Behold Kunta Kinte. The only thing greater than you” (Roots). This was the sentiment of the proud father of Kunta Kinte who intended to let his newborn and the audience know that the only entity greater than Kinte was Allah (God). Such a sentiment is important because this form of respect and value placed on an African child was not something that was widely shown on television in America during the 1970s. It was rather new and contrary to most televisual representations of Africans and African Americans that depicted Africans and African Americans in a negative stereotypical fashion. This leads one to question how the TV program, Roots, was able to portray a program about the oppression of Africans and African Americans during the late 20th century and share a compelling story to a television audience that was 90% white? Not to mention, whilst also being so successful. Amongst the many explanations for its success, it can be claimed that Roots was able to navigate through the politics of race and representation because it was able to incorporate white actors, universal concepts, and, through its popular medium of television, gave a degree of seriousness to the struggles of African Americans. With all of these factors into play, Roots was able to unify members of both races unlike any TV program ever before and conveyed a great deal of meaning to each group, allowing it to be the phenomenon that it was.

Roots was able to navigate through the politics of race and representation by incorporating white actors into the program to draw in the white audience which ultimately helped it reach a wider level of audience. In retrospect, this strategy makes complete sense. This is because the producers had to consider the major audience: white people in America. Yes, the program involved the capturing of Africans who were then sold into slavery. This would be enough to leave any reasonable person to assume, at least upon initial observations, that the program was mainly oriented around African Americans and, therefore, would try to focus mainly on its Black audience. However, with a deeper look, that logical notion does not apply to the production that went behind Roots. In fact, the original book written by Alex Haley did not include a white character until the end of chapter 51 when Kunta Kinte learns the name “Massa William Waller” (Delmont, 157). What is even more shocking is that some white characters, such as Captain Davies, were brought into the program and depicted as religious and morally conflicted, lessening the severity of the evils he committed. This can be seen as a sacrificial production decision made by the producers who had to distort the truth in some manner to keep the white audience interested. Connecting to one of the themes learned in class, this approach by the producers connects to the theme of “least objectionable programming.” In other words, while trying to keep the white audience interested, the producers had to simultaneously make sure that they didn’t create a great deal of guilt or sense of offense felt by the white audience. It is through tactics such as this that over a hundred million people watched the show closely, where some “viewers fought blizzards to be home in time to catch the show” (Williams, 238). Given this established distance of the white audience from being held responsible for the actions of the white oppressors in Roots, and, at the same time, being represented in the show, the program was then able to further capture audience members through many of its universal appeals. 

The TV program “Roots” was able to steer around how audiences make meaning through popular media by utilizing universal notions such as family, loss, and identity. The impact of these themes and the meaning they had for the audience can be seen through the person that was interviewed for this article: Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris is an American Descendant of Slaves. Mr. Harris first watched Roots with his mother when he was eight years old and used a VHS tape to watch the program. His inputs are very intriguing and will be shared later on in this article. Going back to Roots, one of the first instances when Roots introduced the theme of family and loss was when Kinte was captured by Africans that were in a coordinated effort with the Europeans to send Africans away to be slaves. In such an instance, Kinte had experienced the loss of freedom. Nothing could have prepared Kinte for this atrocity. Throughout his life, Kinte only experienced freedom; he had dreams, desires, responsibilities, and other components of a free life. Freedom was all that he knew. However, that freedom was taken away from him. He was also humiliated while it happened when he was stripped naked and beaten. Freedom is a universal theme that all of the white audience experienced. Therefore, to see it be taken away so gruesomely likely compelled the white audience to feel a degree of empathy toward Kinte, or even the African American community. On the other hand, African Americans were able to see their ancestors, an extension of themselves, being forced into one of the worst forms of human treatment, likely compelling them to feel negative emotions. While experiencing this disenfranchisement of his liberty, Kinte had to brave through the loss of his family or, to be precise, brave through a certain deal of “ambiguous loss.” Such was the case because Kinte never got the chance to say goodbye, nor any knowledge of whether they were later captured or not. Once more, the universal concept of family and being separated from family likely compelled the white audience to feel a certain level of sympathy and the black audience to feel a wide range of emotions from sadness, sorrow, etc. Mr. Harris, when asked about what emotions he felt while watching the program, stated that “I felt sadness, sorrow, pride, a sense of being unconquerable and almost scared of my own power.” This statement reinforces how the black audience felt sorrow and sadness but also hints toward intriguing emotions that were possibly felt by the black community: pride and power. Mr. Harris, and possibly the black audience, might have felt this sense of pride and power by Kinte because, among many things, of his relentlessness to keep his identity. When tied up and told to accept his name as Toby, Kinte kept on denying such a name and was brutalized for it. Kinte attempted to keep his name as he understood the significance of his name because his father told him, “your name is your spirit, your shield” (Roots). This resilience and fight of Kinte to keep one’s identity while being brutalized easily appeals to both white and black audiences as they get to observe a heroic figure withstand the worst of abuse. This almost makes Kinte a universal figure that stands for himself and the possibility that anyone can be Kinte. Through these notions, such as appealing to white audience members and utilizing universal notions of family, loss, and identity the path for African Americans to be taken seriously on TV was paved.

African Americans were given a degree of seriousness to their struggle through the popular media of televisions because Roots portrayed the experiences of Africans which brought middle-class respectability to African Americans and TV (Williams, 238). Throughout the early and mid 20th century, African Americans were portrayed as stereotypical characters on TV that were a burden to white men. Moreover, African Americans played comedic roles as can be seen through the popular show Amos N’ Andy. However, Roots, given that it was played on TV where tens of millions of people were able to watch it, brought such strong pathos that it had an earthshattering impact. The impact and its reach are well captured in this statement which reads, “television was now in a position to grant this (melo)drama more exposure than any other…this new version of black and white melodrama was in position…to grant new moral legitimacy and seriousness to the medium of television” (Williams, 238). Roots was such a potent program that not only it gave African Americans a great deal of seriousness on TV but the very popular medium of TV itself! One factor that helped create this seriousness toward the struggle for African Americans was the gruesome violence. For instance, there were many lynchings, beatings, and other forms of abuse that took place that captivated the middle class, mostly compromised of whites, to see the raw unjust violence experienced by slaves. Mr. Harris expressed the underlying assumption of how violent things were when he stated, Roots gives you an audiovisual representation of what you may be able to imagine and this version is the most PG version they could provide.” This simulacrum depiction of Africans presents these subjected people as an elementary version of civil rights subjects. This is because they had to be respectful and behave “well” to not be killed so that they may live. Nonetheless, tieing to the earlier point about the experienced brutality, it is very understandable that the middle-class white audience watched Roots and started to see African Americans in a more serious light and acknowledge the moral legitimacy of their cause for true freedom. Perhaps captured best when the text states, “for the first time blacks and whites together would powerfully identify with the pathos and action of an African-American-authored work about African-American heroes” (Williams, 221). As a result of this simulacrum depiction of the closest version of reality for the enslaved, conditions for African Americans after the movie started to slowly improve.

All in all, Roots had an impact on American society in an immensely powerful way. It had brought to life the many abuses that were experienced by Africans that were forced to become enslaved in America. Roots also had many connections to the themes that were taught in class such as least offensive programming, simulacrum depiction of events, and the idea of the civil rights subject. The success of Roots can have many explanations. However, it can be argued that Roots was able to be so successful because it was able to incorporate white actors, universal concepts, and utilize the popular medium of television. With all of these factors into play, Roots was able to unify members of both races in an immensely potent way. Despite all the hardships  experienced by the enslaved, such as Kunta Kinte, there is a silent echoing that exists throughout the program for every victim of slavery that was stated by Kunta Kinte’s father: “behold Kunta Kinte! The only thing greater than you!” (Roots).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *