Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, inspired influential TV series

By Murphy Browne Wednesday April 17 2013 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


One of the most important books and television series ever to appear, Roots, galvanized the nation and created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue that hadn’t been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book sold over one million copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130 million people. It also won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Roots opened up the minds of Americans of all colours and faiths to one of the darkest and most painful parts of America’s past.


From the website of the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center.


On April 18, 1977 the Pulitzer Prize for journalism was awarded to African-American author and journalist, Alex Haley, for his ground-breaking work which resulted in his 1976 book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.


Born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921 in Ithaca, New York, Haley spent his first five years living in Henning, Tennessee, from where the inspiration for Roots began. During the years Haley’s family lived with his maternal grandparents in Henning, his grandmother often told him about their family’s history in America and Africa.


That history went back several generations to a man she called “the African”. She said he had lived across the ocean near what he called the “Kamby Bolongo” and had been out in the forest one day cutting wood to make a drum when he was attacked and kidnapped by four men who beat, chained and dragged him aboard a slave ship, which took him across the ocean to lifelong enslavement in America.


This enslaved African ancestor maintained knowledge of his African name despite brutal beatings to accept the name given to him by his White enslavers. In “Roots”, the television series that was made from the contents of Haley’s book, Kunta Kinte is brutally beaten until he says the name “Toby”. That scene always brings me to tears of anger and sadness.


Haley was fortunate to have information that would eventually lead him to finding some of his African origins. His family maintained their connection to Africa through a few words that, as an investigative journalist, he could eventually trace back to Africa.


Most Africans in the Diaspora are not that fortunate. Our names were brutally beaten out of our memories. In most cases, the names did not survive the first generation of enslaved Africans. The furthest back that I can go in my family is to my paternal great-grandfather, whose name, Kelly Murphy Jonas, was most likely given to him and his ancestors by an Irish slaveholder.


Those names still exist in my family where there has been at least one Murphy in each generation since my great-grandfather. My father’s middle name is Murphy, as he was named after his grandfather; my first name is Murphy (only female in my family with the name) and my older cousin’s name is Clinton Murphy Williams. So far, I do not know which ancestor in that line was dragged kicking and screaming out of Africa. There were tens of millions who suffered that fate.


In South America where I was born and in the Caribbean Islands, some were worked to death within five to seven years so they never had an opportunity to pass on words from their language that could be traced back to a specific region on the African continent. However, some of the language did survive because the White slaveholders, after working the enslaved Africans to death, had to keep a steady replacement supply, so kidnapped Africans from the continent were taken to the Americas in a steady stream.


When African-Trinidadian professor, Maureen Warner-Lewis, author of the book, Trinidad Yoruba: >From Mother Tongue to Memory, was doing research for her book in the 1960s and 1970s she met with people who remembered that their parents or grandparents were from Africa. In a lecture entitled “African Heritage in the Caribbean”, which took place at the National Library in Port-of-Spain on March 7, 2007, professor Warner-Lewis mentioned some of the words from various places in Africa which have survived in the Diaspora:


The game “warri”, which originated in the area which is now Ghana; “susu”, from the Yoruba word “esusu”; is a banking system where there is a rotation of money pooled by a group of people to a central banker. Each person who “draws a hand” receives a lump sum of money. Other words mentioned were “anansi”, the spider; “jumbie”, (a ghost); “maribol”, (yellow wasp); and “kaiso” (Ibibio for well-done).


There are words that many of us have heard like “nyam” and “foofoo”. Here, the late Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) explains about the number of African words heard in the Jamaican language including, “talawa”, “oonoo” and “boonoonoonoos”: ( Miss Lou “edutained” Jamaicans about their African heritage.


African-Americans and other Americans were edutained by the television series “Roots”, which was first televised on February 18, 1979 and ran for seven consecutive nights. An estimated 130 million Americans watched at least part of the series. The final episode was reportedly seen by upward of 80 million viewers and was the most-watched television show of its time. Seven of the series’ eight episodes are on the A.C. Nielsen Company’s list of the 10 largest television audiences in history.


The show lit a spark among Americans who began to research their roots. African-Americans who had never thought about their connection to Africa realized that they had a connection and did think about how they became Americans. By 1986, more than six million copies of the hardcover edition of Roots had been sold and it had been published in 37 languages. The television series “Roots” won three Emmy Awards, for outstanding limited series, direction and screenplay.


Ten years after the “Roots” saga was aired, journalist Lewis Beale interviewed some of the miniseries’ cast members. In the interview, which was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on January 29, 1987, LeVar Burton, who played the part of the young Kunta Kinte, reportedly said:


“I think the impact was more deeply felt on a sociological basis. It expanded the consciousness of people. Blacks and Whites began to see each other as human beings, not as stereotypes. And if you throw a pebble into the pond, you`re going to get ripples. I think the only constant is change, and it`s always slow. Anything that happens overnight is lacking in foundation. Roots is part of a changing trend, and it`s still being played out. In terms of roles for Blacks, for women, these things are cyclical.”


It has been 36 years since “Roots” the miniseries received rave reviews and since Alex Haley received the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Since then, there have been some successful television programs (situation comedies) like “The Cosby Show”, “A Different World” and others that even though criticized by some, did show African-Americans in a mostly positive light.


There were others that were so stereotypical it was an embarrassment to watch them. How much television portrayal of African-Americans has improved (if it has) since “Roots” depends on your point of view. At last glance there were no sitcoms with any significant African-American cast.


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