Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Alondra Nelson interview

Alondra Nelson is professor of sociology and gender studies and Dean of Social Science at Columbia University.  She is the author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after Genome (Beacon Press, 2016) and Body and Soul:The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).  On the connections between Roots and The Social Life of DNA, see Nelson's essay "Roots and Genes" in Aeon Magazine.

Alonda Nelson Interview - September 28, 2015
MD: When did you first encounter Roots?

AN: I remember the book coming out in 1976 and I remember seeing it everywhere.  I was eight or nine and I would go to friends’ homes and their parents would be reading it.  So it was a book sort of on everyone’s coffee table in everyone’s home.  And I remember it being this really big tome and reading bits and pieces of it, but really feeling like it was more book than I could handle at age eight or nine. 

And then of course I remember, and I write about this in the preface to my book, I remember like it was yesterday watching Roots on television with my parents and siblings.  It was remarkable because I had pretty strict parents and we had to go to bed early.  We had to come home from school, and have a snack, and do your homework, and have dinner, and go to bed, that was the kind of schedule that we had.  And those eight days when Roots ran we got to do a totally different schedule.  They let us stay up and watch the entire thing.  It was out of schedule for our family, it was a completely alternative schedule for us.  And I remember my parents being moved by it.  And I remember young people talking about it, teachers at school talking about it.  I very much remember it as an extended moment in time in my childhood.

MD: How does Roots figure into your new book, The Social Life of DNA?

AN: Roots figures into the book because part of what I suggest is that, this Roots moment creates for a certain generation of us, who were either children or adults when the book or film phenomenon happened, creates the expectation that one could be as successful as Haley.  And we know that his success is complicated by the aspects of the project that are fictionalized, but it creates an expectation among at least two generations that you could do what Haley does.  If you could just get the Lloyds of London records, and put in a little elbow grease with some genealogy you could do this.  But what happens in the intervening decades is that it becomes much more difficult.  And most African Americans aren’t able to have this kind of journey back into their family’s past like Haley does.  So what in part this ancestry testing offers for African Americans is the realization of that aspiration that might have been seeded in them when they were small children or young adults when the initial Roots moment happened in the mid to late-1970s.  This becomes a moment to have a Haley moment anew.  Not through the archival labor, but those these genetic ancestry tests.

MD: Thinking about the remake of Roots, how do you think audiences will respond differently today to Roots given the developments in genetic ancestry that you write about?

AN: I think it will be a historical moment because it will be a moment of commemoration, and I think people will be ruminating like you and I are about what Roots meant.  But I also think what’s different is that we didn’t have 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained.  Part of the Roots phenomenon was that, besides Gone With the Wind or Sounder, there hadn’t been a lot of attempts to capture what chattel slavery was in the United States from the perspective of people who were enslaved.  So now, almost forty years hence, we have a lot more stories that try to capture that perspective in various ways.  So I think people will be more familiar with some of the narrative tropes around how we try to remember slavery.  And we also have had since the Roots moment all of these novels and novelistic attempts to render what it was to be enslaved.  These are often called neo-slave narratives, that generation of work like Beloved, Dessa Rosa, and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage.  There’s actually been a lot more attempts at narrative rendering of what that tragic, horrific experience might have been like.  And Roots came at a moment when we didn’t have so much of that.  I think whatever happens with the reception, it will be mediated by almost forty years of other types of stories that take on and borrow heavily from Roots.

MD: Have you ever taught Roots?

AN: You know I have.  I’ve been teaching a class on the politics of family in the genomic era, and there’s a historical part of the class about how people have thought about the family, how they’ve tried to put it together, and how family reunions emerge in an antebellum period.  Roots becomes one way of trying to think about, what is the family?  How big is the family?  Is it a diaspora?  Is it transatlantic?  Or should family be the people in your home?  So I have taught it in the context of trying to get people to understand genealogy as an important social practice. 

MD: Is there anything else that comes to mind that you want to mention about Roots?

AN: I’d just want to say again that with the exception of Gone With the Wind, Roots really becomes out urtext for how we think about racial slavery in a very important way.  So it is a fictionalized narrative, but it also becomes an important historical narrative because it is one of our few attempts to tell the story.

There are also a couple of places in the book where I write about the genealogists I talked to, many of them, particularly if they are fifty or sixty, have a story about reading Haley’s story in Playboy.  Or as you know, Haley toured it everywhere, so a lot of them have stories about him being at their high school or community center.  It’s really fascinating.

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