Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reflections on Roots and the Remake

Roots taught me about the meaning of race in America. I remember watching Roots nightly with my entire family the week that it aired on television in January, 1977 and was five at the time. The plight of Kunta Kinte confused me and made a profound impact on me from the very beginning. I remember asking my mother questions such as, “Why does he look so sad?” and having her explain that he had been kidnapped and taken from his home and family, a horrifying thought to me. When I asked her “Why can’t he go home?” she explained that he couldn’t because his home was across the ocean. Similarly, I remember being so upset and angered by the beating scene in which he refused to accept the name “Toby” that I rolled up a section of a newspaper and used it to “beat” the open door of my grandparent’s bedroom as the family continued to watch. From that point on, I totally got it, didn’t need to ask my mother any more questions, and had instinctively understood what race meant in the U.S., including the devalued status of African Americans. In my childhood, I very much experienced Roots as the primary teaching tool that clarified for me the meaning of race and slavery in this nation’s history.

After reading Roots and Queen, my uncle made detailed family trees for both productions, and also underscored Alex Haley’s family’s linkages to Ithaca and Cornell when I first arrived here. Over the holidays in 2012, the BET Network’s airing of Roots and Queen, which are both based on the family histories of Alex Haley, introduced these works to a new generation and underscored their continuing relevance. I was thankful to witness their powerful impact on two of my cousins, young women who are in their twenties, who were seeing them for the first time. The original Roots is a canonical work in television history and will be tough to follow. Remaking it for more contemporary audiences in a digital age and with newer resources and techniques, including new technologies that are now available for the production process, will be valuable. For example, the makeup techniques for aging characters were definitely passable but were not very advanced in the original television series. I will always cherish the original, but it will be interesting to see the new production and how it measures up.

Roots opened the door to studies of African American genealogy in which many African Americans are now increasingly invested. In recent years, this movement has been spearheaded by the work of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard. Within the first half hour of joining in 2006, we were able to trace our ancestry back to my great, great, great grandfather born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1795 and discovered the twin dynasty he originated and that had passed down the names “Isic” and “Ben” among the twin boys across several generations. I learned this and exclaimed that “It’s a story as great as Roots!” For the births of these twins were obviously cherished and anticipated from generation to generation. We have now traced our roots as far back as 1758. Some members of my family, like my grandmother, have also taken the 23&Me and genealogy tests.

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