Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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What ‘Roots’ can still teach us

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In searching the newspaper’s archives, I just came across this 2007 op-ed piece about ‘Roots,’ and it seems as timely as ever:

‘Roots’ encore would reteach the country about slavery and survival


WASHINGTON—It was 30 years ago this month that ABC aired the powerful miniseries “Roots.” The eight-part, 12-hour miniseries, based on the best-selling book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex  Haley , was of historical importance for the country, and it should be remembered.

Haley ’s novel is a rendering of his family’s history, recounting the story of Kunta  Kinte , a West African teenager captured and sold into slavery in America.  Kinte  endures the horrors of the Middle Passage and chattel slavery, and his survival, like the survival of millions of Africans during the same period, is central to the development of the country.

Haley ’s 1976 book sold millions of copies prior to its adaptation into a television miniseries. It was translated into numerous languages, and earned  Haley  several writing accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1977.

The miniseries earned sky-high prime-time ratings on network television—including a record-setting 80 million viewers for the finale.

The show’s cultural significance was enormous.

For starters, “Roots” had Americans—not just blacks—finally facing the history of slavery up close. Until then, slavery was a little-discussed topic in America, and public understanding of it was often full of stereotypes and misinformation.

“[W]hat makes ‘Roots’ so compellingly unique,” television critic Sander Vanocur wrote in The Washington Post when the program originally aired, “is that television is finally dealing with the institution of slavery and its effect on succeeding generations of one family.”

The miniseries “may have been the most significant civil rights event since the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965,” wrote historian Roger Wilkins in The New York Times on Feb. 2, 1977.

Sadly, the lessons from “Roots” are still needed today.

On Martin Luther King Day, Frank Hargrove, a Republican lawmaker in Virginia’s House of Delegates, created an uproar when he said that blacks “should get over” slavery, helping to prove that many whites still have a historical resistance to acknowledging and accepting our country’s tragic legacy. (Since the misguided comment, Hargrove has said that he thinks “we can all agree that the end of slavery was a good thing.”)

“Roots” inspired millions of blacks to seek out, without fear or shame, their genealogical links to Africa, a practice that is still popular today.

Thirty years later, “Roots” remains relevant.

BRIAN GILMORE is a lawyer and writer.