“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.”
On the other hand, since it took ABC two years to jettison the goofy Dennis Miller from “Monday Night Football” after stupidly dumping the great Howard Cosell, we shouldn’t be surprised. Be that as it may, I believe it is valuable to revisit this landmark TV program-as Oprah Winfrey is doing-prior to this year’s Black History Month.
I was living and working in Cleveland when “Roots”-star-studded from top to bottom-came on the air that frigid January. Right from the start, the sight and sound of so many gifted Blacks actors warmed my heart. In all, the 62 principal cast members were a veritable directory of big movie and TV stars of the 1960s and ’70s.
With apologies to those I don’t have space to mention, Black names included LeVar Burton as the protagonist, Kunta Kinte, along with Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett Jr., Leslie Uggams, Richard Roundtree, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Simpson. Among notable white actors were Chuck Connors, Ralph Waite, Lloyd Bridges, George Hamilton, Ed Asner, Sandy Duncan and Brad Davis.
There is little doubt “Roots” was a special experience-for white people as well as Black. During its run, “Roots” was a daily topic of conversation at company coffee machines, water coolers and cafeterias, as well as business lunches all over America. I remember these back-and-forth discussions as if it was yesterday.
Regardless of the knowledge of history by adult whites, many were openly horrified at the hardships inflicted upon Blacks in this country during slavery. Indeed, my Black friends also found scenes of the brutality hard to take. The program proved to be a catharsis-and a wakeup call-for much of America.
But remembering “Roots” also means remembering tender moments. The touching scenes of Black family loyalty, pride and love are indelibly stamped on my brain, and I’ll never forget the youthful Burton’s insistence that his real name was Kunta Kinte.
Bottom line: While I am fortunate to own a DVD of the miniseries, here’s hoping this towering achievement someday will be rerun on national television in its glorious entirety for the benefit of millions-some of whom would be experiencing it for the first time. If so, young Blacks and whites would be well served to stop, look and listen.