Roots Rebroadcast Stokes Memories in Project 21 Members, Friends
Members of the Project 21 national leadership network are commenting on the History Channel’s multi-day re-boot of the epic mini-series Roots, based on a novel by Alex Haley, that began Memorial Day.
The original 1977 broadcast of Roots was a phenomenon. At least 130 million Americans watched at lest part of the original broadcast, at a time when the national population was just 220 million. Even more impressively, seven of its eight episodes were among the top ten TV broadcasts of all time up until then. Many Project 21 members and their colleagues were among them.
Roots had a huge impact on me!, said Dr. Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union. I grew up in a time where there wasn’t much talk in schools about black accomplishments. The only thing I knew of Africans was what could be found in National Geographic. I remember feeling extreme shame when the white boys in my class would sneer and giggle turning through pages of bare-breasted African women.
I knew the basics. Blacks were captured, herded onto ships, packed like sardines and delivered to different ports in America where they were sold into slavery, Gardner continued.
There was a disconnect, though. Africa was a far, far away land that had nothing to do with me or my life. The idea of slaves and slavery were just printed pages to me.
The movie Roots changed that. I watched the mini-series with my parents and never expected the overwhelming emotion that came over me — and it was every emotion, too!
I was sad, angry, proud… I felt so much all at once, Gardner continued. The real change came after the series ended. My mother told me about how her uncle lost his hand when it got chopped off by a slave owner. My grandmother told me about how her mother was the daughter of a Native American and a black woman who, like many blacks, avoided slavery by living on a reservation.
Roots opened up conversation. My family and other black people started talking about untold family secrets, things they were once too ashamed to mention. My parents refused to allow our skin color to determine our failures or successes in life. They made sure we were on solid ground as far as our identity was concerned. But my identity was just in the present. The conversation from ‘Roots’ gave me a truer understanding of the ‘whole’ me, Gardner concluded.
I saw and read the original, ‘Roots,’ said Nadra Cap Black Enzi. It put in perspective the continuum of conflict, compromise and triumph into which I was born in 1966. Growing up in a recently-desegregated America, it made us mad to see such dehumanizing treatment and provided a timeline for understanding bias being experienced.
More affirmatively, ‘Roots’ added to my embryonic interest in being a writer and participant (however modestly) in history. While controversy arose regarding Alex Haley’s authorship of this pioneering work, it remains a milestone in American history — a brilliant Black one, Enzi said.
As a white American, my perspective differs, said Amy Ridenour, chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research, which sponsors Project 21. I was a high school senior during the original ‘Roots’ broadcast, but I missed every episode because I worked nights in a restaurant. This meant I was hearing about it everywhere, and I do mean everywhere — and seeing the dramatic reduction in the number of customers the restaurant had during ‘Roots’ broadcast hours — without seeing it myself. The vast majority of the people I talked about ‘Roots’ with were white, and the overwhelming sentiment was if, because of ‘Roots,’ they were seeing the whole question of slavery and discrimination in a whole different way. There’s no question ‘Roots’ shook the culture. And I, of course, watched the first re-broadcast I could.
As a side note, thanks to the influence of ‘Roots,’ we at the National Center for Public Policy Research almost restored a former slave quarters and opened it to the public as a museum. This was in 2004, in a 1700s-era house a short walk away from the Alex Haley Memorial on the wharf in Annapolis. The home had been owned by John Rideout (no relation to Ridenour), by legend the slaver who brought Kunte Kinte into slavery, and we were told portions of the lowest floor had once been slave quarters. Our plan was to use the house as an office and restore the former quarters to what they would have been like in the 1700s for free tours for educational purposes, believing the connection to ‘Roots’ would drive public interest in visiting, Ridenour continued.
Our plan to restore the slave quarters and conduct free tours was quashed, however, by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, which, for some reason, has been given the legal power to say who can buy what in historic Annapolis. We were forbidden to buy the house because the Historic Annapolis Foundation claimed we would put Internet wires in the walls, even though we offered to put in writing that we would limit ourselves to wi-fi, and we meant it. It seemed stupid to me then and it still does, but there was nothing we could do, Ridenour concluded. So the restored slave quarters near the port where Kunte Kinte, by legend, entered the U.S. was not to be, at least not by us. Perhaps some more favored institution will someday show an interest.
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