On this day 35 years ago, little did Alex Haley know that his groundbreaking dramatic miniseries, “Roots,” which traced his family’s roots, would garner nine Emmy Awards and 36 nominations. The 12-hour miniseries, which premiered in January 1977 and was spread over eight nights, won Emmys for best limited series, directing, and writing with acting awards going to Louis Gossett Jr.,Edward Asner, and Olivia Coel. The three remaining Emmys were awarded for craft categories. The landmark series broke all existing viewer ratings and was a part of television history that forever changed the way we look at ourselves.
The series was based on the 1976 book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family. ” It was a 12-year study of Haley’s heritage dating back to 1750 to the West African village of Juffure and how his family’s saga unfolds over seven generations. The book, which paired fact with fiction, became a No. 1 bestseller overnight.
It received an inordinate amount of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was even given a resolution of tribute by the U.S. Senate in March 1977. But then “Roots” was adapted for television, and some 130-million viewers tuned in (or nearly 85 percent of American households) to their TVs to watch it.
As viewers watched Haley’s story unfold, they witnessed the tragedy and degradation of being enslaved and the unspeakable horrors of the brutal beatings, horrid living, working conditions, rapes, and forced separation of families.
Still, the characters were always portrayed as dignified human beings and not symbols of oppression, with each generation looking to preserve their ancestral past and looking forward to the day when they would be free.
Watch Part 1 of “Roots” here:
The “Roots” miniseries encapsulated our truth as a people. It allowed us to dialogue about our experiences. The series awakened a hunger in all of us to learn about our backgrounds. It certainly forced the public to take a hard look at one of the most painful periods in American history. Yet it also taught us about resiliency in the face of barbarism and how the human spirit and strong familial connections will help us to triumph as a people.
I remember when my family and I anticipated its arrival on our small television screen. At the time, my parents wanted to drive the point home to us on how slavery had psychologically impacted our race. They also wanted us to see what a world based on domination and ownership was like so that we could then appreciate our freedoms as a people and use our liberties as a way to propel ourselves in to leading productive and honorable lives.
Most importantly, though, my parents were hopeful that “Roots” would — in addition to their own teachings — encourage Black identity and Black pride.
“Roots” is worthy of all of the accolades that it has received over time, because it remains an epic body of work that reminds each of us of our obligation to fulfill a legacy left to us by our descendants.
NewsOne remembers “Roots” — and its legacy — here.