Thirty years ago this month, more than 100 million viewers gathered around their television sets for a groundbreaking experience. Roots, the miniseries adapted from Alex Haley’s best seller, changed the way we looked at our history. The late ED BRADLEY reflected on the significance of the movie, then and nowOur history had never before been so vividly portrayed as it was in Roots. The miniseries, which ran over eight nights, captured our traditions, our customs and our fears. Roots was something you just had to watch. And everyone was watching.
Many people I knew had been impressed by Alex Haley’s best-selling 1976 book. I didn’t think the television adaptation could possibly live up to what Haley had written. But after the first episode aired, I’m not sure what I had planned for the rest of the week, but I know I cleared the deck to watch number two in the series. Each night, as soon as an episode ended, phone lines buzzed with family and friends calling from across the country to talk about what they’d just seen. I remember the scene of Kunta Kinte’s birth. When his father held him up against the backdrop of the sky, I thought, Wow! That image stayed with me; it was as if someone was saying, This is where you come from. It was the first time many of us realized that Black folks played a role in the slave trade. Even if you knew some of these aspects of our history on an intellectual level, seeing them gave them a visceral dimension.
Roots changed our perception of who we are as a people. I’d read about our history, studied it, and debated it, but nothing prepared me for what I and millions of others watched on our television screens. I don’t think anyone knew what the reaction would be. No one had made a commitment like this in broadcast television. Roots was exponentially more powerful than anything that had ever been shown on television because of the personal story revealed: Here we were able to trace the life of one man, one family and, at the same time, tell our larger story.
Each successive night was as if we were entering and illuminating the dark hole that had been our history in this country. Every night we climbed deeper and deeper into this hole, seeing more and more layers of our past. It was the first time we got a sense of the sacrifices our ancestors had to make to survive slavery—giving up their name, watching their children being sold off, and tolerating unimaginable abuses.
The experience was powerful, and not just for Black America but for all of America. White folks understood, for the first time, our critical role in this nation’s history.
But while Roots opened everyone’s eyes, it did even more for African-Americans: It awakened us. It led us to search for our people. I think many of us wanted to know, Well, where did we come from? I knew my grandmother on my father’s side, but I didn’t know my grandfather on my mother’s side. After watching Roots, even if we couldn’t trace our own, we could make a connection with the characters portrayed on the screen.
Growing up, I don’t remember Black folks talking about our African ancestry. More often you’d hear them recalling our “Indian blood”: “Yeah, I think my grandmother was a Seminole.” Roots changed all that. It helped us build a bridge back to Africa.
Ed Bradley was an award-winning correspondent with CBS’s 60 Minutes newsmagazine for 26 years.