By Annette Hinkle
Thirty five years ago last week, ABC aired a groundbreaking mini-series that kept millions of Americans glued to their television sets over eight consecutive nights.
The series, of course, was “Roots: Saga of an American Family,” David Wolper’s film based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel. The series was groundbreaking not only because the viewership numbers it garnered remain, to this day, among the largest television audiences in history, but because it also inspired legions of Americans to really consider where they come from. For many people of color especially, it marked the first time the question of ancestry had been raised in any sort of serious way.
“Roots” traces the journey of one African-American family — Haley’s — over the course of four generations, beginning with Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton in the film), a teenage warrior who arrives in the United States in 1767 after being kidnapped in his native Gambia and sold into slavery. Though there has been controversy regarding Haley’s claims that he was actually related to the real life figures he based his novel on, the fact remains that in 1977, for African-Americans particularly, the tale of Kunta Kinte and his descendants struck a chord and instilled not only a sense of curiosity about the past, but a strong sense of pride as well.
Beginning this Sunday the Eastville Community Historical Society will honor Black History Month by screening the entire “Roots” series in three installments. The series will be shown on consecutive Sunday evenings at Christ Episcopal Church beginning this Sunday, February 5. On the last Sunday of February, the historical society will lead a discussion about the series. With that in mind, last weekend, several members of the historical society gathered to share their memories of “Roots” and the impact the series had when it premiered 35 years ago.
Though the horrors of slavery are certainly well known to anyone who has studied U.S. history, Gloria Primm Brown recalls that “Roots” brought the reality of slavery into living rooms in a way that had never before been experienced.
“It was the first time it had been explained in such a visual way,” notes Brown. “It was also the first time they ever presented a series every night, instead of weekly, which made it more powerful. It was the original must see TV.”
“It was also water cooler conversation,” adds Brown. “Every morning there was a rehashing in people’s offices of what happened on the show the night before. Whenever I went to meetings that’s all people were talking about it.”
Much of the discussion centered around the fact that “Roots” didn’t shy away from the most disturbing elements of slavery — from horrific conditions on slave ships and savage beatings to the raw emotion of the forced separation of families and the amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot to keep him from escaping, the depictions were brutal.
“In the first episode you see bare breasted women, which is culturally correct, but was not what one was accustomed to in those days,” says Brown. “I wonder what Wolper had to do to get it past ABC’s censors on broadcast TV.”
“The breadth and scope of it was amazing,” adds Michael Butler. “And as a series, of course, you got to see the whole Diaspora.”
When asked how he felt “Roots” changed race relations in this country, Butler responded, “It gave a more humanizing aspect to African Americans. It made people realize we do have a past and a history, as opposed to just being plunked down in this country.”
It also started conversations in all sorts of families about topics that had never before been broached. This, it seems, may be “Roots” most profound legacy. Jackie Vaughan recalls that even for African Americans who don’t trace their lineage to slavery in this country, prior to “Roots,” ancestral stories were seldom shared with the younger generation.
“My parents came here from the Caribbean by boat in 1910,” says Vaughan. “They never talked about the trip. We never asked and they never talked — even though they were not slaves.”
Beryl Banks agrees.
“Growing up we were told we came from queens and kings, but no one sat me down and gave me the details,” says Banks. “I did know people were kidnapped and chained, stacked like sardines on boats, sold as slaves and separated from families. But I don’t remember anyone specifically telling me.”
“A lot of older blacks would not speak about the past,” adds Muriel Cunningham. “This opened them up to ask questions.”
“I think the book brought the generations together,” notes Brown.
In 1977, “Roots” seemed to particularly strike a chord with the younger generation — people who came of age after the civil rights movement in an era of social consciousness.
“My children were 18, 20 and 22 and they watched it with us,” recalls JoAnne Carter. “There was indignation and anger. My daughter was angry for almost a year that some human beings could do that to others.”
But the series also ignited a keen sense of curiosity in the minds of young people. Brown recalls that Alex Haley was all over television in those days encouraging students to seek out their oldest living relatives and get their story down before it was too late.
“They are the repositories of the family history,” notes Brown. “That’s one thing he encouraged. A lot of people did that.”
Years later, in the early 1990s, Carter explains that she was able to introduce a new generation to “Roots” by screening the series for students at the New York High school where she taught.
“Because I saw ‘Roots’ and was excited many years before, I showed it to a group of kids in a club that I ran called The Diasporans,” explains Carter. “It was for any student who had African roots, including Latin American blacks or Puerto Rican blacks. The kids were very excited, as I wanted them to be, about finding out where they came from. They started genealogy projects. We went to the Schomburg Center library in Harlem and a genealogy expert taught them to trace their past. Now we have ancestor.com, but then the kids were fascinated by the fact they could find the information.”
“After The Diasporans discovered their stories, it spread throughout the school. Everyone wanted to trace their genealogy,” adds Carter. “I wanted that to happen here in Sag Harbor. I think it would be a wonderful thing if young people could do that again, especially black children. A lot of them don’t know where they came from. It opens up a whole world for them, and gives them a sense of self. We didn’t always have slavery, there was something before that.”
No one in Sag Harbor is probably closer to the source of “Roots” than Brown, who knew Alex Haley personally (her copy of “Roots” is inscribed by him — and dated January 1977 – the month the TV series premiered). In the 1970s, Brown was a program officer for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and part of her work involved the establishment of library programs in African countries. Several years before he published “Roots,” Haley came to the Carnegie Corporation with a vision of creating a genealogical library specifically for African Americans.
“We funded him, not for ‘Roots,’ but to lay the ground work for a black genealogical library,” recalls Brown who first met Haley in 1972. “In searching for his family, he had traveled the world and spent over $70,000 going to Europe, Africa and around the United States looking at records. He went to the Mormon library in Utah and he was just blown away. He felt there should be something like that for black people, his people. He was willing to spend some of his own money but didn’t know how to go about getting it done.”
While Brown notes some initial efforts were made in the years that followed to create such a library, with the success of “Roots,” Haley ironically no longer had time to be involved in its formation.
“We still don’t have a black genealogical library,” notes Brown. “After the book, Alex was off and running. It was simply impossible to get him to focus on the project.’
Alex Haley died in 1992 at the age of 70, and though Brown regrets that Haley’s library never came to pass, she is encouraged by the fact that his “Roots” saga still has the ability to affect younger audiences.
“By showing it now, it educates another generation of kids who know very little,” says Brown. “I hate to tell you, but a lot of African American children know practically nothing. The white population too. By showing things like this periodically, I think it educates a whole new generation of people about what actually happened in our history.”
“Roots” will be screened over three Sundays from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Upper Parish Hall of Christ Episcopal Church (East Union Street at Route 114) in Sag Harbor. The series begins Sunday, February 5 and continues on February 12 and 19. On Sunday, February 26, Gloria Brown will lead a discussion on Haley, his book and the mini-series at 4 p.m. For more information call 725-4711. Admission is free, but donations to the historical society will be accepted.
Those unable to make the historical society’s screenings will have a second chance later in the month when The Picture Show at Bay Street presents “Roots” over three consecutive days, Friday and Saturday, February 24 and 25, 2012 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 26 at 2 p.m. Admission to each screening is $5. Bay Street Theatre will offer a Friday and Saturday night “Dinner and a Movie” package for $28, available at Page @ 63 Main (725-1810), Phao (725-1774) or Dockside (725-7100). There is no package for Sunday’s screening.
Top: Taking part in a lively discussion about “Roots” were (back, left to right) Beryl Banks, JoAnne Carter, Michael Butler and Muriel Cunningham and (in front) Jackie Vaughan and Gloria Primm Brown.