Today marks the 40th anniversary of the original Roots mini-series. For those not in the know, Roots aired on ABC over eight nights starting on January 23, 1977. Based on the best-selling novel by Alex Haley, the star-studded series details the story of African slaves from the Colonial era to Reconstruction. It’s one of the most powerful, watched, and beloved mini-series of all-time. I know for me, it left a lasting impact. And for those of you who might think it’s a “black thing,” scroll down because, as a pale Cuban-American I’m here to say it’s not. It’s a human thing.
My perspective of race relations is a little skewed by what I call the South Florida bubble. Human skin-tone variations (there’s only one race after all) are fairly balanced down here and, for the most part, we all get along. So, when I watched Roots for the first time, I was left confused. Granted, I was around 10 years old and probably wasn’t ready for such content. I was also a little bored. Face it, at 10 years old, a week-long mini-series about slavery wasn’t targeting me as its audience.
As for an audience, the eight-night event drew a massive one. Back in 1977, television options were limited, so people often ended up watching the same things. Having fewer channels meant there was less variety, but the limitations oddly created more unity. Movie theaters closed for a week, while bars and living rooms filled with viewers. Americans who watched Roots, from South Florida to the Midwest to the West Coast, were all presented with the same dilemma of historical horror. There was no echo chamber hide within. Dealing with the reality of the past and the questions it raised created conversation and communication. For modern audiences, it’s a stark reminder that once, only white lives mattered.
“We believe not in death, but in life, and there is no object more valuable than a [hu]man’s life.” -Kintango
As it should be, Roots is one of those epic pieces of film that plays somewhere on television year after year. So, I saw bits and pieces here and there all through my formative years. And the plight of African Americans in the United States at the time became engrained in me. The horrors they faced, for generations on end, was something I held dear to me as one of the most important things humanity should never forget so as never to repeat. Of course, we did repeat it, again and again, from segregation to the Holocaust to Boko Haram. Humanity seems to have a penchant for finding someone to oppress and doing it with utmost brutality.
Oppression looms over every minute of Roots. The series, and these stories of humanity overcoming the worst in itself, serves as a brilliant way to teach empathy. And frankly, we all need it. Empathy is what stops us from fighting each other and gets us working together instead. And just like the brave slaves who fought for freedom, and the brave soldiers who fought for freedom, and the lawmakers, journalists, Muslims, musicians, Native Americans, artists, Italians, actors, Germans, Cubans, men, women, and more who fight for freedom, working together is when humanity is at its strongest.
Roots isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a ratings thing or a corporate thing. It’s a human thing. It’s a moving painting of suffering and perseverance. Nothing is more human than that.