Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Miscellaneous Musings – On Roots and How the Times Have Changed

December 15, 2010

On Roots and How the Times Have Changed

I was almost four years old when Roots aired on television. Suffice to say, I did not watch it at that time. It would be years before my mother allowed me to stay up late enough to watch anything she considered to be a show for adults. In fact, I recognized the opening themes for both Miami Vice and Cheers long before I was ever actually allowed to watch a full episode, and if I was considered too young to watch the merry exploits of Sam Malone and the zany customers that frequented his bar, I was almost certainly too young to handle the harsh historical reality that Roots presented.

Fair enough. Perhaps school is a better place for children to learn about history, anyway, seeing how TV and films tend to distort history or present it from a much more simplified point of view. However, all I remember learning about slavery in high school came from rather short passages, usually detailing triangular trade routes, the Civil War, and Emancipation. Reconstruction, the rise of the KKK, the denial of constitutional voting rights, the impact that slavery had on families – these and other important things related to slavery I learned in college, from literature, or from documentaries. I remember watching a historical movie in elementary school years ago. Some of you may remember those short, 30-minute, one-reel educational films they used to show kids in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This one depicted George Washington sitting for a portrait in the White House talking about the hopes he had for this young country called the United States. There was no mention of slavery or of the fact that President Washington has the unfortunate distinction of being the first president to bring slaves to the White House. This fact does not make Washington any less of a president; rather, it makes him human. He lived in different times, and it’s wrong to judge him by the today’s standards. However, sometimes I feel as if we are so determined to cast American history in a positive light that we keep its darker side secret, as if knowing the truth would somehow erode patriotism and stoke violence. In truth, slavery was a practice Washington grew to detest so much that he spent his final days trying to free as many of his slaves as possible. That change should be part of the national dialogue, for it probably reflects the experiences of many other people at that time.

So what does all of this have to do with a TV miniseries from the 1970’s? I’ll answer that by posing a question: Could Roots be made today in its original form? Sad to say, but in a time when television networks are fined for accidentally airing costume mishaps and not being quick enough to bleep out an on-air profanity, it’s hard to imagine anyone green-lighting Roots today. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not implying that Roots has been forgotten – far from it. However, the most I’ve ever seen of it on network television is on Emmy telecasts during the part of the show when the networks show snippets of great moments in television and pat themselves on the back for how daring they are. I have a suggestion: What about just re-airing the series in its entirety? Again, this is likely no longer possible, for unless a broadcast has a major director or sponsor behind it, network television is not likely to air anything that has as much nudity and use of the infamous “N” word in it as Roots has, regardless of the time in which the series is set.

It’s a shame really, for Roots is great partly because it pulls no punches, because it dares to present viewers with the truth. Slave ships were filthy, inhumane places where horrible crimes were committed; auction blocks were degrading; and the institution of slavery had a way of destroying families and cultural links that were of the utmost importance. In addition, the end of the Civil War did not mark the end of the suffering of many former slaves, as many people fought to preserve a system of injustice simply because equality was a concept they could not bring themselves to accept.

Roots, like many of the greatest films and television shows, is essentially the story of a family. The series begins by showing the future patriarch of the father, a young man named Kunte Kinte, being kidnapped and brought to the New World against his will. He eventually marries and has a daughter, Kizzy. Kizzy, like her father before her, refuses to forget where her family originated or her father’s desire for freedom. The miniseries takes viewers from the shores of Africa to the plantations of Virginia, and eventually to the freedom of post-Civil War Tennessee. Neither Mr. Kinte nor his daughter lives to see the end of slavery, but their legacies are never forgotten. The series ends with a new generation of children being told the family history. It’s a truly remarkable experience.

Roots aired from January 23 to January 30, 1977, partly, according to Wikipedia, because ABC programming chief Fred Silverman was so worried that the miniseries would flop that he wanted to be done with it as quickly as possible. Apprehension about viewer unease also led to the addition of a morally-torn Caucasian character, Captain Davies, a deeply religious sea captain who struggles with the moral implications of slavery and his own role in it. I have no idea whether some of the audience that watched Roots felt better as a result of the addition of the character. However, I liked the character, and the addition of his moral struggle did nothing to lessen the impact of the horror that was happening under his watch. I’m sure there were some people like him at that time, people questioning the practice but unable or unwilling to take a stand. Unfortunately, there were also people like the slave masters John Reynolds and Tom Moore. The latter is an example of the worst kind of master, the kind that has no problem separating families or making unwanted late-night visits to the quarters of his female slaves.

I have always believed that the American experience cannot be understood without a complete understanding of both America’s triumphs and its shames, for it is only through learning about both that one comes to a complete understanding of just how far America has come in a relatively short time and the reasons it has taken as much time as it has to get to this point. It is by no means an ideal history, but no country’s history is. In a perfect world, therefore, Roots would be a part of every American history class or aired on television once a year. Sadly, that’s not the case. Instead, it survives in an abridged form on double-sided discs that, according to many people who have bought it, have multiple problems – some skip, others freeze, still others have moments when the sound and the picture are not in synch. Fans of the series, and I consider myself part of this group, can only hope these problems are corrected in the future, and that Roots will one day have the DVD release it so richly deserves.

1 comment:

Sandra said...

I would suggest that, in addition to "Roots," students in the U.S. could get a more 'comprehensive' view of American history by reading Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States."

If more Americans students had the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives of historical events would they find history engaging? If the average U.S. citizen learned more than the sanitized version of history from the average textbook would the U.S. be as partisan as it seems now?

I did find one website,, that has an online lesson plan using volume 1 of "Roots" for students who are at least in junior high school. I'd be curious to know how many teachers have actually used it.