Dramatizes the African American Experience Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Roots, the history of an African American family—from freedom in Africa to slavery in the United States to emancipation—brought the experience and history of African Americans to mainstream attention.

Significance

Although Roots was not the first television miniseries, its sweeping success established that genre as a permanent part of the American television industry. In so doing, Roots provided a valuable service to television in the United States. The miniseries, as a new form of programming, allowed television to achieve the thematic power and sweep of narrative that previously had been reserved for films. The extended narrative form provides an opportunity for actors to become a part of their characters and also allows the characters to take hold of the imagination of the viewer. Roots lengthened the attention span of its viewers and helped prepare the way for other extended, in-depth treatments of significant subjects. The twelve hours of viewing time was analogous to the time necessary to read a book of medium length. The detail that the miniseries achieved was much greater than the normal thirty-minute or one-hour television program length permits. Although no network would choose to have a miniseries of one kind or another constantly in broadcast, Roots determined that there would always be a place for such shows. American Broadcasting Company

Roots also gave historical subjects a prominent place on television. Historic sites are popular vacation destinations in the United States among a significant part of the population, but the study of history is not popular. Roots helped create a taste for history that has been pursued by later miniseries, the best example being the 1990 public television broadcast of Ken Burns’s Burns, Ken multipart documentary The Civil War. Civil War, The (television documentary)

The relationship between commercial television and historians was uneasy at the time of the broadcast of Roots, and it has remained so. The presentation of historical subjects on television is not accurate enough to satisfy most academic historians. Many insist that programs such as Roots be labeled as “docudramas” Docudramas and not as documentaries. Some television critics and producers agree with this point of view. As a docudrama, Roots was a melodrama with stereotypes that sometimes disclosed the point of view of those who, historically, have been victims. David Wolper, the producer of Roots, recognized this fact when he commented that Roots was not intended to be a reference work for historical information. The focus of Roots was to be emotional impact; it was intended to show how it felt to be a slave. Because of its vivid historical imagination and its careful attention to re-creation, Roots became a powerful tool to achieve this end. The miniseries was, after all, the first television program to address the issue of slavery from the point of view of slaves.

Roots directly challenged what was, in 1977, a major academic theory in the interpretation of slavery. In 1959, historian Stanley M. Elkins Elkins, Stanley M. had published an important book titled Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Slavery (Elkins) In this book, Elkins argued that slavery was a highly coercive, closed system with a modern analogy in the Nazi concentration camps. In the camps of the Nazi era, it was observed that some inmates identified with their guards and adopted the type of behavior the guards wanted. Elkins argued that this was a means of accommodation through role playing that allowed the inmates to deal psychologically with being oppressed. Elkins then argued that slaves did the same thing—they dealt with oppression by psychologically identifying with the masters. The psychological characteristic that developed from this Elkins called the “Sambo” role. Black slaves were like children: “docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronic liars and thieves.”

In 1977, this was a widespread view of slavery. Roots directly challenged this view of black history and helped open the way for another evaluation of the black experience of slavery. Kunta Kinte, the single most important character, never became docile, despite several severe punishments and eventual amputation of a foot for his repeated attempts to run away. None of the descendants of Kunta Kinte looked at their owners as “good fathers”; indeed, Chicken George had to be restrained from killing the white man who was his biological father when the man made it clear that Chicken George was only a valuable piece of property and not a son.

Neither is it the case, as Elkins contends, that black people were so shocked and traumatized by the experience of enslavement that they gave up all ties to their African culture to become white people with black skins. Roots showed that the African heritage was not wiped out during the first generation of slaves and that aspects of tribal culture endured even into the twentieth century. Kunta Kinte, Chicken George, and Tom all functioned, even in slavery, as traditional African patriarchs. African humor, songs, dances, words, speech patterns, tales, games, folk beliefs, and sayings all were shown surviving the process of enslavement and transportation. One of the most powerful visual images of these African cultural survivals shown in Roots was the practice of naming a newborn child by lifting it upward toward a full moon, a symbol of renewing the link to Africa.

Another important impact of Roots was that the miniseries provided a source of national unity by keeping blacks and whites tuned in to acts of moral witness, of compassion, and of expiation. In short, Roots was a learning experience and seems to have had a positive impact on race relations. A nationwide survey by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reported that, except for a few isolated incidents, the showing of Roots strengthened black history offerings in schools and colleges and enlightened whites about the black heritage in both the United States and Africa. In this sense, critic Karl Meyer commented that Roots was like a medieval morality play, neither fact nor fiction but serving a didactic purpose. Television;miniseries

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baye, Betty Winston. “Alex Haley’s Roots Revisited.” Essence, February, 1992, 88. Discusses Haley’s work just before his death as well as his connection with Malcolm X.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Family Ties.” The New Yorker, October 26, 1992, 33-34. William Haley, the author’s son, describes why he sees the auction of notes and proofs of his father’s work as inappropriate. One scholar says that the auction of the deceased author’s memorabilia is part of an ongoing fragmentation of the black literary legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987. Describes how television creates a fantasy culture that is accepted in some ways by viewers as true and valid. The key to this process is that some elements of reality are incorporated into programming. Roots, with its fictionalized genealogy, is an example of this process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gonzales, Doreen. Alex Haley: Author of “Roots.” Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1994. Informative biography intended for young readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, John, ed. American History, American Television. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. These collected essays present television as a powerful social force in American culture. Useful background on how television affects and mirrors American society.

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