Roots for a Generation

Inspired by The Daily Prompt: Roots

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, television was a profound presence in our home.

My earliest memories are of hearing the word “Watergate” being discussed on nightly news. I don’t recall images or specifics, but I do remember wandering through the room and the adults being very interested in the TV screen.

I remember loving Romper Room with every fiber of my being, awaiting the day when the hostess would say my name as she held her magic TV mirror up in front of her face at the end of the show, calling out to little viewers in their living rooms as if she could rally see us there. (If you are too young to have any idea of what I am referring to, this is what I am talking about.)

But the biggest television event from my youth (pre-MTV that is) was, hands-down, Roots.

Roots was a 1977 miniseries based on a book written by Alex Haley. It was the story of African teen Kunta Kinte, brought to America to be enslaved, and the generations of his family and eventual emancipation.
A remake was made in 2016, and it once again became a television event. But the impact it had in 1977 can never be repeated. It was a different time.
In 1977, it was pretty huge that network TV was devoting so much time to an African American story. And we didn’t have the internet. Our cultural exposure was limited to television, films, art and books. As a young person, television was pretty much all.
And to my middle class, fairly all-white community, Roots brought to full technicolor glory some of the stories that had only been read about (barely and I am sure very biased-ly) in our history books.
I remember clutching pillows and crying, feeling outrage and shock at the outrageousness of the treatment of Kunta Kinte and his family. My friends and I talked about what we saw on-screen at school the day after the episodes. It opened our little minds up to whole other realities of our history.
According to Wikipedia: Roots received 37 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and won nine. It also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. It received unprecedented Nielsen ratings for the finale, which still holds a record as the third highest rated episode for any type of television series, and the second most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history.
Apparently, the making of the miniseries was quite controversial in that the executives are afraid it would bomb. The Museum of Broadcast Communications recounts the apprehensions that Roots would flop, and how this made ABC prepare the format:

Familiar television actors like American [sic] actor Lorne Greene were chosen for the white, secondary roles, to reassure audiences. The white actors were featured disproportionately in network previews. For the first episode, the writers created a conscience-stricken slave captain (Edward Asner), a figure who did not appear in Haley’s novel but was intended to make white audiences feel better about their historical role in the slave trade. Even the show’s consecutive-night format allegedly resulted from network apprehensions. ABC programming chief Fred Silverman hoped that the unusual schedule would cut his network’s imminent losses—and get Roots off the air before sweeps week.

— Encyclopedia of Television, Museum of Broadcast Communications
 All important to examine today, and I am sure there are wonderful articles that analyze and explore such things much better than I can, but I didn’t know any of that then.
Then it was just a really riveting and important piece of television, one that told the stories of people and of a time in American history about whom I knew very little about up until that point.
I am so grateful for that. Historically accurate or not, it brought into our living room and into our classrooms another way of understanding who we were, where we had come from. It was a powerful use of the medium of television, and it opened up more than a few minds, I hope, to considering more than just what we had been told about America up until that point.
May there be many more “Roots”-inspired works to come. Maybe now more than ever we need such powerful television to be created.
#Roots #television #powerfulstories

3 thoughts on “Roots for a Generation

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