Roots 2.0

Harvey Young

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from.” Alex Haley penned these words in an attempt to account for the extraordinary popularity of his 1976 book Roots and its 1977 television miniseries adaptation. In Roots, Haley traces his ancestry back to Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior who was captured in present-day Gambia, shipped as cargo across the Atlantic, and forced (along with his immediate descendants) to experience the indignities of American chattel slavery. Upon publication, Roots was an immediate best seller, appearing on the New York Times’ nonfiction list for 44 weeks. Readers lined up, often for hours, to have their multiple copies—one for themselves and others for relatives, especially children—autographed by the author. When the 12-hour television series premiered over eight consecutive nights in late January 1977, an estimated one-half of all US television households tuned in. “The final episode of Roots was seen by more than 100 million people, and is still the third highest-rated TV show of all time, inspiring a sequel miniseries and a Christmas-themed TV movie,” reports the Telegraph. In an effort to introduce Haley’s “Saga of an American Family” to a new, younger audience, the History Channel recently elected to remake the 1977 miniseries.

This new version improves on the original. It employs more accurate (and also consistently delivered) dialects. Better makeup design allows characters to age realistically. A streamlined narrative, spanning approximately eight rather than twelve hours, keeps the focus squarely on Haley’s ancestors. The 1977 version featured a variety of subplots starring prominent actors such as Robert Reed and Lorne Greene, popular “TV dads,” as LeVar Burton describes them. The result was a bloated narrative. Watching the opening credits of the original Roots crawl across the screen, evidence of this excess already appears. Ed Asner is the first name (among actors) to appear. He would win an Emmy Award for playing a conflicted Christian captain in charge of the ship carrying Kunta Kinte. The second name is football star O. J. Simpson. The leaner 2016 adaptation tracks closely with Haley’s bloodline. It excises numerous supporting characters in order to keep the focus on Kunta Kinte; his daughter, Kizzy; his grandson, Chicken George; and (to a lesser extent) his great-grandson Tom.

Laurence Fishburne as Alex Haley. Photograph by Steve Dietl 

When first published, Roots was presented as fact. It was a nonfiction book. Haley’s prowess as a skilled researcher was celebrated. He even received a special Pulitzer Prize. In interviews, the author reminisced about listening to family stories on his grandparents’ porch. He described his decade-plus efforts in support of the book: sleeping on the floor of freighters to better imagine the experience of the Middle Passage, hearing a griot tell the story of an African captive from Juffure who was captured by slavers, and methodically visiting archives and collections in search of his family. The new 2016 Roots miniseries places Haley, the rigorous historian, keen listener of family lore, and world traveler, at the center of the narrative. Sitting at his typewriter, Haley, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, writes the story, the history, that we, as viewers, will witness being replayed.

Challenges to the authenticity of Roots swiftly followed the book’s publication. James Baldwin, in an overall positive New York Times book review, hinted at the approaching storm: “[Haley] must have studied and sweated hard to achieve such ease and grace, for he would appear to have been born in his ancestral village and to be personally acquainted with everybody there.” Plagiarism allegations were lodged and lawsuits filed. The claim with the most merit belonged to Harold Courlander, who identified dozens of instances in which Roots either directly or indirectly borrowed from his novel The African. Courlander’s lawsuit was settled for $650,000 (in excess of $2 million in today’s dollars) and included an admission by Haley that a few sections from The African had found their way into Roots. Adding to the torrent of criticism, historians and anthropologists raced to spotlight historical inaccuracies in Haley’s book and questioned the soundness of the author’s research methods. Several seemed to delight in calling Haley an “amateur.”

Readers lined up, often for hours, to have their multiple copies—one for themselves and others for relatives, especially children—autographed by the author.

Despite the criticisms, and even an unsuccessful campaign to strip Haley of his Pulitzer Prize, Roots remained popular. The wide and lasting appeal of Roots anchors itself in what satirist Stephen Colbert might have identified as the narrative’s “truthiness,” a felt truth in the absence of (or without regard to) evidence. Large portions of Haley’s family saga likely are fictional but the story feels real. Kunta Kinte may or may not have existed, and yet the experiences attributed to him bear a resemblance (in our collective imagination) to those of the people who were subjected to the Middle Passage. Free Africans were held captive, transported across the Atlantic, and sold (and often resold) as slaves. In his testimony in the Courlander case, Haley expressed a keen understanding of the value of centering his project in the blur where fact meets fiction, or within a zone several critics have identified as “faction.” Referring to a moment in which a captive dies in the slave hold of a ship, Haley declared, “It is my own creation of a scene that must have occurred on every ship. In the ship I write about, I know 42 out of 140 died. I felt it was good drama to have one die next to my hero.” The “good drama” and engagements with actual historical scenarios help the narrative to appear authentic. Peniel Joseph writes, “Flawed as a piece of historical scholarship and genealogically questionable, Roots was nevertheless a masterpiece of popular writing that spoke to larger truths about racial slavery and American history.” Journalist Todd Steven Burroughs, in an essay on Roots, notes, “Some truths are more powerful than facts, even those in journalism and history.”

The new Roots feels true. Like its predecessor, the series recreates various moments of black captivity across three centuries and grants the viewer a distinct perspective on history. It introduces us to characters with whom we can identify and through whom we can gain access to the lived experiences of captives as imagined by Haley and interpreted by actors. Kunta Kinte; his wife, Belle; Kizzy; his mentor, Fiddler; George; George’s wife, Matilda; and Tom serve as proxies for (or, to employ Haley’s preferred term, “symbols” of) the actual individuals whose names are lost to history. They become the Ancestors (with a capital “A”) for generations of black folk seeking to reconnect with their past. Reflecting on his book’s success, Haley asserted, “Many blacks have said that Kunta Kinte, my forebear, has become their ancestor. And why not? Ancestrally, every black person has the same pattern.” He adds, “[Every black person] goes back to an African—who was born and reared in a village like Juffure, was captured and put into some slave ship, processed through some succession of plantations, on up to the Civil War and emancipation.”

Large portions of Haley’s family saga likely are fictional but the story feels real.

The felt truth of the new Roots also anchors itself in its depiction of the Middle Passage in terms of near ceaseless movement. Always on the go, Kunta travels from Africa to the slave ship to North America, almost without pause. In Gambia, he actively participates in warrior initiation ceremonies, sprints toward home ahead of his cohort of warriors, and flees (unsuccessfully) from members of a rival tribe. On the ship, he remains in motion. He, alongside his fellow captives, quickly moves to clear space for the white crew who enter the cargo hold. He dances. He (unsuccessfully) revolts. In North America and en route to a plantation, he leaps from a cart in pursuit of freedom. Moments before this first (but not last) escape attempt on American soil, he watches black bodies laboring in the fields. He cannot comprehend why they themselves are not more actively in motion. He inquires, “Why do they not run?”

I have written elsewhere about how the obsession with movement that features in many accounts of the Middle Passage and the African diaspora can overshadow the presence of stillness as a constitutive element of the slave trade. In his historical novel, Haley briefly attends to the slow passage of time and the agony of shackled bodies with severely delimited mobility. One vivid example appears in the cargo hold of the ship. He writes, “The stinging bites, then the itching of the body lice, steadily grew worse. In the filth, the lice as well as the fleas had multiplied by the thousands until they swarmed all over the hold. They were worst whenever the body crevices held any hair.” Later, he describes how Kinte would react when white slavers entered the hold: “Whenever the toubob would jerk the hatch cover open and climb down among them, shouting and wielding their whips, Kunta lay as still as a forest animal … Kunta had lain for hours thinking how the toubob seemed to enjoy causing pain.” In the original miniseries, the stillness of the captive body appears. Kunta Kinte sits in holding cells prior to and immediately following his transatlantic crossing. Although these moments do not appear in the new adaptation, the 2016 miniseries does take into account the experience of stillness.

Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy. Photograph by Michele Short / History Channel

Admittedly, stillness onscreen is not always dramatically interesting. It most often intrigues when it occurs as part of a public spectacle of black suffering, such as punishment meted out to shackled or otherwise arrested bodies. More than any scene in the original Roots, the whipping of Kunta Kinte is the one that has provoked the most discussion. The new Roots miniseries, perhaps anticipating that audiences would be eager to compare whippings, exceeds the original in its effort to convey the extremity of abuse. We see the whip up close, hear it crack, and watch the rending of skin and the streaming of blood down the protagonist’s back. The lashing of Kinte’s body, tied to a whipping post, similar to other moments of spectacular black suffering in the new series—such as the prominent display of decapitated African heads on the slave ship and the hangings of black men and women—vividly depicts the interplay between stillness and the objectification of the black body.

Although much attention has been (and will be) directed toward public enactments of abuse, focus needs to be directed toward the less public, frequently private settings where abuses occurred with such frequency that they created a sense of stasis. The new miniseries most closely engages this type of abuse in its treatment of sexual assault, especially the attacks endured by Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. Shortly after being sold (in Part 2), she is assaulted by Tom Lea, her new owner. Part 3 begins in the seconds immediately following her rape, again by Lea. After Kizzy elects not to leave the plantation with a suitor in order to remain present to care for her son and grandchildren, the consequences of that decision are made evident in yet another assault. The monotony, the everydayness of these attacks as a depressingly normalized component of captive life for black women, is hinted at in the new series and, more explicitly, introduced in the historical novel. In the novel, Miss Malizy, a captive on the Lea plantation, briefly reveals her sexual exploitation by Tom Lea before informing the just-violated Kizzy of her grim future: “Speck you gwine be seein’ ‘im in here regular.”

“It is my own creation of a scene that must have occurred on every ship.”

Popular filmic or televisual accounts of slavery rarely provide an in-depth portrait of black women’s experiences beyond staging sexual assault. For example, 12 Years a Slave probably offers the most thorough account of black female subjectivity during the slavery era in a widely distributed film. That being noted, the character of Patsey is marginal to the story and appears onscreen for all of 18 minutes of the film’s nearly 140-minute run time. In the 2016 miniseries, the homosociality of black women is largely absent. The focus remains on men. Kinte has his foot partially amputated and Belle nurses him back to health. When Kizzy is sold, it is Kunta Kinte, hobbling on his stump and falling down in pursuit of the wagon carrying his daughter, that captures the eye of the camera. George and his gamecocks are given more screen time than his mother, and significantly greater attention than his wife, Matilda.

There are historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Roots (all versions). Indeed, there is much to critique. Large chunks of the novel and, by extension, the miniseries, are works of fiction. In privileging men and movement, Haley’s account misses the opportunity to address prolonged moments of duress that marked the experience of the Middle Passage. Haley’s narrative is somewhat formulaic. He repeatedly asks his characters to choose between freedom and family. Of course, family always wins in his family saga.

Despite all of this, the book and the miniseries succeed in imagining the lives of men, women, and children who endured and survived the horrors of American slavery. They give flesh to a version of history that centers African Americans and situates readers and viewers as witnesses to its unfolding. Furthermore, a feeling of truth emerges with the recognition of moments from the past replaying in our present. The shackling of African captives calls to mind the black and brown bodies disproportionately confined in jails and prisons. The shooting of captives in their backs as they flee resonates with the spate of contemporary killings of women, men, and children of color that inspired a movement to assert the value of black life. If we can see our present in Roots, then we have already encountered the truth in Haley’s work.