Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Scholars on Roots

Over the past several months I have been interviewing scholars of black history and culture to ask what Roots meant and means to them as readers, viewers, and scholars.  These conversations have been fascinating and fun.  My hope is that these different perspectives will allow for more nuanced discussions of Roots

"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!"  Read more
—Erica Ball

"I know so many folks who talk about sitting in front of the TV with their family every night for a week taking it all in. That never happened with me. I only experienced 
Roots in college—initially, through pop culture.  The music that was in rotation in the early to mid 1990s, the period when I was in college, was things we now consider classics, like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory.  They had a song on there called 'What?'"  Read more
—Adam Bradley

"I think Roots is a kind of hovering text about slavery that people and artists aren’t necessarily articulating...I don’t know anybody who didn’t watch it and I don’t know anybody who didn’t know its import and how it figures into the imaginary...I really don’t think its possible for most of these contemporary artists to even be thinking outside of the framework of Roots and its effect."  Read more
—Kimberly Juanita Brown

"Part of me feels this kind of overwhelming resistance to Roots, not as a cultural production but because of the fundamental misunderstanding of its veracity...What I appreciate about the legacy of Roots is that in many ways it inadvertently helps me and inadvertently helps you, because the interest in black genealogy that comes out of Roots allows for people who do historical work on African Americans to be legible to audiences outside of academia.  So I think that the kind of Roots-effect was really good for the emergence of African American historians, but the fact that it is untrue always makes me uneasy about introducing it in the classroom."  Read more
—Marcia Chatelain

"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."  Read more
—Bambi Haggins

"The impact that Roots had abroad is astounding.  Some of the stories brought me to tears.  One story deals with Roots in South Africa.  Roots was banned in South Africa because of apartheid.  They did not censor the novel, but they censored the miniseries because they thought visually it would be too troublesome and cause riots.  For years people weren’t able to see Roots, but somehow people got ahold of it and started setting up viewing parties to watch the film.  A lot of them were segregated viewing parties, so white people would watch in certain theaters and black South Africans in Soweto would watch it in another.  And the response was just remarkable, people were in tears, some people had to leave the theater, they were visibly shaken and upset.  To read about the impact that it had on people facing similar oppressions was quite moving."  Read more
—Kellie Carter Jackson

"I recall the event of 'Roots' very clearly. For an Afro-Caribbean immigrant family like mine, watching this mini-series was a deep initiation into African American and American culture. It was the site and source of my first understanding of US slavery."  Read more
—Arlene Keizer

"Roots figures into The Social Life of DNA 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."  Read more 
—Alondra Nelson


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