By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Special to TelevisionWeek
A month before “Roots” aired on ABC, a friend was adamant that the series would be pure puffery and couldn’t possibly capture the passion, spirit and message that Alex Haley tried to convey in his landmark work. I thought the same. I remembered standing in line a few months earlier to meet Haley when he was in L.A. to sign books. I heard his brief but fervent recount of the sweat, toil and time he put into the book. His hope was that the book would be more than a simple drama about his family’s passage, but a telling wakeup call on racial relations and black pride. I thought my friend might be right that it was impossible for TV to convey that message.
I was wrong. “Roots,” the TV series, was every bit the experience that I and my friend feared that it wouldn’t be. I was riveted to the little screen, as I had never been before, during the week it aired. I winced, cried and even laughed at the suffering, pain and humor in the drama of an African brutally uprooted from his home. I was deeply moved by his and his family’s nightmarish passage through slavery, the delirium of freedom and the family’s long struggle to find a place in a hostile America.
Like most black Americans, the saga of that family could have been and probably was, with only minor degrees of difference, the saga of my family too. Each episode was a learning experience about a long buried past. After each episode, the phone would ring and it would be a friend chattering excitedly about the episode. Every detail, nuance, bit of dialogue was fair game for a comment. They were just as mesmerized by the series as I was.
But “Roots” did not just hit black Americans like a sledgehammer. It also packed a wallop for millions of whites. Indeed, it was the first series in TV history with a black theme and a predominantly black cast that had real crossover appeal. “Roots” influenced a generation of old and young Americans of all colors as no other series that dealt frontally with race had ever done.
Did it improve race relations? Did it really teach us any more about the horror of slavery? Did it close the seeming tormenting gulf between blacks and whites (and blacks and blacks)? I don’t know. I do know, though, that 30 years later, we’re still grappling with many of the same racial problems that were on the nation’s table then. I also know that the pain, suffering, humor and redemption of a black American family that “Roots” so movingly portrayed touched millions of American in a way they would never and should never forget. Thirty years later, I’m still touched by that experience.
Journalist, author and broadcaster Earl Ofari Hutchinson is president of the National Alliance for Positive Action and has written nine books about the African American experience.