Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"My Children and I Just Sat There Crying": America and a TV Show Called "Roots"

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the reaction of Americans to one of the most significant television events in the 1970s.

Black nationalism transformed depictions of African Americans in movies and television in the 1970s. Television comedies with mostly African American casts such "Sanford and Son," T"he Jeffersons," and "Good Times," mostly written, produced and directed by whites, featured characters who often spoke Black Nationalist rhetoric and mocked white racism.

Hollywood also marketed films for black audiences with mostly black casts – so-called “blaxploitation films” like "Superfly," "Shaft," and even "Blackula," which featured a vampire who was an African prince. The African American television characters in the 1970s were often buffoonish, and the blaxploitation films depicted an African American world peopled by pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes. Yet American movies and television had expanded far beyond the days when African Americans were reduced to playing comic maids and butlers.

Black audiences in particular appreciated films in which African American characters did not live surrounded by and in the service to white people and the blaxploitation genre also found a white audience that appreciated the soul music soundtracks of movies like "Shaft" and enjoyed the violent action.

ABC broadcast the mini-series "Roots," based on African American author Alex Haley’s book of the same name. Like the book, the series told the story of Haley’s family, from the capture of an African ancestor named Kunte Kinte as a slave in the 1700s, to the life of “Chicken” George, who lives to see emancipation in the Reconstruction era. ABC executives worried about the show, scheduling the program in January when TV audiences were smaller than other parts of the year because, as Sandbrook pointed out, because the mini-series “had almost no sympathetic white characters and depicted a brutal world of rape and racism.”

Yet, the series served as a cathartic moment for a massive black and white audience. The eight-part series, which debuted January 23, 1977, became the most watched television program of the season, with 100 million viewing the final installment. Roots struck a deep emotional chord. “My children and I just sat there crying,” recalled an African American public relations director in Nashville. “We couldn’t talk. We just cried.”

For many African Americans, "Roots" instilled pride in the strength and endurance of their ancestors and prompted black families to explore their genealogy. African Americans booked tours to Africa in large numbers. Among white viewers, the show provoked an awareness of American injustice and empathy for the African American freedom struggle. “I never knew such horrible things happened,” a high school senior in Missouri said. “I wasn’t very proud of my ancestors. Since the movie I have felt sorry for our black population and whenever I see a black person I wonder if any of my ancestors tortured them.”




Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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