It’s hard for contemporary television watchers to grasp what happened to America when Roots premiered on ABC in 1977. Rather than featuring an episode or two a week, as most miniseries did, all eight episodes of Roots were shown on consecutive nights. There were no VCRs or DVRs to make watching convenient, so events were canceled – or people just stayed home – to make sure they didn’t miss a night.
Roots was adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley. Haley traced his ancestry, mostly through the wonders of oral tradition, back nine generations to the African nation of Gambia. He brought that family to life in a way that Americans, especially white Americans, had never faced before.
Roots featured a marvelous cast. Then newcomer LeVar Burton starred as Kunta Kinte, the show’s central character. Others with prominent roles included Ed Asner, John Amos, Cicely Tyson, O.J. Simpson, Louis Gossett, Jr., Lorne Greene, Vic Morrow, Chuck Connors, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Leslie Uggams, Scatman Crothers, Richard Roundtree, Ben Vereen, and Burl Ives.
The final episode captured a 71% of the viewing audience, and still ranks in the top five television programs since ratings began. It received a jaw-dropping 36 Emmy Award nominations, and won nine. It also received a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award.
But perhaps its greatest accomplishment was to demonstrate to white America that African culture was rich and vibrant, and that while the history of slavery is a hideous scar on our soul, the country is infinitely better off thanks to the contributions of their descendants…