Television was such a different experience 40 years ago.
In the days before VCRs, DVRs, streaming services, and other paraphernalia, when you heard an interesting show was going to be on, you planned for it. Such was the case with the first phenomenon of binge watching: the mini-series.
Mini-series were all the rage during television rating periods. In 1977, ABC was betting big on the mini-series Roots, based on author Alex Haley’s story about his family in America.
My parents loved to watch television in the evenings, and I was allowed to stay up to watch with them until 9:00 p.m., my bedtime. We joined the rest of the country and settled in to watch Roots.
Roots was a revelation.
Prior to Roots, I knew nothing about slavery in America. Growing up in my white suburban neighborhood, there were no people of color there or at my school. For much of my early life, all I ever saw was white people. The only time I saw diversity was on television on shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, and Welcome Back Kotter.
Television was my window to the world.
In third grade, my understanding of history was limited to the basics. I knew George Washington was our first president, and that Jimmy Carter was our current president. I remember reading about Ben Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm and discovering electricity, and that some lady named Betsy Ross made the flag. I thought Columbus discovered America, and then the Pilgrims came right after him.
That was the extent of my historical knowledge, complete with a white, patriarchal twist. No mentions of the experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, or any people of color in this country.
I had a lot to learn.
Television as Teacher
As I watched Roots, I had so many questions for my parents.
Why did they make Kunta Kinte go on that boat if he didn’t want to?
Did Kunta Kinte ever get to see his mom and dad again?
Why did Kunta Kinte have to change his name to Toby?
Why is everyone so mean to Kunta Kinte?
Why did they make Kizzy go live somewhere else?
Why did slavery even happen?
My parents did the best they could to answer all my questions, but I still didn’t understand why slavery ever happened at all. I couldn’t comprehend the concept of slavery, of people being taken against their will, treated cruelly, and families torn apart. It was all so scary to imagine, especially for an 8-year-old. How come it took so long for someone to stop it?
I became obsessed, trying to learn more about slavery. My parents bought me a children’s book about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I imagined Harriet Tubman driving a train full of slaves north, and how happy they would be to finally be free. When my family took a vacation to Washington D.C. and visited George Washington’s home Mt. Vernon, I didn’t even care about seeing the house. I wanted to see the slave quarters so I could better understand how they lived.
As I grew up, Roots became a semi-regular part of my after school routine as a rerun in the 1980s on local TV channels. I watched it every time it was on, picking up new information and nuances every time I saw it. I went to the library and checked out the book, reading it quickly and then having nightmares due to some of the graphic descriptions that Haley included.
I went through the rest of elementary school, onto middle school and high school. My history lessons never got past the Reconstruction period. I didn’t learn about the Civil Rights movement until I got to college in 1987. By then, the movement against Apartheid in South Africa was happening, and I took part in my first bit of activism, joining student protests on campus. I believe Roots influenced my decision to pursue a major in History and a masters degree in Social Science so that I could understand on a deeper level the societal implications of race in America.
Looking back, Roots was a critical part of my formative years. It was one of the main reasons that I am committed to social justice causes and initiatives today. I am deeply concerned about the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric and violence in this country and around the world. It is said all the time, but when we don’t make time to understand history, we are doomed to repeat it.
As someone who has lived a privileged white experience in America, I am always trying to listen and understand the experience of people of color in this country. I give Roots credit for helping me to know what I didn’t know about this history of race and slavery in this country. It was the beginning of my journey towards a greater understanding.
I still have so much to learn.