Identity is an elaborate concept. It’s inherent, but not something everyone has immediate access to. Knowledge of self is instilled by family, which steers the journey of self-discovery. Family is the first community you’re exposed to, the model for the support groups you seek throughout life. Friends and co-workers, the people you identify with, become networks and communities—even surrogate families, if the connection is strong enough. Finding these bonds, and your place in the world, comes back to understanding who you are. And the deeper the understanding, the more powerful and valuable the knowledge is—especially during dark times.
Roots, the unprecedented miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of his own family tree, offered a harrowing presentation of slavery upon its 1977 premiere. The finale drew over 100 million viewers in part because the multifaceted interpretation of American history’s ugly truths was so arresting. The series won nine Emmys, was nominated for dozens more, and earned a Golden Globe for Best Television Series-Drama the following year. But as much as Roots was a necessary revelation, examining the origin of the African-American family emphasized the importance of identity, triggering interest in genealogy. Adulation for Roots was so widespread that absorbing all eight parts has become a near-mandatory element of the black experience. So when the History Channel's "reimagining" was announced, there was confusion matching the original’s praise.
Need spawned the 1977 adaptation: the African diaspora had never been probed or relayed to the masses before. The world is much different than it was when Roots was cast into the ether almost 40 years ago, but its current state makes revisiting the merit of identity paramount.
Let’s be up front: the new Roots is viewed as unnecessary tampering. The natural reaction to it is a skeptical one—even LeVar Burton, the original Kunta Kinte and a producer of the new version, had initial doubts. "In many ways, I did not believe that it should be done," Burton said during a recent screening and panel event for Roots at the White House. "When I first heard about it, I was….less than enthusiastic." Jon Amos, who played the adult Kinte, told the Huffington Post, that the new Roots is additional proof "that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt." Amos also used the word "apathy," suggesting that viewers aren’t as engaged with the topic now that it isn’t groundbreaking. However, indifference about the slave trade and lineage in contrast with present-day race relations in America absolutely makes the story worth revisiting.
Although undeniably jarring, slavery isn't Roots' reverberating theme: the power of family is. After Kunta Kinte is brought to America through the slave trade, the quixotic hope of finding a way back to his family in Gambia motivates his very existence. And even after he concedes to his reality, he instills the importance of family in his daughter, Kizzie. She passes it to her son, Chicken George, who eventually introduces it to his first born, Tom. Then and now, Roots is about the strength of lineage against insurmountable odds; the generational exchange of tradition, and how identity is bound to that. But to adequately capture its weight, Roots puts viewers through an emotional gauntlet.
Roots is ultimately uplifting, but digesting it remains a struggle. It’s exhausting to process; certain moments will haunt you, as Haley intended. I watched Roots, in its entirety, for the first time at 13; seeing the new rendition as an adult triggered familiar introspection: I looked inward, because it’s still impossible not to place myself in the situations depicted on screen. Would I have survived the Middle Passage? How would I have responded to being treated like property? How resilient would I be following the trauma of physical and spiritual disfigurement?
The original yielded several remarkably powerful scenes, but like many programs from that era, it hasn’t aged well. There are obvious technological advantages available today to make Roots look better, but, as Burton and others involved with the new project have maintained, Roots' success has also yielded more thorough research about slavery. (There's plenty to explore when you're dealing with a four-century block of history.) In turn, the curiosity stimulated by the original has been used to improve the historical accuracy of the latest execution. So while the new rendering may have been refurbished to target a new generation, the upgrades allow the creators to tell the story better, adjustments included.
There are various tweaks to the modern Roots. For example, Malachi Kirby’s Kunta Kinte is more rebellious than Burton’s, and new characters like T.I.'s Cyrus are introduced. The most notable change, however, is the inclusion of the American Civil War’s Fort Pillow Massacre. Seeing Confederate soldiers murder hundreds of black Union fighters, post-surrender, while their white counterparts are taken hostage underlines a wanton disregard for black lives that has endured centuries, further stressing the foolishness of any "all lives matter" rhetoric. This scene epitomizes the black community’s abiding fury at what the Confederate flag represents. In addition, the image of black men with their arms raised in submission being gunned down by white men invokes other ideologies currently beleaguering America.
The new iteration of Roots actually exceeds the original in effectively illustrating the origins of racism-as-social violence in America. The Middle Passage scenes, where shackled slaves are essentially stacked on top of each other amidst squalor, are a representation of prison. The judicial system is built on the overseer mindset, which asserts that enslaved people must be broken and humiliated for not following instruction. The entire "socialization" process involves nothing more than making the enslaved suitable for their white captors' comfort, and, sadly, this exercise is still viewed as a requirement for prosperity today. The roots of respectability politics—the "proper" way to be black in front of white people—can be traced back to this.
Roots is explicit in conveying how deeply inferiority has been embedded into the African-American psyche, but also shows the coping mechanisms the enslaved resorted to for perseverance. Slavery tore families apart, so they formed proxies in captivity. In the reimagining, Forrest Whitaker’s Fiddler becomes an uncle figure to Kunta when he’s brought to Virginia. Despite being Americanized to the point of wearing a Colonial wig, Fiddler tells Kunta to keep his "true name" inside of him. In other cases, the enslaved lept over brooms to validate marriages, as their weddings were not recognized by law. This custom was adopted by newlyweds—like my own parents—in the initial Roots' wake. The primary support system was family, which guided four generations in Roots, reflecting how the framework is treasured within African-American culture.
In the new series' opening moments, Haley, played by Laurence Fishburne, declares the most important days in a man's life "the day he is born, and the day that he understands why." The purpose is to honor the black family's legacy—an intercontinental structure that's withstood all attempts to destroy it. Kwanzaa, a pan-African holiday celebrated at the year’s end, commemorates the diaspora. It involves seven principles, the second of which is Kujichagulia, or self-determination. It means to know yourself; to know your heritage; to know your roots. Roots wasn't reimagined to match the original's influence, it was done to reaffirm the importance of identity, family, and knowing your history to those who know every lyric to "King Kunta" without truly knowing what that name and title symbolize.