I saw the film, ’12 Years a Slave’ recently. It was brilliant! However, I do not yet know if it will enter my hinterland; only time will tell. It reminded me, though, of the 70s television series that first lifted slavery out from the history books and made me realise that it was a tragedy experienced by millions of people and not just something to study in school.
‘Roots’ was broadcast by BBC Television in 1977 over several evenings. Over 19 million people watched it and I was one of them. The series was based on Alex Haley’s novel which had the full title of ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’ when it was published. My copy of the book, obviously bought in Britain, only has the title ‘Roots’ but with ‘The epic drama of one man’s search for his origins’ as a strapline.
It is the story of Kunta Kinte who is captured in West Africa, sold into slavery and given a new name by slave owners. They do not see a human in front of them but an item of highly valuable property. The story of his life as a slave and the lives of the generations of his family that follow is told through the mini-series.
n 2007, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the impact of the series on black Britons. I remember listening to their interviews and realising the importance of the mini- series to them. It was important, not just because it was a drama with more black characters than white, but because the BBC gave so much air time over to the story. It was highly unusual then. I wonder if it is any better now!
‘Roots’ taught me two things: while I was sympathetic and saw myself as a liberal who believed on the right things, this was not my history; it needed to be told by the right people and this history needed to be told by a black man.
There is a scene in the early stages of the series when Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton, tries to escape his chains. He rages on the shore line in what looks like a macabre dance. The anguish, anger, fear and betrayal he feels are all conveyed without words.
‘Roots’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?