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The scriptwriters really had to develop the white characters.

They were unevenly developed as seen through the eyes

of Haley's ancestors, who knew only what they perceived.



Books by Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family /  Alex Haley's Queen  /  A Different Kind of Christmas  / The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Mama Flora's Family  

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Roots: A Powerful Impact

By Gerald Forshey


In 1977, on the morning following the telecast of the concluding segment of Roots, Gerald Forshey taped an interview with Arvarh Strickland. A professor of history at the University of Missouri, author of History of the Chicago Urban League (University of Illinois Press, 1966) and coauthor, with Jerome Rich, of the textbook The Black American Experience (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich), Dr. Strickland worked on a history of Illinois from 1930 to the present (1977). In his course at the University of Missouri he used Roots (both Alex Haley's book and the television version), along with materials developed by Maimi-Dade Community College. Dr. Strickland was a delegate from the South Central Jurisdiction to the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.


Forshey: What did you think of Roots on television?

Strickland: I was fascinated that ABC would have the courage to do a series of this sort for prime-time television. Despite what i consider to be serious shortcomings, it was a breakthrough for a major network to do this.

Forshey: Some of the criticism of Alex Haley's book has focused on his historical methodology. linguists say that it is impossible to take just a few Anglicized words and from them trace back a whole family history. As a historian what do you think of Haley's methodology?

Strickland: Under the circumstances, it was the best he could do. What may be under question is oral history itself. There is a man in my department who is studying early and medieval Russia, and he's finding that there were similar people in Russia who carried forward these historical stories and passed them on. What Haley did was to start with these words simply to find the locality, and he used other kinds of sources to help substantiate his findings.

Forshey: Biblical history, especially in the Old Testament and the Gospels, depended on an oral tradition. What with the pressures the slaves were under, was it an unusual situation that Haley found? Was there a widespread oral tradition in the black slave community?

Strickland: I don't believe it was a general tradition, but much of the experience was passed down by grandparents through stories they had heard. But I doubt that the African connection was there. And as we get more research done on this, we find that the black family was not as ephemeral as thought. There was certainly the break-up of the family under slavery, and often an extended family was not based entirely on consanguinity. Much of that is in Haley's book, but in the TV dramatization it was replaced by sex. The ties that Kunta Kinte's family made with other slaves -- and these were usually in the smaller plantations; they were not as large as they seemed in the TV version -- these ties formed the extended family.

A good example of this is when Kizzy's son, George, was talking about buying their freedom. he had calculated not only how much it would cost to purchase his mother and his wife and their children, but also the purchase price of these other slaves whom he considered part of the family.


Forshey: What would you say is the major difference between the book and the television series?

Strickland: In my opinion the major loss was the perspective with which the book was written. haley organized the book around his ancestor's viewpoint, so we read only what they could experience directly. Thus the reader always gets a black perspective, and gets the cultural perspective of Haley's family. That couldn't be dealt with in the TV script, and so the film does not come through "black" eyes.

Forshey: We saw exactly that in the white characters, didn't we, in all those expository passages about them?

Strickland: The scriptwriters really had to develop the white characters. They were unevenly developed as seen through the eyes of Haley's ancestors, who knew only what they perceived. This point of view extended even to what was going on throughout the country as a whole. Haley did it through black eyes by surmising that Bell had the ability to read and write, which she kept secret. But she did secretly read the newspapers that Dr. Reynolds left around the house. And so she knew what was being written in the newspapers about the slave revolts and slavery. She didn't tell even Kunta Kinte until after they were married, and she found out that he could read Arabic and could show her what is name looked like in Arabic.

Forshey: I was impressed by the way that television was able to reverse the imagery of Africa that we grew up with. To me, Africa had these dark people, and wild animals and the primeval jungle, which were all threats to the white people. What the series did was to show all these beautiful people in this noble civilization, living in harmony with nature -- but there is this evil threat in the forest called the white man, the tubob.

Strickland:  Well, that was a little too slick at the beginning. I was a bit unhappy that they couldn't do more with developing the African culture in the first segment. What we saw were these beautiful scenes, the camera panning out across the savannah, and the river winding through it, and the lush foilage, and these Mandinka simply lolling around in paradise -- and all of a sudden, paradise lost!

Haley doesn't take this approach. He lets us see the effect of the different economic roles, the sexual roles, the place of women in the culture, slavery among those people in Africa, and their religion, including the rites of passage. There was a lot in the book that really speaks to the cultural history of Africa.


Forshey: I was really taken with the role of Fiddler. Except for Kunta Kinte, he made the strongest impact on me -- probably because his journey was the opposite of Kunta's. He started out a slave and gradually came to understand freedom, through Kunta. What characters did you find most interesting?

Strickland: I was impressed by Leslie Uggam's as Kizzy -- partly because I didn't expect much from a singer, I suspect. For instance, the scene in which she was being dragged away from her parents was the high emotional point in the dramatization, in my opinion, and she brought it off quite well. But I think the acting was generally just excellent -- so much so that that I have heard people take their frustrations against the actors. I heard one woman actually say: "I used to think that Lorne Green and Robert Reed were nice guys."

Forshey: It seemed to me that the scenes of the Middle Passage were not very well done, either historically or emotionally. I remember the passage scenes in Jan Troell's The Emigrants, about the Swedes coming to America, and they made me feel much more ill than those scenes aboard the Lord Ligonier.

Strickland: I think this part was toned down for television. the film couldn't show the slaves rolling around in their own excrement, and the smells -- well, all we get is the buyer coming on board with his perfumed handkerchief. but I don't know what good it would have done to follow up on that. What would have helped is a better portrayal of the effect that lying on those bare boards had on the backs and the bodies -- more emphasis than lancing that boil on Kunta Kinte's back. His back was sore all over when they first landed.

But we did get the philosophizing over the "loose pack" versus the "tight pack," and with it the idea that the captain is a Christian and is humane, so he's a "loose packer," he going to save as man lives as possible. It's a heavy kind of irony.

Forshey: There's a lot of violence in the film, which fits Americans' preoccupations. Is it in the book?

Strickland: I think that anyone taking up the book and expecting to find all the sex and violence that they saw on television will be disappointed. But I hope that what they do find will be much more exciting: the development of character. This is a sag of an American family, and there is drama in that, transcending all the violence and sex. You know, it's just a beautiful story.

Forshey: It seems to me that what was done on television was to change an epic story into a melodrama. I'm not as bothered by that as a lot of academics would be because melodrama like The Godfather and Gone with the Wind have always been the most popular form, outside the western, with American audiences.

Strickland: What happened was that the televised formed turned out to be so much more popular than anyone expected. And I don't think we can deny the importance of this. As a viewer, and even as a n academic, I appreciate this will provide additional motivation for going into some more serious things. In the course I teach, I hope that this impact will generate the motivation to look at some African culture, the religious development, how the climatic and geographical features shaped the culture, some of the early empires that many people have not heard about.

Forshey: What specific merit does the film have for blacks and what merit does it have for whites?

Strickland: It betokens our homogenized culture. In one way, it has shock value for both groups. The shock was a bit different for each, but in a sense neither group really knew the story. The younger people -- and many of them have grown up during and since the 60s -- are asking: "Did stuff like that really happen?" They have a distance and coolness, assuming that it was something that happened "back there." And so to see it smacks them in the face. So I think the shock value is very good.


Forshey: What about the role of religion in the film? It starts in Africa with Islam, then moves through the period when Christianity was not welcome, and finally ends with a mixture of African culture and black Christianity. And of course all that nonviolence in the last episode seems to come more from Martin Luther King than from the slave mind-set.

Strickland: I was terribly confused by the religion as depicted on TV, whereas I wasn't bothered so much by the book. The Mandinka were more thoroughly Muslim than many other Africans. The traditional African religions predominated, and we don't see that dramatized. In the book, though, we see Christianity through the eyes of Kunta Kinte, who is looking at it as a Muslim, and so he can't understand the attraction of the filthy swine which is brought to him to eat and which is so repugnant in the culture he has come from.

Religion opened his eyes to some cultural survivals over here, and as he watched some of these ceremonies of his village in Africa. It was through this experience that he began to feel a little closer to the blacks, around him because there were things they didn't know had come from Africa but which had survived in their own traditions.

The religious gathering we saw on television was what has been stereotyped -- a church full of women. But when Kunta Kinte went to religious services, the minister was in the center, the elders gathered around him, then the younger men on the outer edges and the women outside of that. What he saw there was the way it had been done in his village, and the slaves were still doing it.

Forshey: Does all this have any significance for the churches today?

Strickland: I'm not sure. I do know that blacks in denominations like the United Methodist Church can never forget their struggle, and must remember their history and go on telling it into the indefinite future. We were merged in because it was embarrassing to the whites to have a segregated church. At our jurisdictional conference I heard delegates actually saying that we had one black bishop in the jurisdiction, so what would we do with another? Maybe Roots will do something to jog our memories so that we don't relax until racism is eliminated.

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Roots the 12-hour TV series in 1977, based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-prize winning ancestral epic Roots, garnered 80 to130 million viewers. The Emmy-winning miniseries, the most-watched of all time, was the first television program to bring the horrors of slavery to life.

Roots cast of 45 members  included John Amos, LeVar Burton, Lynne Moody; Richard Roundtree, Doug McClure, Lou Gossett, Jr., Lynda Day George, Ben Vereen, George Stanford Brown, Lloyd Bridges. MacDonald Carey, Burl Ives, Lorne Greene, Leslie Uggams, Madge Sinclair, Chuck Connors, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Thalmus Rasulala, Vic Morrow,  O.J. Simpson, and Ed Asner.

Source: The Christian Century (March 2, 1977)

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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