During the nation's bicentennial, a media phenomena captivated the attention of American reading and television audiences. Alex Haley's award-winning work broached the contested role of black people in the U.S. The novel and miniseries located blacks at the center of an American historical mythology and invited a (re)imagining of the country's social realities under such terms.
The persistent signification of Haley’s mythology in black cultural representations suggests that Roots entertains some semblance as a canon portrayal of African-American history.
- Helen Taylor recalls that “the novel’s advance print run of 200,000 [copies] sold out at once; 1.5 million copies were sold in the first eighteen months and millions have sold since. The novel was translated into at least thirty-three languages and distributed in twenty-eight countries”.... and won a special award from the prestigious Pulitzer Prize Board.
- The miniseries adaptation remains one of the most captivating viewing experiences in television history, an epoch that Time Magazine called “Haley’s Comet.”
On the occasion of the multi-mediated saga’s 30th anniversary, NPR’s Farai Chideya asked Haley’s son, Bill Haley, to comment on the use of Kunta Kinte as a “putdown.” He thoughtfully replied:
Well, ["Roots"] was, to a lot of folks, uplifting because we had often thought of our African ancestors as savages. And I think what "Roots" did was dispel many of those perceptions. So some folks really took Kunta to heart and others, as we do in our community from time to time, we thrust things in reverse. Where all things that we admire, we put down in a sense. [sic]
As the subject of consideration, criticism, and quips, Haley's work continues to serve as a secular scripture for making sense of the “black Atlantic” experience. In so doing, Roots prompts investigation into the complicated ways people learn about race from mass-mediated mythologies.
Questions for Consideration:
- How do the politics of representation (de)form communal boundaries?
- What other mediated mythologies have shaped the world’s communities in such pervasive ways? How do they compare to Roots?
- Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).
- Helen Taylor, “The Griot from Tennessee’: the saga of Alex Haley’s Roots,” in Critical Quarterly 37, vol. 2 (2007): 46-62.
- “Thirty Years of Roots.” News and Notes, NPR West Studios (Culver City, CA: KPCC, June 4, 2007).
- "Why 'Roots' Hit Home," Time Magazine, February 14, 1977.