Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Erica Ball interview

Erica Ball is a Professor of American Studies at Occidental College.  She is the author of To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (University of Georgia Press, 2012).  With Kellie Carter Jackson, she has co-edited a collection of essays titled, Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in 2017.

Erica Ball interview - February 24, 2016

MD: When did you first read or watch Roots?

EB: I first encountered Roots when I was five years old and my family watched it on television.  So my memories are very hazy, because I was so young.  But what I never forgot are two things: first, Kunta Kinte’s foot being chopped off, and second, the sale of Kizzy and her screaming in the wagon as she is being taken away.  I think it makes sense that those would be things a five year old would remember, but I never forgot those two scenes.  And then my family watched it again when I was older.  It was rebroadcast in 1982, I think, for an anniversary broadcast.  We had just returned to the United States from living abroad, my father was in the military, and so that one of the first things we watched when we got back to the U.S..  Welcome back!

MD: Can you recall any discussion with your parents about what Roots meant?

EB: Not the first time around, I was too young.  But the second time, they explained that this is a history story so it tells us a lot about the way things used to be, and then they emphasized that its not that way anymore.

MD: Have you ever taught Roots?

EB: No, I’ve never taught Roots.  This semester will be the first time I’m going to teach it.  This will be at the end of the semester in my “Race and Popular Culture” class, and I’m planning to pull in some clips.  I’ve tended to stay away from it in the classroom, just because I’ve wanted to focus on the history of slavery.  But for this popular culture class we do some interesting stuff with memory and representation.

MD: Do you know what clips you’ll show yet?

EB: I don’t know yet, but I’m planning to use clips from the first episodes so you get some scenes of Africa and a Middle Passage scene.  And then I think I’m going with the foot scene because it had such an impact on me.  Then I'll use some of the later Civil War and post Civil War era scenes, where I believe the show implicitly grapples with the legacy of the civil rights movement at the same time it explicitly addresses the history of slavery

MD: Could you talk about you and Kellie came to edited collection?

EB: This has been in the back of my head for a while, because I was struck with the gap in scholarship on Roots.  It is just so odd that something that was an extraordinary cultural phenomenon just hasn’t had that much written about it.  When I met Kellie at a conference, we both had a similar interest in Roots and we thought maybe an edited collection is a good way to open up the conversation and pull in different types of people—historians, media studies scholars, people from the UK, South Africa, etc.—and see if we can get a conversation going about the possibility of talking about Roots, because it seems like that’s been closed off for a while. 

MD: Did anything surprise you in the process?

EB: Two things surprised me, one domestically, one internationally.  We have an essay by Clare Corbould who examined letters sent to ABC affiliates. These are currently held in the Wolper Archives at the University of Southern California. It is surprising how much some of the letters from white viewers seem to anticipate the “color-blind” rhetoric of the Reagan right.  Whether they liked the series or didn’t like the series, the letter writers talk about how important it is that "we don’t see color."  And it was interesting to see that articulated by a variety of people in the 1970s. 

And the second thing was the scope of the international impact and the scope of its political possibilities outside of the U.S.  Inside of the U.S., I tend to think of it as a show that has a pretty strong conservative subtext, but outside the U.S., people seem to be drawn to it for different political reasons and to use it.  We have a really interesting essay by Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang who specializes in the history of China and Taiwan.  He looks at at movement of Chinese men who had been pressed into service by the Chinese Nationalists and transported to Taiwan in the late 1940s.  After reading and watching Roots, one of these men became inspired to create a protest movement demanding that he and those like him be allowed to return home and see their families

MD: Is there anything else that comes to mind about Roots that you’d like to mention?

EB: I think Roots is absolutely worth remembering and worth studying.  Any popular representation of slavery is about multiple things at the same time.  It is not simply about the institution of slavery; it also tells us about contemporary “race relations,” it tells us about the politics of the current moment, it tells us about what we think about the meaning of freedom, the meaning of American identity itself.  That’s always the case whether you are talking about Roots or the children's book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which got everyone into an uproar a few weeks ago.  For that reason it is essential that we take a document like Roots very seriously.

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