I was born about three years after Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family was published and about two years after the novel transformed into a ground-breaking, 9-time Emmy-winning, made-for-television miniseries. Its first run aired for eight consecutive nights and made history by attracting the largest viewership of any series in American history. Over half of the American population watched Roots— unheard of then and even now.
I saw parts of the series as a child and in its entirety as a teenager after I read the novel. Though it was a bit dated by then, it deeply resonated and was one of the things that inspired in me a keen interest in studying the narratives of enslaved people in the Americas. I went on to get a degree in African American studies from the University of Pennsylvania and my coursework involved quite a bit of in-depth historical study of these narratives.
Though cliche, I was motivated, in part, by the saying “If you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you’re going.” I still consider the original “Roots” series an essential viewing for everyone, not just Black Americans.
Though there have been less popular sequels to the original series (Roots: The Next Generation, 1979, and Roots: The Gift, 1988), many people agreed that “Roots” did not need to be remade; it was fine the way it was, for the time it was made, and should be heralded as a staple that is revisited over and over as needed. So when the first rumblings of “Roots reboot” echoed across social media, the most common reaction was, “But…why?!”
Even LeVar Burton, the actor who originated the role of Kunta Kinte, said he was not sold on the idea of remaking the series. At the White House premier, he said he was skeptical, but after consulting with Mark Wolper, one of the executive producers, he was convinced that a re-imagination of the series was necessary for a younger generation and for those who didn’t get to fully experience the original series. I’ve actually met Black folks over the age of 30 who have never seen it. No shade, but it’s one of those things I’ve assumed every Black person had seen at least one part of, yet that isn’t the case.
I received an invitation to view the pilot at The White House at an event that featured panels that included activist DeRay McKesson, blogger/author Luvvie Ajayi, director Mario Van Peebles, actors LeVar Burton (original Kunta Kinte) and Anika Noni Rose (new Kizzy), and some of the producers and writers.
In the first panel, Ajayi and McKesson spoke on the importance of knowing one’s identity and engaging in the fight for liberation. One of the lasting images/scenes from the original series was that of Kunta Kinte being given his name and defending his right to have it while being whipped by an overseer. “In Yoruba culture, our names are our shields,” said Ajayi. I appreciate the ongoing conversations about Blackness and identity and how enslavement had a severe impact on how we, descendants of the enslaved, identify and understand ourselves ethnically and culturally.
In speaking about protest, McKesson stated, “Protest is the idea of telling the truth in public.” When people lament the development of movies or TV shows that focus on the experiences of enslaved people in America, I pushback and remind them that we have not had nearly enough of these stories told. Centuries of enslavement, rape, torture, and murder, and we can barely count on two hands the number of major mainstream projects that adequately present a better understanding of what life was like for our ancestors. We could produce a new movie or TV series every month for a decade and still not come close to telling even a fraction of the important stories.
There are so few visual representations of these experiences and we have to stop pretending that telling these stories hold us back or shames us. When we learn about schools changing the narratives and making attempts to sanitize the truth about slavery, we know that we need even MORE of these kinds of movies and TV shows.
- Me…At Lincoln Center for the NYC premiere (May 23, 2016)
I also received an invitation to the New York City premiere at Lincoln Center where more of the actors were present and greetings viewers and fans. After watching the pilot twice, I cannot help but share my excitement for this new series and encourage everyone to watch it.
One of the critiques of the original “Roots” was that it didn’t hold White people accountable enough and perhaps that was because of the positive associations people had with the primary White actors; they were some of America’s most beloved TV dads at the time. This re-imagination spares no one and does a fantastic job of showing just how savagely barbaric those who engaged in the slave trade and in the ownership of enslaved people were.
There are graphic scenes depicting torture and they will make you turn your head, but they are important! We cannot shy away from this reality, even as we distance ourselves from centering Whiteness in our narratives. There is no room for White redemption in these stories and I’m honestly glad to see little of it in these modern portrayals of Antebellum America.
- Tony Award-winning actress, Anika Noni Rose,
portrays Kizzy in the new Roots series.
White House premiere (May 17, 2016)
I really enjoyed how much more of a focus they put on the lives of people before they were kidnapped and sold into slavery. We got to see and connect with the joy and love people shared in their lives, their traditions and customs, and their strength and commitment to each other. It reminds us that our identities do not begin with slavery; we descend from people whose lives were rich and full before encountering Europeans.
I was one of the skeptical ones, but I am truly sold. I hope you all tune in with your friends and families and watch this re-imagination of the classic Roots story.
Check out the trailer:
Watch the premiere on the History Channel on May 30, 2016 at 9pm/8pm c and join in livetweeting each night using #Roots and @RootsSeries