Wednesday, May 15, 2013


One of the most important books and television series ever to appear, Roots, galvanized the nation, and created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue that hadn’t been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book sold over one million copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130 million people. It also won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Roots opened up the minds of Americans of all colors and faiths to one of the darkest and most painful parts of America’s past. From the website of the “Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center”
On April 18, 1977 the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism was awarded to African American author and journalist Alex Haley for his ground-breaking work which resulted in his 1976 published book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York Haley spent his first five years living in Henning, Tennessee from where the inspiration for Roots began. During the years Haley’s family lived with his maternal grandparents in Henning, Tennessee his grandmother often told him about their family’s history in America and Africa. That history went back several generations to a man she called "the African." She said he had lived across the ocean near what he called the "Kamby Bolongo" and had been out in the forest one day cutting wood to make a drum when he was attacked and kidnapped by four men who beat, chained and dragged him aboard a slave ship which took him across the water to lifelong enslavement in America. This enslaved African ancestor maintained knowledge of his African name despite brutal beatings to accept the name given to him by his White enslavers. In the television series that was made from the contents of Haley’s book “Roots” Kunta Kinte is brutally beaten until he says the name “Toby.” That scene always brings me to tears of anger and sadness. Haley was fortunate to have information that would eventually lead to finding some of his African origins. His family maintained their connection to Africa through a few words that as an investigative journalist he could eventually trace back to the African continent. Most Africans in the Diaspora are not that fortunate. Our names were brutally beaten out of our memories. In most cases the names did not survive the first generation of enslaved Africans. The furthest back that I can go in my family is to my paternal great grand-father whose name Kelly Murphy Jonas was most likely given to him and his ancestors by an Irish slave holder. Those names still exist in my family where there has been at least one Murphy in each generation since my great-grandfather. My father’s middle name is Murphy as he was named after his grandfather, my first name is Murphy (only female in my family with the name) and my cousin a few years older is Clinton Murphy Williams. So far I do not know which ancestor in that line was dragged kicking and screaming out of Africa. There were tens of millions who suffered that fate. In South America where I was born and in the Caribbean Islands some were worked to death within five to seven years so never had an opportunity to pass on words from their language that could be traced back to a specific region on the African continent. However some of the language did survive because the White slaveholders after working the enslaved Africans to death had to keep a steady replacement supply so kidnapped Africans from the continent were taken to the Americas in a steady stream.
When African Trinidadian professor Maureen Warner-Lewis author of the 1996 published “Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory” was doing research for her book in the 1960s and 1970s she met with people who remembered that their parents or grandparents were from the African continent. In a lecture entitled "African Heritage in the Caribbean" which took place at the National Library in Port of Spain on 7th March, 2007 professor Warner-Lewis mentioned some of the words from various places in Africa which have survived in the Diaspora. The game 'warri' which originated in the area which is present day Ghana, 'susu' from the Yoruba word, 'esusu' is a banking system where there is a rotation of money pooled by a group of people to a central banker and each person who “draws a hand” receives a lump sum of money. Other words mentioned were 'anansi' the spider, 'jumbie' (a ghost), maribole (yellow wasp) and 'kaiso' (Ibibio for 'well-done.) There are words that many of us have heard like nyam and foofoo. Here the late Louise Bennett Coverly explains about the number of African words heard in the Jamaican language including talawa, oonoo and boonoonoonoos, Miss Lou edutained Jamaicans about their African heritage.
African Americans and other Americans were edutained by the television series “Roots” which was first televised on February 18, 1979 and ran for seven consecutive nights where an estimated 130 million Americans watched at least part of the series and the final episode was reportedly seen by upward of 80 million viewers. The final episode of Roots was the most-watched television show of its time with seven of the eight episodes on the A.C. Nielsen Company’s list of the 10 largest television audiences in history. The show lit a spark among Americans who began to research their roots. African Americans who had never thought about their connection to Africa realised that they had a connection and did think about how they became Americans. By 1986 more than 6 million of the hard cover edition of Roots had been sold and it had been published in 37 languages. The television series Roots won three Emmy Awards, for outstanding limited series, for direction and screenplay.
Ten years after the Roots saga was aired journalist Lewis Beale interviewed some of the cast members of the Roots miniseries. In the interview which was published in the “Los Angeles Daily News” on January 29, 1987 LeVar Burton who played the part of the young Kunta Kinte reportedly said: “I think the impact was more deeply felt on a sociological basis. It expanded the consciousness of people. Blacks and Whites began to see each other as human beings, not as stereotypes. And if you throw a pebble into the pond, you`re going to get ripples. I think the only constant is change, and it`s always slow. Anything that happens overnight is lacking in foundation. Roots is part of a changing trend, and it`s still being played out. In terms of roles for Blacks, for women, these things are cyclical.”
It has been 36 years since Roots the miniseries received rave reviews and since the author of the book which inspired the miniseries received the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism. Since then there have been some successful television programs (situation comedies) like The Cosby Show, A Different World and others that even though criticized by some did show African Americans in a mostly positive light. There were others that were so stereotypical it was an embarrassment to watch them. How much television portrayal of African Americans has improved (if it has) since Roots depends on your point of view. At last glance there were no sitcoms with any significant African American cast.

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