Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

The First National Conversation on Race

Everyone had an opinion about Roots. Author and actress Maya Angelou, who played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the television series, said Roots enabled people “to see Africans at home (on the continent) and abroad (three hundred years and thousands of miles removed to the United States, South America, the Caribbean, Nova Scotia) as simply human being caught in the clutches of circumstances over which they had little and often no control. Whites, who had been caricatured into two-dimensional bigots, also came into clearer focus. Haley, pursuing his own genealogy during 12 years of research, unearthed facts about himself and his family, which in turn showed us the truth of our conjoined histories.” Ronald Reagan, among others, disagreed. “Very frankly, I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive,” Reagan argued. People less famous that Maya Angelou and Ronald Reagan discussed and debated Roots in homes, workplaces, bars, and elsewhere. Many of these opinions were published as letters to the editors of newspapers across the country. The selection of letters quoted below makes it clear that Roots prompted the first “national conversation on race,” with all of the hope, ambiguity, and futility that this Clinton-era phrase evokes.

Black Identity
“After viewing the movie and reading the novel, I shall never be the same. It gave me a sense of pride and dignity. I cried with the characters, I laughed with them, I felt their lashes, understood their agony. The outstanding thing about ‘Roots’ is that it was written by a black man, about a black man and his courage and determination to hold onto his true identity. Nothing I have read since the Bible has had such an impact on my life.” Janice Turner, Los Angeles Sentinel, March 10, 1977

“I have seen the eyes of Alex Haley’s ‘Kunta’ many times, and have heard his plight in the horns of John Coltrane and many other jazz musicians. I thank Alex Haley for bringing ‘Roots’ to those who have not dared to seek their history.” Naomi Nelson, Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, January 30, 1977

“I have been described “as colored, negro (small n), Negro (capital N), and (by choice) Black. It’s been my privilege to be all. I read Roots and I’m glad that the time has come that a book has been written of my people, for my people and by my people, not only to disprove the myth that we have no past to be proud of, but that we no longer have to speak first and foremost to a white audience.” Clement Wells Jr., Kansas City Star, February 6, 1977

“Why doesn’t [the letter writer from ‘Seething Over Roots’] read books on slavery. Why not come to Northwest Pasadena or Altadena and talk to old people who came out of the South, whose mothers were the ‘Massa’s’ children, like my mother.” “Kizzy,” Pasadena Star-News, March 3, 1977

“Roots via book, movie and education output will do more to establish the identify of America’s blacks than anything else that has been written on this subject. Knowing what kind of an American he or she really is: Ghananian, Senegalese, Watusi, Zambian, or whatever, is as equally significant as knowing that one is Franco-Spanish Basque, Romanian Gypsy, Lithuanian Jew, Alsatian or whatever.” Denver Post, February 3, 1977

“I viewed the movie ‘Roots’ in its entirety and can truly say it has opened my eyes and the eyes of many others to our black ancestry. I have been told and have read many versions of the past from which the black race descended but could never actually visualize how our ancestors struggled for freedom, therefore, the past has been meaningless. Now the door has been opened, and it’s because of our strong and determined forefathers that today we can say we are proud.” Clarissa Steedley, Columbia State, February 9, 1977

“Mr. Haley, I did not watch ‘Roots’ because I knew I did not want to live through slavery again. I don’t think it helps the Negro American’s image, and we are Americans now after four or five generations. I’m sure it did you a lot of good to write the book. The people that read a big book probably could handle it, but a big spread on television with a lot of already frustrated people watching was very bad for race relations.” Ganell Taylor, Chicago Defender, February 17, 1977

White Guilt and Innocence
“I am a 21-year-old white man. The program, ‘Roots,’ which Channel 9 telecast, has prompted me to write this letter…I am ashamed to be white. To think my ancestors could possibly be so animalistic to the ancestors of [black] people. Isn’t it about time we, as whites, did something to repay the great torture, humiliation and embarrassment our forefathers caused the blacks? I, myself, don’t know what to do to help repay this debt, but I am willing to do any reasonable thing suggested. At this point, I wish I could just cut this white skin off my body and replace it with black because my heart, soul and feelings are as a black’s. I have shed many a tear over this move and will probably shed more. I appeal to the people of Denver and Colorado as Christians to be the first to begin helping me repay this debt. For God’s sake, let’s do something.” Paul Boston, Denver Post, February 10, 1977

“I watched ‘Roots’ and would like to put things in proper perspective for those who are ashamed of being white after viewing this show. The superlative accomplishments, made in every known field by the present generation of the white race, are beyond my ability to describe. If you are alive you are experiencing a considerable quantity of them each and every day…And some people have the audacity to be ashamed of being white. It’s almost sacrilegious.” Norbert Faulstich, Denver Post, March 3, 1977

“I’d like to ask that there be research on the subject of slavery at the time of our dreadful ancestors plying this trade and this practice. Could it be that this awful traffic took place in several places other than Africa? Hadn’t there been enslavement elsewhere in those years when the Africans were imprisoned? If there were an expose of such practices possibly the blacks could be persuaded to examine the ‘sign of the times.’” Syndney Hoffman, Travernier, FLA

“I did not watch ‘Roots’ because I knew what it would be: black good, condensed; white evil, condensed. Our three teens were permitted to watch the show for the truths it did contain, and were quite disturbed until we assured them that, as far as we knew, not of their ancestors owned slaves, and neither did the ancestors of most of their school chums. Unfortunately, many, it not most, young blacks have gotten the idea that every white they meet is the descendant of a slaveowner.” Jacqueline Overman, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, February 18, 1977

“We enjoyed ‘Roots’ very much and were very moved by it, but there is a comment I feel much be made. I feel that what happened wasn’t something the white race did to the black race. Not all black people were involved and not all white people were involved. I don’t feel we should look at it today as ‘something I did to you,’ because ‘we’ did not exist then…Should we be punished for the sins of our fathers?” Joan Lawrence, Seattle Daily Times, February 20, 1977

“Inasmuch as my own foreign born granddaddy didn’t have lots of spare time for oppressing black folks while struggling with a new language and working in Chicago’s stockyards; my own personal guilt is rather low.” Gregory Sweigert, Fort Wayne News Sentinel, March 22, 1977

“So black Americans, stop bellyaching about your ancestors being slaves and start remembering that they made it possible for your to be free. Every race, creed and color were slaves in one way or another before coming to this country. That is what America is all about.” Mrs. Robert Conrad, Scranton Times, March 18, 1977

“I have not heard anyone question the truth of this one-sided story. There was not on decent white in the whole story until the last, which happened to be two poor whites.” Claudia McDaniel, Columbia State, February 16, 1977

“I have had first hand information from scores of reliable persons who lived during that period and I am convinced that most of those grisly tales were plain lies. Personally, I feel no guilt in the matter…Most of these owners were kind and compassionate toward the Negroes.” Mrs. C.F. Stockburger, Austin American Statesman, February 20, 1977

“No one bothers to tell that it was Negroes who captured Negroes and sold them to the slave traders. The network monopoly does not report the research which shows the humane slave owners, who held the well-fare of their slaves as a responsibility for which they were answerable to God. They do not report the contentment of many blacks with their situation.” Geo. Hunt, El Paso Times, February 14, 1977

“For eight evenings I have witnessed the world’s greatest extravaganza of racial hatred being portrayed for the consumption of our youngsters…Roots, without exception, depicted all of my fellow Anglo-Saxon forbears as extremely brutal, uncultured, hypocritical, totally dishonest and without a single redeeming feature.” A.V. Grant, Dallas Morning News, February 7, 1977

“Yes, Alex Haley and his ancestors have had it tough. They have had inhumane treatment. They have been spat upon long enough—too long. But I have not spat upon them. My family has not. My family was also raped, abused, enslaved.” Diane Blayne, Akron Beacon Journal, February 6, 1977

“The televised version of Roots was not well researched or documented. I feel that ABC owes an apology to all Americans, black and white, for producing such a distorted picture…Every white was shown in an unfavorable light…most slave owners were actually God-fearing, solid citizens who did not realize conscientiously that slavery was wrong.” B.R., Tulsa Tribune, February 7, 1977

“I am white and I am angry that a TV station, through a story written by a black who obviously is seeking sympathy for his race, is trying to lay a guilt load on me for something that happened 100-150 years ago. My family never owned any slaves and neither have I, and I resent the blacks living today trying to make me feel guilty for something which happened long ago.” Linda Crawford, Charlotte Observer, February 1, 1977

“I just watched, ‘Good Morning America,’ and was tempted to turn it off. I am so tired of the aftermath of ‘Roots’…I know the black were treated shamefully and brutally. But why rub salt in an old wound? We are not responsible for what happened in the days of slavery. I can’t understand what the news media are trying to do, especially television….I blame the TV and wonder what’s going to happen to us if some of these things keep coming into our homes on the tube.” “Just A Little Sad,” Jackson Daily News, February 11, 1977

“I feel no shame for ‘Roots.’ So the black people had a tough time finding acceptance and tolerance in this world—who among us can possibly believe that life is easy for anyone?” Marilyn Beasley, Oregon Journal, February 2, 1977.

“To you blacks who watched Roots: remember, it was one breed of whites who forced the cruelties of slavery upon the Africans. It was another breed of white who voluntarily died by the tens of thousands during the Civil War to free them from this inhumanity. Whether or not they succeeded, they gave their all for something better for you and all society.” R.G.M. Tulsa World, February 15, 1977

“Although I think it should be show, Roots melodramatic treatment and biased views may set back race relations a hundred years. The white people are all, if not thoroughly villainous, at least selfish or weak or immoral, while the blacks are noble beyond belief” Queens Tribune, February 11, 1977

“My family and I have just sat in front of our TV screen watching ‘Roots.’ I’m seething…if there was ever a distorted piece of propaganda ‘Roots’ is it. I’m not saying any of that didn’t happen: what I am saying is that anything which pictures every white as vicious and heartless, and every black as sweet, good and a helpless victim, is an out-and-out lie. The thing I hate in this is that children are going to believe the lie.” “Seething Southerner,” Pasadena Star-News, February 4, 1977

“What I can’t understand is why blacks think only they were slaves and mistreated. Slaves date back to the Bible. People of all race and colors were enslaved and were tortured and repressed since before Christ.” Vera Havers, Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), February 18, 1977

“I resent the feelings of guilt and shame that I’m supposed to have. I feel neither of the two, as I was not a participant in the bondage of other human beings. Also I resent the saturation showing of just the negative aspects of race relations…Why should people today pay for others’ foul deeds?” Anthony Antonio, Sewell, NJ, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 1977  

“Roots gave everyone exactly what he wanted. Whites got guilt, blacks got pity and Alex Haley got rich.” Cody West, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 12, 1977

“Is there no limit to what those grubby money-grubber on Madison Ave. will do for a buck? I watched the first episode of ‘Roots’ on Ch. 13 and found the entire thing inaccurate, distorted, but worse still, criminally inflammatory. If this program does not bring back the riots of the 1960s I’ll begin believing in miracles.” J. Kelley, Houston Chronicle, January 28, 1977

“The book “Roots” and the most popular thing ever shown was highly inaccurate in many way. You do not have to be a Ku Klux Klan member to realize that. You see, the author is a smart man who have lectures on how to sell a book and it appealed to the soul searching, guilt-ridden whites who want to slam at themselves and say, ‘Gee, God, did we do that?’” Argus (Fremont, CA), March 12, 1977

“Now along come the ABC television network and its local outlet WJZ who, simply for the almighty dollar, elect to televise one of the most provocative although poorly written stories that could have been found…As one inaccuracy in this narration, I would point to the omission of any reference to the fact that most of the original slaves were sold into slavery by their own people or the neighboring Arab nations.” P.F. Lee, Baltimore Sun, February 2, 1977

“Wasn’t the showing of ‘Roots’ designed to make oodles of money? ‘Roots’ was not a documentary production with the intent of social significant. A documentary show would not attract viewers, and therefore no sponsors. ‘Roots’ was programmed to attract the public that wants and supports the TV shows that display violence, sex, and varied horror exhibitions. The unholy slave trade was exploited by TV programmers to titillate Americans and make money.” Stanley Tappan, Waterbury American, February 17, 1977

“If there had been no ‘Drum’ and ‘Mandingo,’ there would have been no ‘Roots.’ As always, in search of the dollar, television had an uncanny ability to cash in on the latest fad, and these days that appears to be slavery.” Cliff Pugh, Baltimore Evening Sun, February 17, 1977

History and Slavery
“Harriet Beecher Stowe did much to bring about the tragedy that was the War Between the States. Please, let us stop exploiting dormant racial feelings by the examination and discussion of every facet of Alex Haley’s book, ‘Roots.’ The slaves were freed almost 114 years ago. That should be a dead issue. Enough time had passed for their descendants to stand on their own merits and be accepted or rejected for themselves and their own accomplishments.” Helen Chapman, Virginian Pilot, February 28, 1977

“ABC treated its viewers to a massive, twelve-hour dose of the sort of minority racism that some of us have come to expect from the minority-owned-and operated networks….Roots carries on the inflammatory tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, like its predecessor, the story is an historically questionable novel. In particular, I must object to the author’s use of gross racial stereotyping. Throughout, Haley portrays whites as two faced, sneering villains who enjoy mistreating long-suffering blacks…As a member of the American majority, I resent this sort of anti-white caricature and abuse.” Jim DeWitt, Montgomery Advertiser, February 4, 1977

“‘Roots’ is the new ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ The thing people in the South held against that book was not its depictions of cruelty—everyone knew about that anyway—but rather the fact that it depicted Negroes as having human intelligence and human feelings just like themselves.” Roe Fowler, Fresno Fresno Bee, February 7, 1977

“If we could take American history books on the high school and college levels seriously when they completely ignored the contributions of black people to the development of this country, surely we could take the TV production of Roots, based on the emotionally excruciating research of Haley, seriously.”Dr. Secil House, Hunstville Times, February 19, 1977

“While there is danger in becoming detached emotionally from the human past, there is equal danger in refusing to accept it in its totality. In the rush to bring ‘Roots’ into the classroom, I would like to see brought with it Eugene Genovese’s ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and other recent historical studies of slavery.” Bailey Thompson, Hunstville Times, February 19, 1977

“There was quite a chorus of ‘I didn’t knows’ after the television play ‘Roots’ was aired. It’s it a shame that such a large part of our population became aware of the evils of slavery only by seeing a movie (perforated by commercials) produced for the sole purpose of boosting ratings and selling goods. The historical data behind the movie rests in our libraries, undisturbed expect by students of black history.” Frances Craig, Baltimore Sun, February 19, 1977

“I watched the airing of ABC-TV’s Roots with nothing less than disgust. Through this presentation ABC has managed to eradicate years of dedicated effort on the part of millions toward the improvement of race relations.” Gustavo Echeverri, Miami Herald, February 3, 1977

“I would like to say that I’m proud to have seen this story ‘Roots’ unfold on TV…My grandfather was a slave and a proud man. My father was a blacksmith who also was a proud man. It wasn’t the slaves’ fault, it was the owners who weren’t human. I’ve dreamed of stories being told or written about the blacks like this with some truth in it, because I’m tired of hearing from both sides about blacks being lazy and good for nothing but welfare. Thanks to TV.” Mary Evans, Miami Herald, February 3, 1977

“I know ‘Roots’ must stir the very being of black people everywhere and it will no doubt cause much bitterness. But please stop and remember: You are not and never were a slave. I have never owned a slave…We cannot change what is past. Leave slavery in history where it belong so that all colors may join hands and work equally for a better America—where each person is accepted or rejected on personal merit alone.” Nita Bruemmer, Houston Post, February 4, 1977

“I believe that ‘Roots’ answers that question: Why aren’t the blacks like us? The whites came to this country of their own volition, and in nearly every case with their families intact. The blacks were brutally torn from their families, shackled and exported against their will…Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the blacks continued to exist as second-class citizens, denied those rights which would permit them to establish their family roots on a par with white contemporary immigrants. The transition from chattel slave to wage slave was an experience that only blacks and no others in our society ever experienced. ‘Roots’ delivered a vital blow to the prejudices of whites. Placing events in true historical perspective, it delivers this message: It is not color but slavery that shackled the cultural and social aspiration of the blacks.” Max Spector, New York Times, February 2, 1977

“The television serial ‘Roots’ shattered the myths and distorted facts written on the pages of our American history books. Thanks to Alex Haley, we are enlightened in 1977 with the powerful story, ‘Roots’!” Irene Buckman, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1977

“Mr. Thompson, I am puzzled by your dispute concerning the broadcast of the ABC adaptation of ‘Roots.’ I wonder if you wrote to the editors of this newspaper about other happenings of this nature. Were you also bothered by such shows as ‘Amos & Andy,’ Buckweat, Shirley Temple, ‘Gone With The Wind,’ and many others?...You say that Arabs sold the black. To whom? I have never heard anything of Arabs owning plantations in America. Somebody did the buying and as I’ve been taught—no market, no sale.” Phillip Long, Las Vegas Sun, February 6, 1977

Race in 1970s America
“Despite its flaws, ‘Roots’ certainly opened the eyes of many people hitherto oblivious to the realities of the Black experience in the United States. Perhaps we need a modern-day follow-up: the other side of SWAT repression against Black communities and union-busting.” J.P., New York Daily World, February 22, 1977

“Now what we have been shown how cruel whites were to black 200 years ago, how about a modern show with an 80-year-old white woman being raped and robbed by blacks youths, and young girls being thrown off tenement roofs by black thugs.” “Show Both Sides,” Daily News, February 5, 1977

“Alex Haley mimics Michener’s style….to produce an ethnic hate-mongering diatribe with which ABC is polluting prime time with a night soap opera version of the novel…‘Roots’ can only add fuel to the fires of racial hatred.” C.P. Phillips, Austin American Statesman, January 31, 1977

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