By Dr. Cecil Murray
Special to TelevisionWeek
I was in my last year in Seattle, at the First AME Church, when “Roots” aired and came to Los Angeles the following year. Indeed I watched it, and I think black America was mesmerized by it. It was the talk of the town. I don’t think I heard ever a negative comment.
It was the turning point. Here a generation later, we pretty well take it for granted that it is politically correct to be multicultural, but at the time “Roots” came on board, Alex Haley was really pointing American faces in a different direction. I would say white faces were turned and black faces were turned and uplifted.
It did change society. It had the positive effect of calling attention to a disembodied spirit-now you take on flesh. Now the unseen person becomes seen, the invisible becomes visible. It would catch your attention enough to make you say “A-ha.”
A generation later, DNA comes along and says everything that needs to be said. It traces everybody, white and black, back to sub-Saharan Africa. We have only one race and many cultures. Back then, people spoke a great deal about race, and the race most denigrated was the black race. Here comes something that traces roots. Now we not only have a literary form but a scientific form and a dialectical form. Now you can really dialogue about race, positive or negative-but you have some background that you need to consider.
There was another era, in the 1930s, when Joe Louis was heavyweight champion of the world. Whenever Joe Louis fought, there was not a black person on the streets in any neighborhood anywhere. Everyone was seated somewhere around the radio listening to it. When he won, you didn’t have to hear the bell, you could hear the shouts all over the neighborhood. We were living in shanties and shotgun shacks, poor folks’ homes.
It is the same as with Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. And then along comes “Roots.” Those are the outstanding points, as Martin Luther King in the 1960s, the turning points of our history and thinking.
Because of technology and other changes, we are one physical planet. We must become one intellectual and spiritual planet also.
Dr. Cecil Murray is the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian ethics and a professor of religion at the University of Southern California College of Arts, Letters and Science. He was the minister of First AME Church, the oldest African American congregation in Los Angeles, for 27 years.