Roots: The Saga of an American Family

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1977) became a sensation immediately after its publication in 1976. It was adapted into a popular miniseries, and became one of the most-watched television programs in American history. Two sequels, “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979) and “Roots: The Gift” (1988), quickly followed, as well as another film based on the family history of the Haley clan, “Queen” (1993).

This award-winning six-part historical epic was one of the first examples of the miniseries format and one of the highest-rated television programs in broadcasting history. Based on the best-selling novel by author Alex Haley, Roots chronicles the progress of Haley’s own family across many generations, from the kidnapping of an African warrior by American slave traders to eventual post-Civil War freedom. Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) is a young tribesman of coastal Africa who has passed the rituals marking his transition into manhood. Searching for wood to build a drum, he is set upon by slavers who sell him in the United States after a nightmarish Atlantic crossing. Defiant, Kunta refuses to consider himself a slave, despite some sage advice from his mentor, the more mature Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.). As the years pass, the aging Kunta (John Amos) is hobbled for his repeated escape attempts. Realizing he’ll never return to Africa, Kunta settles down, becoming husband to Bell (Madge Sinclair) and father to Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), a girl infused with her father’s independent spirit. Sold and then raped by her new master, Kizzy has a son, Chicken George (Ben Vereen), a happy go lucky cockfighting expert who uses his skills to buy his freedom. George paves the way for his children, the great-grandchildren of Kunta Kinte, who finally become free in the aftermath of the Civil War.

“Roots” appealed to readers of every background: for African American readers, the story inspired pride and a greater understanding of the past; and for readers of other ethnicities, it was a powerful look at an American family’s immigrant past.  Moreover, Haley’s work is widely credited with starting the American genealogy craze.

The continuing controversy over Haley’s writing and research methods and the facts of his narrative has not dimmed his achievement.Roots” is viewed as a mythic saga of African American history, portraying the ways in which enslaved Africans endured suffering and fought for their place in American society.  It has earned a place among the popular classics of American literature and remains a profoundly influential and well-loved books.

Still of Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou in Roots (1977)Still of LeVar Burton in Roots (1977)Still of John Amos and Madge Sinclair in Roots (1977)Still of Leslie Uggams in Roots (1977)





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