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When the landmark TV miniseries Roots premiered to a U.S. audience of almost 100 million viewers in January 1977, the West African nation where author Alex Haley purportedly found his ancestor Kunta Kinte—The Gambia—did not yet have a national television broadcasting system.
But Africans were far from in the dark about Roots, the award-winning historical drama that took Haley more than ten years to write and research. The epic miniseries, which united black and white Americans in a viewing experience that the late journalist Chuck Stone called both "an electronic orgy of white guilt" and "one of greatest emotional experiences of all time"—set off a chain of reactions in sub-Saharan Africa.
As the A&E, Lifetime, and History channels prepare to simulcast a remake of Roots starting on Memorial Day, it’s worth recalling how the original miniseries pushed African nations to publicly come to grips with slavery’s brutal history; their often-complicated relationships with the worldwide African diaspora; and their own contemporary struggles with inequality within their borders.
Haley’s story of an enslaved man and his descendants as told in the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family—a narrative producers say the remake will more closely track—spawned a cottage industry of African American heritage tourism to Africa. But the Roots phenom had a dubious impact in The Gambia, and it played out differently in apartheid South Africa. In West Africa, tourists visited a terrain that had once been trans-Atlantic slavery's foremost hunting and trading grounds. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in a South Africa still roiling from the 1976 Soweto uprising, the apartheid government deemed the TV version of Roots too incendiary to show. Flexing its power, the U.S. embassy there organized a handful of screenings—including one in Soweto—that only the tiniest sliver of South Africans would see.
Orland Ridout IV, left, a descendent of John Ridout (one of the two men who sold Kunta Kinte into slavery), embraces Chris Haley, Right, a descendent of Kunta Kinte, during the conclusion of a slave reconcilation walk on September 29, 2004 in Annapolis, Maryland. Kinte is believed to have arrived in Annapolis September 29, 1767, on a slave ship from The Gambia.
The multinational power of Roots may have been felt first in West Africa, where slave-trading forts such as Ghana's Elmina still dot the Atlantic coast. The prospect of seeing such monuments to the world's most vast human-trafficking scheme drew many African Americans fascinated by Haley's account of how he pieced together a family story from a few apparently African words passed down from his elders, oral history, and the birth name that Kunta Kinte famously refused to relinquish for the pedestrian moniker “Toby.”
Within two months of the first Roots broadcast in January 1977, the NAACP began promoting ten-day Roots tours to five African countries for $1,395 each. Its itinerary was an “enslavement to free nation” whirlwind. The tour started in Senegal (with a stop on Gorée Island, which hosted more than a dozen slave-trading outfits), and ended in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries settled as colonies for freed U.S. slaves. By 1978, Senegal was expecting double its annual tourist traffic. These new black wayfarers were modern-day pilgrims. Some sought international adventure, some sought a sense of solidarity with African “brothers and sisters,” and still others hoped to forge business ties that would enrich both black Americans and African nations less than a generation removed from independence.
In The Gambia, the Roots travel influx was welcomed, and some dubbed it a symbolic “reverse migration”—of Africa-descended people who had little or no real experience of the continent. The director of The Gambia’s cultural archives was sanguine about the multiple impacts of black Americans’ odysseys to his country. On a trip to the United States with a Gambian delegation to drum up more U.S. business, Bakari Sidibe told The Washington Post, “You could call [his and others’ visits] an attempt to develop tourism, but I think of it more as a cultural exchange.”
As described in a September 1977 issue of the global news publication To the Point International, The Gambia had been a sleepy, sun-drenched nation where “the last major social disturbance was a slave rebellion in 1662,” and the police force spent more time chasing bush pigs than criminals. Condescension aside, the article made the important point that The Gambia was eking out a national subsistence mainly through groundnut exports and riverbank industries. It could well use the infusion of American greenbacks.
With American tourist dollars came shifting national narratives. In The Gambia, scholars began noticing that the Roots story was drowning out local memories or legends of the past. In an article detailing the impact of Roots, Donald R. Wright recounted going there in 1974—pre-Roots publication or broadcast—to collect oral histories about precolonial life along the Gambia River. While The Gambia has a long history of griots—cultural storytellers and historians who memorized and recited lineages and sagas—Wright found few Gambians who could report happenings that preceded European contact or even during the slave trade. But on returning to the country after Alex Haley’s book hit the global stage, Wright said he could “stop just about anyone on the street of Gambia’s capital, ask for information about the slave trade, and you will hear about the famous capture of a Gambian slave, the notorious fort on James Island that held a ‘dungeon’ for keeping recalcitrant captives, and how Gambian slaves were sold and delivered to America.”
What had happened? The hegemonic dominance of Roots, a story so powerful and so consumable that it could literally reshape the Gambian landscape as the country built slavery museums and shored up transport routes to aid travel. But it also demonstrated the inherently unstable and malleable nature of “historical memory”—and that far from being closed off from the international information economy, Africa was in the thick of it.
As an archaeologist at Ghana's University of Cape Coast, Brempong Osei-Tutu is very familiar with what could arguably be called the "Roots effect"—where the demands of tourism, development and identity complicate portrayals of the slave trade.
He noted that the small Ghanaian city of Assin Manso is often deemed the last waystation where slave traders rested and bathed their human prey after before the Middle Passage. Local leaders constructed a slavery museum at Assin Manso, where two formerly enslaved people ("Mother Crystal" from Jamaica and Samuel Carson from the United States) were reburied in the 1990s. In Elmina castle, tours frequently point out a trap door that led from the female dungeon straight to the governor's lodgings. According to the story, that private entrance funneled captives to rooms where they would be raped, assaults that could parallel the rapes endured by Kunta Kinte's daughter, Kizzy.
But there's more to those stories, said Osei-Tutu. Or, more pointedly, less in some cases.
"My concern is with the embellishment or simplification of the narratives. ... Assin Manso was certainly along the slave route, but so were other settlements. If there was anything like the last bath, that ritual could have been taken at other sites ... and not only Assin Manso. [Regarding the] diaspora remains at Assin Manso, the narratives present Carson as an officer in the U.S. Navy, [while] Crystal is described as a royal from Jamaica. Carson could not have been an officer during his time on account of being an African descendant. Similarly, Crystal was an enslaved woman."
A monument for Roots author Alex Haley in Knoxville, Tennessee
And when it comes to the Elmina trap door, he doubts that a European who commanded vast power had to sneak women into his quarters. "In one breath," Osei-Tutu said, guides say "the governor does not care about making ... his sexual escapades public by standing at his balcony to instruct his soldiers to pick one of the captives for his bedroom! However, once the individual had been 'prepared,' then she is smuggled to the governor's apartment. This doesn't add up."
Chronicling a Gambia tour by black American college students in the late 1990s, scholar Alice Bellagamba found that Gambians had tweaked their cultural practices to perform them as part of heritage tourism programming. The student tour participated in a shortened coming-of-age ceremony that proved unsatisfying to both village elders and to the American visitors. Some of the young American men—accustomed to U.S. lodgings and comforts—chafed at spending one night in the village grove as part of this initiation ceremony. The tourists also wanted to see a “traditional” village and buildings related to the slave trade, but few architectural vestiges of slavery have survived. Juffureh village, identified by Haley as Kinte’s possible stomping grounds and home of the Kinte family to this day, had been slightly moved and beautified precisely for the tourists. For their part, the Gambian hosts remarked negatively about the Americans’ privilege and lack of bravery. And then there was was the students’ parting gift to the villagers who did so much to arrange the stay and their comfort: castoff clothing and less than $100 in cash.
In Bellagamba’s telling, there was perhaps one thing that both Gambian organizers and their American visitors could agree on: that their interaction was a transaction. For the Gambians, those young people in search of a cultural experience to write home about were also U.S. citizens whose trips likely cost more than the average Gambian’s yearly income. And the Gambians expected more from their black visitors in the way of respect and payment. Americans paid for an “authentic” African experience, but some did not always want to acknowledge an Africa that wasn’t frozen in the past, or more complicated narratives that, for example, differentiated between ethnic groups involved in the slave trade as either traders or raided people. To paraphrase and answer a question posed by scholar Saidiya Hartman, it seemed that “desire and imagination” were not enough to entirely “bridge the rift of the Atlantic.”
It’s not surprising that black Americans’ often one-dimensional ideas of Africa and yearnings for a homeland could sway or obscure local history and practices. After all, though meticulously researched, Roots itself was harshly judged by many cultural critics, journalists, and intellectuals because of Haley’s speculative and shaky conclusions. Critics railed at his characterization of Juffureh as a remote backwater when it was, in fact, a British outpost around the time Haley’s ancestor might have been kidnapped. They questioned whether the elder who confirmed Haley’s theory that Kunta Kinte was from the Juffureh area was knowledgeable and whether he simply told Haley what the American author wanted to hear. And they pointed out that the dates of Kunta Kinte’s supposed capture and arrival in the United States were unclear—not to mention that Haley was sued for a few passages that looked suspiciously similar to those of another author.
In the end, Haley defended his literary masterpiece against purist historians and pundits by calling it “faction”—a blend of research and literary license. The Pulitzer Prize board found Roots to be a literary work of such import that, though it had no category to fit “faction,” it awarded a special honor to Haley in 1977.
ALTHOUGH ROOTS DID NOT AIR on Gambian television—because national television didn’t exist there until the 1990s—it did debut in some African countries. Ghanaian archaeologist Brempong Osei-Tutu was a student at the University of Ghana at Legon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that’s where he saw Roots for the first time.
“The auditorium was always filled to capacity with an overflow of people outside the building [when] the film was shown. On two occasions or so, those who were waiting outside could not contain themselves [and got in by] breaking the entrance door. Such was the mood. The film rekindled the audience's pan-African spirit and resistance to white supremacy.”
And that’s exactly what officials in South Africa feared.
The same year the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in the United States, the apartheid government was still struggling to squash a new phase of black resistance launched by the police shooting death of schoolboy Hector Pieterson. Part of that struggle to maintain white power was strict control of information. Though technically miles ahead of other African nations in terms of infrastructure, South Africa did not allow television until 1976, the year that the Roots miniseries was released. Furthermore, the country kept a tight lock on publishing, with a series of Publication Acts that criminalized the production, distribution, and sometimes possession of “undesirable” materials.
Warren Chalklen—a white South African education scholar now teaching at Texas A&M University—explained the apartheid government’s zealous surveillance of the printed word. Chalklen and his colleagues Norvella Carter and Bhekuyise Zungu have contributed an essay to Reconsidering ‘Roots’: Race, Politics, and Memory, a book to be released by University of Georgia Press in 2017 for the 40th anniversary of the TV miniseries.
In an interview, Chalklen said “this is a country that [according to some reports] banned the children’s novel Black Beauty,” about a horse, because the suggestion that blackness might be attractive was anathema to apartheid. But as Chalklen and his colleagues write, copies of Roots were allowed to circulate, including one special and abridged version in Bophuthatswana, one of the black “homelands” in which many black South Africans were geographically segregated.
While a limited number of print versions were permitted, and others fell through the censors’ sieve, South African authorities were adamant that the film version of Roots would not be shown on national television and maintained that hardline position for years.
Yet Roots did get a viewing in South Africa in 1978—though through U.S. “cultural” intervention. The U.S. International Communications Agency hosted five screenings in different locations over a few days. Chalklen views those screenings as a strategic concession to the United States and to global audiences because the apartheid regime was growing ever-more concerned with keeping international businesses content.
In Cape Town, so many residents clamored to see Roots that the U.S. embassy there went from three to ten showings per day. They had a ready audience in the local “Cape Coloured” or mixed-race population, some the descendants of enslaved indigenous Africans and Asian laborers who had been trafficked to the region starting in the 18th century.
James Island in The Gambia
According to Chalklen and his co-authors, South African audiences had varied reactions to Roots. Newspaper accounts reported that in Pretoria, a white woman fled screaming from the cinema and ripped the movie posters from the walls on her way out. Fresh from months of detention for her activism in Soweto, the social worker and later Call Me Woman writer Ellen Kuzwayo was struck by actress Cicely Tyson’s rendering of a mother’s grief when her TV son, Kunta Kinte, was kidnapped. Others left theaters depressed, and a writer noted the grim laughter of black South Africans, even in grisly scenes.
For Chalklen, who was born after the 1978 screenings and only saw Roots in 2012 after coming to the United States, South Africans looking at Roots could feel both a profound disconnect—because South Africa was too far away to be involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and shipped no human beings to the American slave market—but also a disturbing sense of recognition.
“When people were laughing [while watching], what does that say? You have black South Africans laughing at Kizzy being abused or Kunta Kinte having his foot cut off. Why? The explanation is they laugh to keep from crying. The truth would hurt too much,” Chalklen said.
The truth that Chalklen sees is a joint history of racial and economic oppressions cloaked in the different settings of the United States and South Africa—and his own position in South Africa’s racial hierarchy. He saw parallels in intergenerational wealth, and families’ inability to own land or get an education. But he couldn’t divorce his response to Roots from his background as a white African who was brought up by a black domestic worker more than his mum and catered to as a white South African whose privilege was built on the oppression of other Africans.
“And when I finally watched Roots, I was literally unable to connect to the physical representation of bondage,” Chalklen writes. “That was left out of our history books, but I was able to see how a similar system maintained itself in South Africa. But it was so foreign to my worldview, that I thought, ‘This is interesting, it’s not entirely true, and it was a Netflix that was not entirely connected to my life.’ When I saw it, I found myself theorizing, rather than feeling. Because feeling is hard. Because [as a white person and, particularly a white South African] you've been sleeping in the plantation house rather than in the quarters or the cold.”
Now, the Roots remake will air on South African television—with no delays and no governmental obstruction. But it remains to be seen what South Africans will see in it this time from a post-apartheid vantage point. It’s a time of de jure freedom and de facto inequality, when land and corporations still rest in the hands of the powerful, and where many young South Africans have less education than their parents.
The originals “Roots” prompted some South Africans to plumb the stories of their country’s history of racism and colonialism from the dispossession of the Khoisan indigenous people and the treatment of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman who was paraded naked around the world as a cultural sideshow and called the “Hottentot Venus.” But too many of these stories remain untold, unpublished, and unseen—unlike Roots, which enjoyed the money and marketing heft of a major news network.
As Chalklen put it: “What will be South Africa’s Roots? We’re only 20 years old as a country. But we’re producing our own books, and Beyoncé has announced she may make a Saartjie Baartman film [about Baartman]. ‘Roots’ is not the only story. We must find narratives that speak to us, in indigenous languages and mediums that speak to us.”
This article has been updated.