the slave catchers realize that Kunta is inside. There is a scene when John Amos bolts out of the door at full speed and begins to run away. I have to admit that short of the Olympic sprinting events ... I've never seen a brother run so fast on television (smile).

Sadly, he gets caught and loses his foot. But, that brother was running like a runaway locamotive before they got him!

peace, Villager

Dutchclick said...

Villager, many thanks for your invitation to comment!

I don't have direct memories of watching the series. I must have been between 10 or 12 years old when it was broadcasted in The Netherlands. I remember seeing it, but only remember the atmosphere of it. It was indeed raw and painfull in my mind. I remember the scars...

As a ('off white' - is that a word ;-) ) direct descendant of black slaves from Suriname (my grandfather was black) I wasn't realy aware (rocking chair story) of this fact until a few years ago.
After finding my ancestress name in the (freshly digitalized) registers of liberated slaves in 1863 (the Netherlands was the last country to do so!!) I started to feel more. It came closer to me.

More on this: www.surinaamsegenealogie.nl (sorry, dutch only).
Any (general) questions? Contact me through my own website.

Villager said...

Dutchclick - Unfortunately, in America it's either 'black' or 'white'. We don't have much in the way of 'off-white' (smile). I do appreciate your perspective on the whole Roots saga as well as the learnings that you had in your own genealogical research. I look forward to visiting your website!

peace, Villager

DutchClick said...

I am aware of that. It is still difficult here too... But not like the US, I think.
The ridiculious thing about this is that children here don't 'see' the (color only!) 'differences' and that they somewhere start to do so... :-(
My website (www.dutchclick.com) is very general and personal. Trying to get some posts from a former shared blog back as there was more on Suriname and slavery.


Martin Lindsey. said...

In January '77 I would have been in 3rd grade. I remember watching the series every night because my mother was and is serious about Black History. Our family like many others, not only Black families, but all types of American families began to take genealogy seriously after the series was broadcast. We haven't gotten our roots traced all the way back to the motherland either but we're into the 19th century pretty well.

The series was fascinating to me because it's the first time I saw our history portrayed on the small screen. Up until that point it would have been the basic historic figures in school books and more exposure in the Golden Legacy comic books. After that year, or maybe during the same period, Anheuser Busch came out with the Great African Kings & Queens illustrated calendar series.

The character who had the greatest impact on me was Kunta Kinte as the central figure of the story line. Lavar Burton was the one among the African American actors who was able to parlay that into a career even up to recent years with the Reading Rainbow on PBS and as Lt. Jordi LaForge on the Star Trek The Next Generation series and on the silver screen.

It's one of those rare moments in entertainment that touched the entire country whether you liked the series or not.

Thanks for asking Villager. This one brings back nothing but inspiring memories for me.

Marina G said...

I was too young to watch the original series of Roots back in 1977 but I read the book last year and think it is an amazing story and really brought it home to me what slavery was all about.

I would like to offer the following genealogical resources to anyone researching their African ancestry:

Tisha! said...

Villager thank you for this!

Incredible we're on the same wavelength...just a few hours ago I was answering questions to an interview with Marty Lindsey which will be published on his blog tomorrow and I wrote that:

Villager has given me a wonderful opportunity to get back in touch with my African roots through a vibrant blog and community.

Didn't mean to spoil the surprise but this is too much, you mentioned Alex Haley's Roots which I read before watching the series at around 12 years old.

I've always seen myself making the same journey that Haley made and however painful it surely would be, Kunta inspired that desire to know more about my people and homeland.

My children will have no choice but to read the book and watch the series LOL

My deepest appreciation!

Kev said...

When I first saw Roots, I was only five years old. The entire neighborhood was quiet the week that it was on. My specific memory is of Chicken George's son Tom preparing to whip the "colonel." My grandmother (deceased) who had grown up in the segregated South threw a fit. She wanted Tom to whip the Colonel just like he had been whipped. The only other time I ever saw her that animated was when Reagan got shot in 1981. As an adult and as a father, it was extremely painful to watch when Kizzy was sold, and how that finally "broke" Kunta Kinte. The brother who mentioned the invisible shackles was on point. Too many of us accept being broken by the system without ever trying to fight back.

Villager said...

Martin & Kev - Thank you for taking time to share your rememberances of seeing Roots miniseries with your family.

Tisha! - I look forward to reading your full response to the interview with Martin. I appreciate your sentiments and hope that I can maintain your high expectations over time.

Marina - Thank you for sharing the link to the genealogy website!

peace, Villager

Box 1715 said...

Oh, I so remember this. I was only about ten, but I remember being completely enthralled with the series and with LeVar Burton in his portrayal of Kunta Kinte. I don't believe I've ever watched another miniseries that affected me so strongly.

There were alot of frank discussions in my family during the period that this series aired, not only on the history of African Americans with regards to slavery, but the treatment of the black community as a whole in following years.

As a white Canadian child, who had never encountered this kind of ignorance before, I remember being totally aghast and somewhat astounded at my parents stories that a person would be refused even the smallest of common priveleges or courtey's provided to even the poorest of white men, in their era. Simple things like being able to ride on a public transit, being able to order a simple cup of coffee in a restaurant, or even being able to use a public restroom. All of which were denied to blacks. - and that wasn't so long ago!

Progress is most assuredly slow - but hopefully, still moving ahead in the right direction!

I enjoyed the post and the comments as well. Thanks :)

Paula Neal Mooney said...

Yeah, I was around 8 years old and like mentioned above, I still remember the scene when Kunta Kente was caught trying to escape.

The slavemaster had him against the tree and motioned the ax against his stomach.

Kunta shook his head, then screamed as the man brought the ax down on his foot, chopping it in half.

The whole world stopped to watch that series...

Villager said...

Box175 - First, merci beaucoup for visiting with us in the Electronic Village. Your comment makes me realize that I know very little about the history of Canada. I lived in Detroit for 8 years ... and I could answer the trivia question, 'Where's the only point in the continental United States that you have to go SOUTH to get into Canada?' ... and of course, I used to go to Windsor for the casinos back in the day. But, I really know very little about Canada. I'm adding this as a 'to do' in my lengthening list of things I gotta do before I leave this world. Anyhow, I hope you visit with us again in the future.

Paula - Yes ... amazing that the depth of the writing that came from Arthur Hailey both for this book (Roots) and also for his other works, such as the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

mark said...

I never saw roots. But I did read the book and it was excellent. One part that sticks in my mind is when the slave master wrote this slave a pass to travel around the to the surronded plantations. This was in or to quote the slave master " Get all of the hot tail he wanted". All throughout the book the slave master would ask the slave if he was getting any hot tail. Unbelievable!


Please pick up the book ROOTS and read it, or re-read it.

Levar Burton Update: Currently Levar is in South Africa, filming the autobiography of my spiritual advisor. The Movie is called, Initiation. Read about the Movie here:
Levar wrote the screenplay and will direct.
I cannot wait for this movie.



Read about th movie here:



Villager said...

GAW - Thanx for the update on LeVar Burton. He continues to do some good work after playing Kunta in Roots.

Yobachi said...

Wait a minute, OJ Simpson was in roots. *scratches head*

Well I haven't seen much of the later episodes, just probably most of it up through 4 or 5. Likewise, I lost the hardcopy of the book that I had before I got pass that point too.

I don't have TV1, but I did just buy another copy of the book recently.

James said...

I did not see Roots. I could not get the downpayment together for an apt, had no tv and was living at the Y. I remember it being the talk at the water coolers, but I was left out

awannabe said...

I was just a wee one (2 years old) when this miniseries aired, but I later rented and watched it. I think it is a wonderful history lesson.

I am very fond of the sequel to Roots "Queen" also.

ngl said...

I was on holiday in London in 1977 when 'Roots' aired. It was incredible television which, make-up apart, has stood up well over the intervening thirty years.
It is amazing that this series should still have impact, considering that the Holocaust mini-series which followed later was powerful story-telling too. Roots' power was to recall the fervour of the 1960's, the unrealised dreams of Martin Luther King and to give dramatic testimony to the early nihilism of Malcolm X. Who can forget the "my name is Toby" moment or the foot mutilation? It was a reminder to New World Africans of the catastrophe of slavery and a marker for the future. "Conscious militancy" came the cry from Britain's black community. What happened?

Villager said...

ngl - "Conscious militancy" has been bought out by the aspiration (greed) of the 1980s and 1990s. We are in a different world ... but, one where race is still as prevalent as it was during the ROOTS era (unfortunately).

Awannabe - I do recall QUEEN ... mostly because it was an opportunity to see Halle Berry (smile). I probably need to watch it again.

James - I encourage you to rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster if you have time. Actually, with the current controversy over Mike Vick and dogfighting I wonder what people will think about Chicken George?

Yobachi - Any progress on reading the book?

peace, Villager