Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!

Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!

“Roots, 1977 Promotional Poster,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

In the last several decades, African Americans have become avid genealogists, turning eagerly to Ancestry.com and DNA testing, joining clubs and traveling to the National Archives in an effort to fill in their family trees. Henry Louis Gates credits the original 1977 television series, Roots, for initiating this interest, saying that after watching the series, African Americans were stricken by a massive case of Roots envy.”

This week on Muster, Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson and Dr. Erica L. Ball, authors of the upcoming book, Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017) talk about history, slavery, and black genealogy in anticipation of The History Channel’s May 31st premiere of a four-part remake of Alex Haley’s 1977 classic series, Roots. After the first episode of Roots, stay tuned for The Roots of Our History, a documentary about the series.

What do you recall about the original 1977 Roots series?

Prof. Jackson: I remember watching the 1977 Roots for the first time when I was about eight years old. I am one of seven children and we grew up in mostly white communities, so my parents insisted that we read or watch the latest contributions to African American history. Together, we all sat around the television and watched Roots as a family. At age eight, I was sort of traumatized by it! But as I look back, I realized how it and books I read influenced the way I valued American history and my history in particular.

Prof Ball: I remember being quite taken with the 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. I loved watching James Earl Jones as Alex Haley conducting his search for his family history! Those scenes remained very vivid for me over the years. Roots may well have influenced my decision to pursue this type of work myself. Who knew?

How would you describe the research Alex Haley did in researching his ancestors’ stories in Roots?

Prof. Jackson: This summer, Matthew Delmont’s new book, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated will debut. His book tells the long, remarkable, and complicated story of how Roots came to be. Delmont explains how Haley’s research was years in the making. I’m excited about Delmont’s work and the understanding it will give to many people who wonder, “how did Haley do it?”

Assuming he managed to get past the scandal surrounding plagiarism accusations, if Alex Haley were doing genealogy work today, I imagine he would have a show on PBS where, like Henry Louis Gates, he would employ the use of DNA testing, census data, and local archives to conduct his work.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the original 1977 mini-series?

Prof. Ball: [T]he greatest strength of the original Roots was its success at representing people of African descent as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, etc., rather than an undifferentiated mass of slaves. While earlier popular representations of slavery invariably characterized black people as happy with their lot, Roots made it clear that black men and women asserted their humanity and resisted and negotiated the institution [of slavery] as best they could. This was a profoundly important achievement.

The original series’ deficiencies really tell us about the historical moment in which the series was produced. For example, a number of scholars critiqued the original series for creating white characters who were not in Haley’s book, in an effort to draw in more white viewers and make them feel comfortable watching a show with a majority black cast. What is interesting to me is how these all these new white characters were positioned on a spectrum from pro-slavery, like the Reynolds plantation master’s niece Missy Anne, to conflicted about slavery (slave ship Captain Thomas Davies), to pro-racial equality (impoverished couple George and Martha Johnson). It’s a remarkable snapshot of white American racial attitudes in the late 1970s.

What conversations did the 1977 Roots mini-series generate? How do you imagine today’s viewers will take to the remake?

Prof. Jackson: The original Roots made television history in igniting and sustaining the conversation on racism, genealogy, identity, belonging, heritage, and so on. When Roots debuted, critic James Baldwin argued, “It can be said that we know the rest of the story–how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country.” The exact same thing could be said today. This year we are facing the end of an Obama presidency, a contentious national election, and a Black Lives Matter Movement. My hope is that viewers will watch and then take it further by beginning the long and hard work of facing our national past, present, and future.

“LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

The 1977 Roots series was commended for its honest treatment of slavery. How do you hope to see slavery portrayed in future media? What work remains to be done in television and films about slavery?

Prof. Jackson: I am completely taken by WGN’s new series Underground, which tells the story of several runaway slaves and the dangerous path they embark on to obtain freedom. Shows such as Mercy Street, the YouTube series Ask a Slave, and Nate Parker’s highly anticipated Birth of a Nation tell the story of American slavery in new and exciting ways. The study of slavery in America and the Atlantic world cannot be exhausted. It is completely possible to create complicated, multidimensional characters that operate outside of our expectations. There are many stories to be told, stories that involve pain, loss, and violence, but also stories that emphasize resistance, humanity, survival, love, and if done right, even laughter.

Professor Ball, you have written about African American manhood. How did the original Roots reflect gender and masculinity, particularly LeVar Burton’s portrayal of Kunta Kinte? Like African American history, scholarship on gender is in a very different place than it was in 1977. How do you anticipate this being reflected in in the upcoming 2016 series?

Prof. Ball: The original series was very much about black masculinity. The black male characters are multifaceted and complex and they embrace their roles as members of black families and communities. And both LeVar Burton and John Amos invested the role of Kunta Kinte with such depth, humanity and inner strength. All of the key male characters fulfill their roles as strong but caring heads of households who do the best they can to protect their families under the most difficult of circumstances.

The trailer suggests that the 2016 version will move beyond the family circle to incorporate other stories. For example, I noticed clips about a black Union soldier on the battlefield. This is very important, as that story doesn’t often get portrayed on screen.

“Cicely Tyson as Binta and Maya Angelou as Yaisa in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

What role, if any, did slave narratives play in the creation of the 1977 Roots? Has more historical awareness been brought to this historical source in recent decades?

Prof. Ball: We know that Haley read voraciously. And although I don’t have any evidence for this, I would not be surprised if he had read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, first published in London in 1789. Equiano’s narrative includes a gripping account of the middle passage that details his confusion and horror, the stench of the hold, the violence and the suffering of those being forcibly transported from Africa to be sold in the Americas. Roots does a wonderful job of capturing that experience and presenting it to the modern public.

The trailer suggests that the producers will make use of the all of the wonderful new studies of slavery that have appeared over the past forty years. Thanks to work by scholars such as Deborah Gray White, Stephanie Camp, and Jennifer Morgan, historians know much more about the experiences of enslaved women than they did in the 1970s. And thanks to Jean Fagan Yellin’s success in authenticating the work, Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860/1861) is now a standard text in African American history and literature courses. I hope that this new body of scholarship will inform depictions of women in the 2016 Roots. From the looks of the trailer, women exercise a bit more agency and exhibit more complexity than in the 1977 version.

Education plays an important role in the ep. IV of the 1977 series, when Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy secretly learns to read. Can you comment on the role of education in Roots?

Prof. Ball: The original Roots certainly characterizes education as something that has radical possibilities. Education is so radical that Kizzy is ultimately sold away from her parents for possessing this forbidden knowledge and using it to help the young man she loves try to escape. But Kizzy doesn’t just know how to read and write. She also knows a few Mandinka words she had been taught by her father, Kunta Kinte. These words are passed down through generations until, as Alex Haley tells it, they were passed on to him. This story – whether fact or fiction – offers an important lesson about the importance of remembering that we all have a history worth knowing and preserving for future generations. This, I think, is a lesson worth repeating.

The new mini-series features an all-star cast, including Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls). The lead role of Kunte Kinte is played by Malachi Kirby (EastEnders).

KCJ Headshot hair downKellie Carter Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Hunter College, CUNY. Carter Jackson’s research focuses on slavery and abolition, historical film, and black women’s history. Her manuscript, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, is the first book-length project to address the politics of violence and black leadership before the American Civil War.




Erica L. Ball is a Professor of American Studies and Chair of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her work interrogates the connections between African American expressive culture, gender and class formation and popular representations of slavery.


Baldwin, James. “How One Black Man Came to be an American: A Review of ‘Roots’.” New York Times. September 26, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-roots.html

Ball, Erica L. To Live An Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Middle Class. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Ball, Erica L. “To Train Them for the Work: Manhood, Morality, and Black Conduct Discourse in Antebellum New York.” In Timothy Buckner and Peter Caster, eds. Fathers, Preachers, Rebels, Men: Black Masculinity in U.S. History and Literature, 1790-1945. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011: 60-79.

Delmont, Matthew. Making Roots: A Nation Captivated. Oakland: University of Cailfornia Press, 2016. https://mattdelmont.com/2015/09/08/new-book-making-roots/

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. London: Middlesex Hospital, 1789. Documenting the American South Database. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/equiano1.html

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of An American Family. New York: Dell, 1976.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “There’s No Reason to Compare Anything in Modern-Day America to Slavery.” Quartz. May 29, 2015. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/414794/slavery/

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “Why American History Should Begin with Slavery.” Quartz. September 8, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/261193/why-american-history-should-begin-with-slavery/

Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley: And the Books that Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 161, 206.

NPR Staff. “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots.” NPR Talk of the Nation. May 8, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/08/152273032/henry-louis-gates-jr-a-life-spent-tracing-roots
Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. Warner Brothers, 1977.

Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. The History Channel, 2016.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, ed. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, with “A True Tale of Slavery” by John S. Jacobs. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2009.

One Reply to “Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!”

  1. We do not need a remake of “Roots”. We need to make sure Hillary Clinton becomes the 45 president of the United States.

    I was 19 when “roots” premiered and ran for what? seven days? “Black” folks were ready to fight after each airing. What is the point of the 1977 remake in the wake of African-Americans being shot down in the street like animals?

    If the point is to remind African-Americans how far we have not come since 1977, this remake will set it off.

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