Roots and the 1970s

Alex_Haley_AnnapolisKunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo: Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons)

When ABC executives first agreed to broadcast a made-for-television version of journalist Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), they could not have anticipated the impact the program would have on the American cultural landscape. They hoped that the story– a fictionalized account of Haley’s family history– would find a receptive audience. Instead, the program became an international sensation, one of the most significant media events of the 1970s.

The January 23, 1977 premiere of Roots focused on the childhood of an eighteenth-century century West African boy named Kunta Kinte, who at the age of fifteen, was kidnapped from his home in the Gambia, enslaved, and sold to a slave trader bound for Annapolis, Maryland. The seven subsequent episodes detailed Kinte’s ongoing struggle to resist and survive his new condition as a slave in early America, and portrayed the trials and triumphs of the next three generations of his American-born descendants. The series concluded in the aftermath of the Civil War, with Kinte’s emancipated grandson and great-grandsons leading their families away from the North Carolina plantation where they had once served as property, to freedom and their own plots of land in Tennessee. Author Alex Haley then brought the series to close with an epilogue announcing that audiences had just enjoyed a dramatization of the history of his own family, based upon stories that had been passed down to him over the years and details that he had recovered using painstaking genealogical research.

Roots was a marked departure from typical American television fare, particularly in light of its content and its overwhelmingly black cast, and ABC executives expressed concerns about the program’s potential appeal to a white audience. So as a cautionary measure, they chose to air the program on consecutive evenings rather than once weekly. In doing so, they inaugurated the special miniseries format that would dominate network television in the following decades.

The astonishing success of the show became apparent over the eight nights the series aired. Americans began canceling events and staying home to watch each installment. Restaurants and bars reportedly kept their television sets tuned to ABC so that patrons wouldn’t miss a moment of the action. And when the finale aired on January 30, 1977, an estimated 80 million viewers tuned in to watch, making it what was then the most viewed program in American television history. All told, over 130 million people– nearly half of the population of the United States at the time– saw least one episode of Roots in 1977. The series would go on to air in countries around the world.

The popularity of the television miniseries, in turn, propelled sales of Haley’s book, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 46 weeks and would soon be translated into nearly 30 languages. Educators began adding Roots to high school and university curricula across the nation. Black Americans began booking West African heritage tours, ordering “roots tracing” kits, and naming newborns after characters in the series. Americans from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds began rushing to their local libraries and genealogical societies to learn more about their own family histories. And Roots immediately became the yardstick against which subsequent representations of slavery on screen would be measured. Not since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 had a popular melodrama about slavery had such an impact on the cultural landscape. Roots, as Time magazine noted on February 14, 1977, had clearly “hit home.”

It was no coincidence that Roots resonated with American audiences in the late 1970s in particular. Coming on the heels of the 1976 bicentennial celebration as well as the civil rights and black power movements, Roots offered a historical narrative in keeping with an ascendant pluralist interpretation of the American past. As scholars decentered Puritan New England in favor of a conception of national identity that embraced regional, racial, and ethnic diversity, Roots served as the popular manifestation of this trend, inviting audiences to see black people and the black freedom struggle as central to the American experience. Roots, in other words, was the vehicle that first introduced masses of Americans to the perspectives of the enslaved and their descendants.

By placing black people at the heart of American history, Roots also challenged longstanding interpretations of the meaning of slavery, freedom, and the Civil War. Unlike other popular cinematic representations of the antebellum South and the Civil War, such as perennial favorite Gone with the Wind, the black characters in Roots were not portrayed simply as cheerful, one-dimensional “servants” of white masters. Rather, slaves were complex individuals; they were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, and friends who survived under the most repressive and violent circumstances. In Roots, black characters (played primarily by popular Broadway and television stars) affirmed and protected their families and communities to the best of their abilities and never abandoned their quest for freedom.

These representations struck a chord with a wide range of viewers, who wrote to their local ABC affiliates to confess just how much they loved (and in some cases hated) and learned from the story. For many white viewers especially, Roots was their first introduction to African American history. And for black audiences, as Jet magazine put it in 1977, Roots was “our story at last.”

The multigenerational family drama at the heart of the narrative, and Haley’s own claims to have authenticated this history through painstaking genealogical research and travel to the Gambia, heightened the program’s appeal for black and white Americans alike. Black Americans received Haley’s assertion that he traced his family history past the veil of slavery all the way back to an ancestor in eighteenth-century Africa as a collective victory. For these viewers, Kunta Kinte became a symbolic forefather, a shared ancestral figure standing in for family members who even the most determined and careful black genealogists would likely never be able to identify.

For white “hyphenated” or “ethnic” Americans, meanwhile, Roots affirmed a growing interest in recovering the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents who had immigrated to the United States from eastern and southern European villages. Indeed, both white and black interest in family history and genealogy, although already on the rise in the 1960s and 1970s, exploded after Roots first aired.

These national trends persisted even after genealogical fact checking weakened Roots’ claim to non-fiction status, a status that had been heavily promoted by Haley’s publisher, Doubleday Press. Haley, for his part, continued to characterize his book as “faction,” a blend of fact and fiction, until his death in 1992. But this controversy did not dislodge Roots’ status as a transformative and paradigm-shifting pop culture phenomenon. Ultimately Roots was a cultural production that recast the way that Hollywood represented and Americans understood slavery. In the process, this seventies television series invited Americans in that era to reconsider the history of the nation, and the place of black Americans within it.

About the Author

Erica Ball

Erica L. Ball is currently Professor of American Studies and Chair of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her first book, To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), interrogates the links between early nineteenth-century African American advice literature, antislavery activism, and northern free black processes of middle-class self-fashioning. She has recently completed co-editing with Kellie Carter Jackson a collection of scholarly essays on the iconic 1977 television miniseries Roots. Entitled Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics and Memory, the volume will be published by the University of Georgia Press in spring 2017. Ball is currently working on a cultural history of Slavery in the Modern American Imagination and study of beauty culture and black women's self-fashioning at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. In fall 2016, Erica L. Ball will join the faculty at Occidental College as Professor of American Studies.

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