Remembering our Roots

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Today I was talking to a friend about how all the TV shows these days are reruns. Are they waiting for the Olympics? Sweeps month? Out of ideas? Or scripts? Or just cheap? What?

rootsTV legends are born

Then I came home and googled around for fun, and learned that on this date 37 years ago, a TV legend began: The first installment of the TV miniseries Roots, starring LeVar Burton and based on Alex Haley’s novel, aired.

The TV miniseries was, of course, based on a book that Haley wrote after he retired from his Coast Guard service. Dropping out of college at age 17 after two years (he’d graduated high school at age 15), Haley signed up in 1939 and made the Coast Guard a career. He was a highly decorated veteran: he received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in his honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.

The genesis of story

Haley wrote short stories while still in the service, and he became a freelance writer after his retirement. He wrote a hugely successful set of interviews with prominent African Americans before he decided to write Roots. He wanted to tell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. He researched for 10 years on three continents. He visited his ancestral village, Juffure, Gambia, and listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery.

Even so, Haley despaired that he could ever capture the essence of his story. He once said, “What right had I to be sitting in a carpeted, high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he sailed from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear.

Book and TV miniseries made history

Doubleday published Roots—part novel, part historical account—in 1976. The book caused a national sensation and was published in more than two dozen foreign countries. More than 1.5 million copies were published in hard cover, and more than 4 million copies of the Dell paperback edition were sold. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The television miniseries, first broadcast on January 23, 1977, still ranks among the 100 highest-rated programs. According to Nielsen Media Research, its eight episodes reached average audiences that ranged from 28.8 million households to 36.3 million households. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.” Television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series “emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled, and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC.”

Impact today

Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, he’s credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another of Haley’s well-known works, one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Speaking of his writing’s impact, Haley once said, “To this day, people, particularly African-American people but white people as well, will just totally, unexpectedly walk up and not say a word, just walk up and hug you and then say ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you from me, too, Mr. Haley.

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