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'Roots' still a powerful statement 25 years later

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

For a little more than a week in January 1977, nearly every American could feel Kunta Kinte's pain. When the lash fell on LeVar Burton's back on "Roots," the path-breaking 12-hour ABC miniseries, all people of goodwill found themselves identifying with the black experience.

The outrage of Americans of all persuasions mounted nightly as a previously obscure chapter in our national history took on flesh and blood. Each installment provided enough prime-time catharsis to generate dinner table and water cooler discussion for weeks.

Kunta Kinte became a stand-in for the millions of slaves who, for the sake of American self-esteem and the preservation of our national amnesia, have remained nameless for centuries.

Prior to "Roots," American popular culture had produced images of slavery that were far less militant than Burton's straining against his shackles on the auction block.

Before the whip came down for eight straight nights during prime time 25-years ago, James Baskett's sweet portrayal of Uncle Remus in "Song of the South" had been about as close as we got to depicting plantation slavery.

Before Disney's 1946 film presented "servants" who contented themselves with narrating cute, apolitical tales of Brer Rabbit, there was Hattie McDaniel's excitable Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." That gaseous 1939 melodrama about a self-absorbed, slave-owning aristocracy followed D.W. Griffith's influential "Birth of a Nation," a notorious film about the evils of reconstruction and race-mixing during the aftermath of the Civil War.

Griffith's 1915 tract about the "villainy" of ex-slaves and white carpetbaggers didn't exactly prepare America for a sympathetic, well-rounded depiction of a black family's journey from West Africa to slavery in America to eventual freedom when "Roots" debuted.

On Friday, NBC, not ABC, which originally ran the series, will broadcast "Roots -- Celebrating 25 Years: The Saga of an American Classic."

The show will look back -- not in anger, but in gratitude -- at a series that helped initiate a much-needed discussion about race in America. ABC may have defied conventional wisdom about how much black misery whites were willing to absorb 25 years ago, but it passed on the opportunity to revisit the scene of one of television's greatest triumphs. "Roots" has become passe to ABC, which is now owned by Disney, the folks who brought us "Song of the South."

As an 11th-grader at the time, I was amazed by the frankness with which "Roots" portrayed slavery. There was no attempt to minimize or obscure the institution's brutality.

Consequently, it wasn't just black kids at my high school who came to class seething with resentment at the nation's history of racial injustice after each broadcast. The white kids did, too. Many of them outdid black students with their eloquent denunciations of the nation's racist legacy.

Before "Roots," I can't think of any other American television show that presented slaves as complex human beings -- with the possible exception of an early episode of "Gunsmoke" that featured Yaphet Kotto and Cicely Tyson as a complicated slave couple.

Even blaxploitation films, a genre that was still popular at the time, traded in stereotypes about slavery and black people. Stories about slaves were such emotional dynamite that even black directors felt compelled to keep a polite distance.

That's why author Alex Haley's romanticized version of his family's history struck a chord with 130 million viewers. "Roots" was a tale of indomitable men and women who persevered in the face of a soul-destroying racial ideology that had prevailed in the country until relatively recently.

For those who sat through every agonizing minute of "Roots," the characters embodied what it meant to be an American. It became apparent that Kunta Kinte's values were the values of every American.

Like those who enslaved him, Kunta Kinte resented the confiscation of his freedom and strove to reclaim it relentlessly. When his American-born descendants settled as free people in Tennessee, they maintained their family's fierce dedication to the spirit of freedom, a spirit that will be celebrated Friday when Americans reacquaint themselves with the message of "Roots."

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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