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It's been 35 years since landmark 'Roots' exploded on TV

Richard G. Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"Slave days are over. My name ain't Kunta Kinte..."-Spike Lee, "Do the Right Thing" (1989)

Many of us recall where we were, and what we were doing, during cataclysmic events in our nation's history. At this writing-on the national holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom I was privileged to interview twice-it seems fitting to remember that 35 years ago this month, the eight-night TV miniseries based on Alex Haley's "Roots" aired.

Over the years, I have gloried in knowing about such momentous happenings in the annals of time and, whenever possible, their cause and effect. It's important to me to try and understand how, and why, such things came about.

A number of disparate dates come to mind, such as Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus was supposed to have "discovered" America; Feb. 12, 1809, when Abraham Lincoln was born; or Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice ending World War I was signed. This was the stuff of much of my history classes in school.

Of greater moment, perhaps, was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963); the televised murder of his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, whose guilt I dispute, two days later by Jack Ruby; and the horrific murders of King (April 4, 1968) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (June 5, 1968).

I can provide, chapter and verse, my activities on each of these awful dates in the turbulent 1960s. That's how vividly I remember them and how critical they were to me and millions of others here and around the world. Indeed, I don't want to forget them.

Then there are more recent events, such as when, in late 1987, I first heard about the alleged rape of teenager Tawana Brawley by white men that November, which I still believe took place; April 19, 1989, the alleged rape of the so-called "Central Park Jogger" by Black and Hispanic teenagers, who later were proven innocent; and June 13, 1994, the low-speed, nationally televised car chase of O.J. Simpson a day after the brutal murder of his white wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

But "Roots"-ABC's epoch-making national telecast, running Jan. 23-30, 1977-ranks among my most cherished memories. And believe it or not, much of today's youth is unaware of this stunning, artistic achievement. It originally aired for 12 hours over eight nights and was recalled in a one-hour NBC tribute in January 2002.

The program, for me, rates with the award-winning PBS series of 25 years ago "Eyes on the Prize" as TV's leading chronicle of Black people in America. The late Henry Hampton's nonfiction project dealt powerfully with the modern Civil Rights Movement and its players. It's a must-see for every man, woman and child in America.

"Roots" was marketed as a work of historical fact based on the late Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning book that traced the origins of his family in Africa. Ironically, ABC did not air the nostalgic look-back for the 25th anniversary of "Roots." Who knows why it took a pass on running its own retrospective. Perhaps it had to do with allegations that Haley's book was, according to critics disputing his genealogical research, "a historical hoax."