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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 13:08 GMT
Going back to my Roots
Roots

Kwame Kwei Armah
It's 30 years since the TV drama Roots first screened. The show had a profound impact on black people in the US and UK, recalls Kwame Kwei-Armah, right, who spoke to others about their memories of the programme.

Thirty years ago I was an 11-year-old growing up in West London. One evening I sat down with my family to watch a new television programme called Roots.

It was a moment that changed my life. By the end of the series I had told my mother that I would one day trace my heritage back to Africa and reclaim an ancestral name. Before I watched the programme I was called Ian Roberts but now my name is Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Roots was a novel based on the writer Alex Haley's family history. It started in Africa with a young man called Kunte Kinte being captured by slavers. It followed him as he was transported to America and sold into slavery. It then focused on his descendants all the way down to Alex Haley.

Alvin Hall
I thought it would help people to understand the real tragedy involved... that the real story of black people in America came out of oppression and deep, deep violence
Alvin Hall
Many doubted that Roots would do well on television. David Wolper, the producer, had problems selling it to a network.

"Roots did not sound like a good idea - at the beginning, here's a story where the blacks are the heroes and the whites are the villains, in a country that's 90% white and 10% black."

To soften the "blow", a new, sympathetic white character was added to the story - conscience-stricken boat captain Thomas Davies.

But when it was broadcast in January 1977 Roots was a phenomenon. It was watched by over 100 million people. It became the most watched programme ever. It is still in the top three only surpassed by the last episode of Mash and the "who shot JR?" episode of Dallas.

Though some question the authenticity of Alex Haley's account, the story he told of enslavement, transportation and brutality happened to millions of Africans.

Harrowing experience

For writer and television presenter Alvin Hall, then a student in North Carolina, watching the story on TV for the first time was a memorable experience, not least because it felt like white audiences were for the first time sharing in the experience of watching black faces on TV. But Hall also found the experience of watching harrowing.

Alex Haley
Roots' creator, Alex Haley, who died in 1992
"I think all of us knew these things intellectually but to see it was hard to watch, in some scenes I had to turn my face away from the television."

In America, Roots may have dramatised slavery for the first time. But everyone already knew that slavery was a part of America's history. For many West Indians living in Britain, though, Roots was revelatory.

Dr Robert Beckford is now a theologian and academic but in 1977 he was a teenager growing up in the Midlands.

"I was completely shocked the first time I watched Roots. It was compulsive viewing in my house it became more important than going to church," he says.

Roots was a huge success in the UK too, with 19 million people watching. The subject matter may have been difficult but it was a brilliant, epic story that drew you into the characters' lives.

Source of pride

Many people learnt all they knew about slavery from watching Roots but it only showed the American involvement. Many Britons had no idea that the British transported far more slaves across the Atlantic than the Americans ever did.

Lenny Henry
My mum talked to people on the phone for... two hours. She called every black person she knew and talked about it
Lenny Henry
Yet, for young black Britons growing up in the UK, Roots was a source of tremendous pride. Lenny Henry remembers how the show's effect spilled over from living room to playground.

"I remember going to school on the Monday and people somehow didn't mess with you that day because all the black kids had this look in their eyes that said you better back off," recalls Henry.

That was perhaps the exception, not the rule. In most schools, the show proved to be a source for teasing - the name Kunta Kinte sounding not like a proud warrior, but a rude joke.

What made Roots so difficult for many people with Caribbean heritage was that it confronted them with the fact that their families originally came from Africa. Growing up in West London, Africa was something you saw in Tarzan movies where savages were beaten up by our white hero. We felt no kinship with Africa.

Doreen Lawrence
Going in work you looked at people completely different, you'd begin to have a mistrust of white people and that took a long time to go
Doreen Lawrence
But Roots clearly changed the way British West Indians thought about themselves. Doreen Lawrence, of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, had been brought up knowing nothing about slavery or Africa.

"Until Roots came out I would never have seen myself as a descendant of a slave, that was never part of my background that I learnt growing up in the Caribbean."

For my generation Roots was a seminal moment that in many cases changed our lives. Robert Beckford believes the young today need their own Roots, "The current generation that are caught up in education failure, gun crime, gang violence, and lacking identity. They need a Roots experience."

Looking back, for me, the most important thing about Roots was not just that it pointed me in the direction of my heritage but that it showed me the power of a story to change perceptions and lives. And that is probably why I am a writer today.

Roots presented by Kwame Kwei-Armah was broadcast on Saturday 24 March and is available for 7 days at Radio 4's listen again page.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

That program did not show only the black people in western countries their background but people living in Africa at that time became so emotional. The tenage groups these days undermind people from Africa forgetting their ancestors came from the same place and they in realty should be proud of their motherland. They should follow the culture and respect of Africa.
Lit, Leeds

I am a Nigerian by birth and have refused to adopt another citizenship,I studied history about slave trade in Nigeria but Root made me understand what Africans suffered in slavery.In as much as I resperct all blacks,I have reservations of non African Blacks because of their lack of knowledge on Africa. The much I can say is that Africans want African decendents home even if for a short visit, you select one African State as home and make it a home and claim it. Africans are lovely helpful people, once you have their colour heaven is yours.
Sunny Ekwenugo, Berlin, Germany

I remember watching Roots and making a sort of family tree through the generations so as not to confuse or forget anything. I wish it would be screened again. Another generation needs to know about this powerful history.
wilma, Reading

I watched Roots in Denmark in 1979. I was the only person at my school with black blood - my father is nigerian and my mum danish. I grew up in small village and Roots was really an eye-opener for me. I was only 9 years old but Roots instilled enormous pride in me- I knew that my dads family originated from american slaves. Kunta Kinte gave me pride and hope because it showed me that black people can survive a lot of oppression. And somehow it became really " cool " to be black in my small danish village. So I can only say that Roots has been very very important for black people all over the world and I think that Blacks should be proud because they are descended from enslaved africans that gave a lot of rich culture to the american countries jazz, bossa nova, carnival and blues. And at the moment it seems like the " Black diaspora and blacks generally" have started to see the richness in theํr african roots!
Paul Adedmola , Copenhagen

Do we all not have injustice issues deep back in our history. Each race or country In all parts of the world have been invaded or corrupted by another at some point in the past. Man never changes in its greed, We have to try to go forward and not keep looking back,Any Country could if we went back far enough. No place on earth has not committed some evil or another on its neighbour.Whether the next village, tribe or country .
sandra campbell, bristol

I am Jewish and I remember Roots having a huge impact on me and everyone I knew who saw it. It's brilliance was that you understood all the characters, black and white, and you could understand why they had the attitudes they had - however despicable. The scene where Alex Hayley's father, a uniformed WWII veteran, is refused a room in a motel because of his colour, will stay with me forever - it reduced my parents to tears because they had the same experience as new immigrants to this country. It just showed how long change can take.
Celine, London

It constantly sickens me that it takes a popular media event to raise awareness about HISTORY? Surely this is and was public knowledge already? I took nothing from this program but awe at it's bravery and it's production, and to this day find it hard to believe that it was such a revelation. Maybe someone should make a miniseries of the gross violence and mass genocide happening in Africa right now? We all turn a blind eye to that (but for a few charitable institutions) maybe a media event will shock and inspire us. It has got to the point where unless it happens in full colour, widescreen, Dolby DTS it's not real. I weep for the future of a planet where education and 'common knowledge' is nothing until immortalised in celluloid. Sometimes I am ashamed to be human.
Peter Harris, Bangor,Gwynedd,North Wales

I remember the harrowing effect of this programme, I had felt similar shock, horror and sadness when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin. I am a white Briton so I cannot really understand the way that descendants of Africans must feel. It is vital that all people learn their own and world history so that freedom and equality are treasured. At some point, most Nations and peoples have been abused, enslaved or conquered by others. What I also believe is that rather than people asking for meaningless apologies, efforts should be directed to stamping out modern-day oppression and slavery, of which there is a great deal.
C. Matthews., Birmingham, UK

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