BENEATH A DARK, star-swept night a proud father held his infant son up to the sky and proclaimed, ”Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” That scene was an ethereal beginning for a TV show destined to hit America like a sledgehammer. Once the first episode of Roots ended on Jan. 23, 1977, the nation was riveted by the story of young Kunta Kinte, kidnapped by slave traders, shackled in a ship’s fetid hull, and subjected to the horrors of slavery’s ”middle passage” to this country.
Over the next seven nights the 12-hour ABC miniseries, starring the then-unknown LeVar Burton and veterans like Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr., and John Amos, sparked a Roots frenzy. Stores and streets emptied at airtime. Bars with TVs became gathering places for mesmerized viewers. It became the most-watched program in history up to that time, attracting an estimated total of 130 million viewers and winning nine Emmys. Roots is still the highest-rated miniseries ever.
Adapted from Alex Haley’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller about his own forebears, Roots became a Rorschach test of racial attitudes. For the first time, a mass audience witnessed disturbing depictions of slavery, and some whites accused the series of victim-as-hero racism, portraying all its blacks as noble and all the whites as evil. Some African-Americans charged it offered caricatures of docile slaves while glossing over the most brutal acts by slave owners. Scholars complained of historical inaccuracies. Haley, later charged with plagiarizing parts of his tale, countered that Roots was ”faction,” a hybrid of 12 years of research compressed under Hollywood klieg lights.
But no one disputed Roots’ effect on America. As historian John Henrik Clarke said, ”It’s opened up a delicate situation…but it has paved the way for a much-needed, long-overdue discussion.” ABC’s $6 million gamble helped legitimize the miniseries idea. In 1979, Roots: The Next Generations aired on ABC to respectable ratings and more Emmys. In 1993, a year after Haley died of a heart attack at 70, the miniseries Queen traced the life of his grandmother.
Today Haley is remembered not only for Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X but also for addressing the repressed history of African-Americans. ”We have in this country obscured slavery,” he once said. ”It’s time for that to end.” Roots did more to hasten that end than any work since Uncle Tom’s Cabin more than a century before.