Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Bambi Haggins interview

Bambi Haggins is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University.  She is the author of Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona In Post-Soul America (Rutgers University Press, 2007), which won the Katherine Singer Kovacs Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Bambi Haggins Interview - November 24, 2015

MD: Do you remember when you first read or watched Roots?

BH: I watched Roots when I was in the seventh grade [at McKinley Junior High School in Pasadena, California].  Mr. Jones our history teacher assigned it for all of us to watch, and we ended up watching it as a family for the whole run.  In some ways it was kind of mind blowing because there had just never been a show with that many black people in it as the good guys.  We talked about it in class and, as someone who later would teach U.S. history and even later teach about black representations in media, I remember that feeling.  I remember the idea that we were seeing something we hadn’t seen before.  And it seemed really important; you knew that this was important.  My parents where big on watching things that were important, we watched the Watergate hearings when I was a little kid because this is history and you need to watch this.  Roots was history, Roots was history on multiple levels so it felt sad and empowering at the same time. 

I must admit that my relationship with Roots has changed over time.  I used a few episodes of it in my U.S. history class, it was a pretty progressive high school, to illustrate what slavery looked like.  Not just the ideas about slavery or seeing the chart of the “dense pack,” but what where the individual experiences of it.  And I thought it was very useful in that way.  And now I do teach Roots, but I teach it fairly elliptically unfortunately.  Something that happened in graduate school for me was seeing [Marlon Riggs’] Color Adjustment, so now I show a segment of the first episode of Roots, the sort of mythic Africa part, and then show a piece of Color Adjustment, the segment on how the story had been transformed from the nation’s sin to the triumph of the American family.  And there are just certain parts of that that once you see it, you can’t un-see it.  [Producer] David Wolper’s statement, “I had to cast my blacks…actors.” Just that little pause—“I had to cast my blacks”—it had a resonance for me that made me so uncomfortable because it is again this idea of trying to cast people that the audience, who was not black, would be willing to watch as heroes.  Having said that it always seems important to me to talk about what an experience this was to see that many black people on the screen.  That many black actors in roles that weren’t secondary or weren’t somehow Huggy Bear, in the seventies in particular. 

MD: Can you say more about what it was like to watch Roots with your family?

BH: That was a long time ago, but one of the things I remember is that my dad was a construction foreman, so after leaving the house at 5 a.m. it was a big deal that he was sitting there watching it with us because he was going to have to get up really early.  And I think mom watched most of it with us.  Mom was always in and out, there were six kids so there was a lot to do.  It was definitely this experience that was important.  The significance was not lost on me even as a seventh grader.

MD: Do you remember anything about discussing Roots in school?

BH:  Mr. Jones wanted us to watch it because he said too often slavery was just this thing that happened in the distant past and you don’t see how it continues to have an effect.  He said a whole people went through this, and that kind of experience doesn’t go away in one generation or two generations.  I didn’t understand it then, but now of course I do.  He was a good teacher.  It is interesting because Pasadena was an integrated school district, but I was in a gifted class so there were only two other people of color in my history class, maybe three.  It was one of those instances where I noticed people being uncomfortable talking about issues of race, a lot of people not knowing what to say, which you still experience today. 

MD: When you have taught Roots, how do students react or what do they take away from it?

BH: I’ve gone from showing a couple of episodes—the Kizzy being taken away episode and the opening episode—to showing pieces of those episodes because there is just so much more history to cover now.  When I was teaching high school, the year Glory came out we had just watched Roots and I arranged with the local movie theater to have the class go see Glory.  And having those in tandem was really powerful.  To have students understand the promise that wasn’t fulfilled.  The dream deferred, if you will.  Glory is not a perfect movie by any means, post grad school I know that now, but the Denzel tear moment was worth showing all of them because it is about a legacy that doesn't go away, that is always present in the undercurrent. 

If I had my choice and I was teaching a class on African American history through film, I would probably show Sankofa instead of Roots, because I have a soft spot for Haile Gerima and I think that is a very moving film.  For all of its magical thinking, I think there is a level of realism in Sanfoka that is more in tune with these times than Roots, which at the time seemed very realistic.  Roots has aged well and badly at the same time as a film.  But I don’t think of Roots as a just a “novel for television,” it was this watershed moment in terms of showing a black story that had not been told before.  As a high school teacher and as a kid that’s very much how I engaged it.

MD: Could you speculate on why more scholars haven’t written about Roots?
BH: I think it is one of those things that have more cultural meaning than it does critical meaning.  I think the moment of Roots, the experience of watching Roots, I think that is something people are interested in and compelled by and that’s what people talk about.  Really doing a critical analysis of Roots as a media text becomes more problematic in that you have to actually look at, what was real, what was fabricated? What were the industrial motivations behind it?  It is one of those things I don’t think people necessarily want to critique.  The closest thing to a critique I’ve ever seen is what Marlon Riggs does in Color Adjustment, where various scholars comment on Roots.  But it is interesting is I think that only Henry Louis Gates and Herman Gray reflect on what the story was telling.  The other scholar talked about watching Roots, talked about that experience.  I think the experiential part is what people, and certainly what I, have dwelt on.

MD: Is there anything I didn’t ask about Roots that you would like to mention?

BH: This bothered me as a kid in term of continuity, LeVar Burton would never turn into John Amos.  That was not going to happen.  Geordi in Reading Rainbow did not equal James Evans.  I was willing to let that go as a kid, but I did notice it.

I think Roots marks an important moment and it marks this promise that was never fulfilled.  It created the kind of narrative that black and white audiences could watch and could engage in, and it seemed like this great promise that there could be more of these shows and there weren’t.  It didn’t happen.  It was yet again an opportunity that industrially was missed and purposefully missed.

Back to Scholars on Roots