A New ‘Roots’ for a New American Era
The original Roots was epochal. If the reboot wants to be, it needs to be situated in the (mostly) better realities of 2016.
This Memorial Day, the History channel will debut a new four-part, eight-hour version of Roots, the groundbreaking and massively popular "event that made television history" in 1977 by pulling the largest audience up to that point in small-screen history. As the first fully realized mass-media representation of slavery and its legacy from a specifically black point of view, Roots remains required viewing through middle and high schools in history classes across America.
And as a still-resonating cultural tuning fork that speaks to toxic identity politics, it's worth thinking about the cultural successes and failures of that original series. Roots not only helped to spark a genealogical craze that continues to play out daily on Ancestry.com, 23andMe.com, and other websites, it boldly reimagined and expanded the definitions of what it means to be an American. Yet in doing so it may well have also perpetuated a sort of outrage matrix that sets back the possibility of racial and ethnic harmony even as the country becomes more multi-ethnic.
Both the old and new miniseries are based on Alex Haley's controversial 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots: The Saga of An American Family, which itself set all sorts of sales and readership records even after it became known that large sections of the book had been plagiarized from a 1967 novel called The African and that Haley's historical accuracy was suspect at best (originally marketed as nonfiction, it was later dubbed a part-real, part-invented "faction" by its publisher and is now usually classified as a novel).
Despite its sketchy provenance, Roots—in all of its iterations, including a sequel miniseries that picked the story up in the Reconstruction Era and ended with Haley traveling to Gambia to find the village of his African forebears—remains stunning precisely because it dared to define the black experience, including the immense indignities of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow not as something separate from the American experience but as its very essence. The subtitle of the book matters here: Haley's fabulistic history is, at least in mytho-poetic terms, "the saga of an American family" from rags to, if not riches, then high-bourgeois success and integration. Haley's story may begin with the kidnapping of his ancestor Kunta Kinte in Africa but, as a paperback version of Roots summarizes, it ends at "the Arkansas funeral of a black professor whose children are a teacher, a Navy architect, an assistant director of the U.S. Information Agency, and an author. That author is Alex Haley."
In placing the experience of a marginalized group at or near the center of our national identity, Roots is reminiscent of other texts from the late 1960s and early 1970s. For instance, Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather, along with the two movies made from it in 1972 and 1974, audaciously recast the rise of the Mafia as every bit the immigrant success story as Ben Franklin's journey from indentured servitude in Boston to freedom and fame in Philadelphia. The percentage of the U.S. population that was foreign born hit a historic low of 4.7 percent in 1970, which had the counterintuitive effect of allowing second- and third-generation Americans to begin asserting ethnic pride in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few decades earlier due to lingering mistrust and resentment of foreigners (there's a reason Dino Crocetti rechristened himself Dean Martin and, later still, Allan Konigsberg became Woody Allen).
As the great literary and cultural critic Leslie Fiedler noted time and again, Americans only valorize the Other when we know he or she is thoroughly vanquished; The Last of the Mohicans could only be written after the Indians were thoroughly contained in or effectively banished from upstate New York. At the same time that white ethnics were transforming their downscale heritages into sources of pride (Polish Power, anyone?), black Americans in the post-Civil Rights era were doing the same thing: finding a source of cultural power in a history of exclusion and oppression.
Prior to Roots, Haley was best-known as the amanuensis of Malcolm X, compiling an "autobiography" based on interviews conducted between 1963 and Malcolm's assassination in 1965. In What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society (1982), Fiedler writes that Roots was for Haley a natural extension of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which combined elements of Booker T. Washington's gospel of segregationist self-sufficiency and the confrontational politics of the Black Power movement into a message of militant uplift.
Yet Fiedler notes that Roots, despite Haley's attempt to write a "final Happy Ending" in which African Americans become professors and government functionaries and world-famous authors, replicates the same irresolvable racial tensions that fueled earlier novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (which became the basis on D.W. Griffith's execrable The Birth of a Nation), and Gone With The Wind. "Scenes of rape and flagellation are as essential to [Haley's] vision as to that of Mrs. Stowe or Thomas Dixon, or Margaret Mitchell, though his victims are, of course, always black," writes Fiedler.
Though the brutalization of his ancestors, especially at the hands of slave owners, means that Haley is himself part white, he cannot acknowledge that part of his ancestry. Try as he might, Fiedler argues, Haley doesn't offer a way out of an unbridgeable gap between the races. Instead, he describes the lurid, racist fantasies from the victims' point of view.
That of course is no small accomplishment and the fact that Roots—the book and the miniseries—made black history visible to white America en masse explains its success. White ethnics especially, who often clashed with blacks in the restricted neighborhoods to which both were remanded by zoning and custom, could understand a far deeper and long-suffering oppression lived out in the golden streets of America.
So here we are now, in the 21st century, eight years into the presidency of a mixed-race president, in a country where the percentage of foreign-born residents is rapidly approaching figures last seen in the 1910s and '20s. On a profound level, we are more at peace with one another than ever before. For 20 years, the Census has included a "multiracial" category to accommodate basic reality and support for interracial marriage approaches 100 percent (even same-sex marriage, unthinkable even just a generation ago, pulls 60 percent or more approval, with the number bumping each year).
Yet in a commencement speech at Howard University, Barack Obama observed that even as things have markedly improved for African Americans since he himself graduated college, his "election did not create a post-racial society." To be sure, there is much work to be done. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as their white counterparts and the unemployment rate for blacks is twice that for whites. The rise of Donald Trump is fueled in no small part by grievances among poor whites who are the one group in America whose lifespans are actually shrinking. Black protestors, especially on college campuses, are at times more inflamed than the Black Panthers ever were — despite objectively better conditions compared to 45 years ago in terms of opportunities.
We have stuck in a dialectical conversation where the horrors of our racial past have been represented poignantly and memorably. What we need now is work that shows how most Americans—black, white, and every other type—have moved beyond to a world that, while replete with problems, allows us to be kinder and better to one another.