AfriGeneas Writers Forum
ROOTS 25th Anniversary
Written by Larry Hamilton and posted with his permission. Larry is a friend and member of the African-American Genealogy Group of the Miami Valley (AAGGMV).
Some call it fate. Alex Haley described "it" as “a meant to be series of incidents.” But, as one who was baptized in the Predestinarian Baptist Church in Loveland, Ohio (a Cincinnati suburb) I know "it" to be something even deeper, that which was preordained and divinely sanctioned.
What is the "it" I refer to?
It is the telling of the story of an American Family. I don’t think it started out that way. After all this was the story of a black man on his personal quest for ancestral identity. Could a black man’s efforts to trace his familial roots be embraced and shared by all Americans?
It has been 25 years since Roots, the award-winning mini-series, burst upon our TV screens. Like so many of the 130 million Americans, both black and white, I sat glued to the TV for eight consecutive nights. I marveled at the heroic presentation of black characters by so many talented and skillful black actors. In those days you seldom saw blacks on the tube with any degree of regularity and when just one appeared on television, it was enough to trigger telephone calls throughout the black community. Each household within the first few minutes of the program was likely to receive two or more calls that went something like “Hey, y’all know such and such and so and so is on the TV, I gotta go” click! Indeed these occasions were so rare that they compelled the formulation of information chains to notify the community. So, while half of all America tuned in to watch the now famous mini-series, if the Nielsen’s were surveying only the African American community, their numbers would have been astronomical. This writer had to have the ultimate “heads-up” and “insider knowledge” of the making of Roots, and thus began early-on to spread the word of the coming television programming.
On November 24, 1975, as an African American History teacher at Piqua High School, I was invited to attend a Black History program at Wright State University. The invitation came through the Bolinga Cultural Center because of my graduate work on the campus of W.S.U. Since it was at one o’clock on a school day, I decided to request a field trip for the students in my Black History course. The speaker for this program was to be Alex Haley. It is embarrassing to admit, but I had never heard of him, even though I had been familiar with the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he had collaborated on and where he had first gained notoriety. But on this occasion Haley would be lecturing on his newly released book, Roots. I believe it was on this book tour that he made the first public announcement of his signing of the contract with ABC to produce a television show based upon his book.
Now, everyone in my father’s generation can tell you of the transforming experience of Pearl Harbor, or for my generation of the impact of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King. Of course now, after 9/11, everyone can remember everything about their personal circumstances at the time of the collapse of the Twin Towers. For me, as I listened to Alex Haley describe his relationship with his grandmother and begin to spin the story of Kunta Kinte, I instinctively knew that this was a moment of greatness that would forever change my life experience. (I still have my original news release dated November 19, 1975 announcing the Haley lecture.) I connected with Haley and his story of Roots in almost a religious manner. It was like a hallelujah moment! A conversion experience! I knew that I had been “called” and I responded to the calling with the zeal of a fanatical convert.
I, too, had a grandmother who would pump us full of those old folk tales whenever she had the opportunity. Unlike some of my cousins who took grandma’s cookies and ran off to play, in a greater show of appreciation I stayed and listened (and got more cookies). I listened to the story of her Mammy escaping slavery to be protected by the Union soldiers at Camp Nelson. I listened to the story about Uncle Dee’s heroism in the 1913 flood. I remember her pride in talking about Henry Allen Laine, the family author. I heard the sorrow in her voice as she talked about her father, the Rev. John Hannon, losing several homes during the depression years. I felt her shame and indignation recalling Aunt Nell’s down and dirty incident in Covington, Kentucky, and about my philandering, womanizing grandfather whom she dearly loved (yeah grandma had issues) and scores of other fascinating subjects too numerous to recount.
So, the torch has been passed and I’m responding to “the call”. The thing that made Roots so extraordinary was that it offered up a national “revival” of family history research. No longer would genealogy solely remain the domain of the rich and famous, but now in every family there is always that one who intrinsically values “the call” to research and confirm the stories as a sacred rite on behalf of the family unit. Each family’s stories represent threads that have become a part of the fabric of America. It was Alex Haley’s Roots that unleashed these thousands of family historians nationally to weave and spin their stories into that which is uniquely an American tapestry. I pray the fabric never frays. May God Bless America. Amen