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Remembering Roots (BBC Radio 4)

Presenter: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Producer: Richard Vadon
Date: Saturday 24 March 2007
Time: 1.30pm

2007 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the transmission of Roots, and this program presented by Kwame Kwei-Armah discusses the impact of the television series and its relevance today. With comments from both sides of the Atlantic, Roots as a trans-national phenomenon is explored.

The phenomenon of Roots in America and Britain in the late 1970s is brought to the fore with the astonishing viewer response to the program. In Britain, nearly 19 million people watched the drama based on Alex Haley's novel, exploring his own family's heritage, whilst in America it became one most of the most watched programmes in television history. Kwame Kwei-Armah discusses how audiences both black and white responded to the disturbing violent images of enslavement. Broadcaster Alvin Hall describes how the show enabled a firmer grasp of the horrors and brutality of the period, 'to see it with people who were real. It was still hard to watch. I thought it would help people to understand the real tragedy involved.' Hall watched the show with black and white friends and found their responses quite telling, 'black people were quiet and horrified...some white people saw it as an exaggeration.' Some non-black Americans also took the opposite perspective; one interviewee remarked that 'it made you ashamed. It's not a part of history that tends to be explained in books.' The pain and suffering inflicted upon the enslaved Africans shocked many in America into thinking about the abuse and exploitation of enslavement for the first time. Roots thereby became a program to think with, not just to watch.

This interactive quality is also evident in the viewer responses in Britain. For many Roots is described as 'giving permission to talk about slavery for the first time.' Doreen Lawrence is quoted, 'until Roots I would never have seen myself as a descendant of slaves. It makes you really angry. Going into work you start to look at people differently.' Identity is re-imagined in this context as the 'received histories' of the Caribbean communities in Britain were realigned to take into account that their history did not start with post-war immigration, but stretched back because of enslavement to Africa. Despite this sense of empowerment, or perhaps because of it, the program also notes how Roots was the inspiration for a number of derogatory and racist comments. The name of the main character Kunta Kinte was used as an insult and the association of enslavement with black identity was viewed as a source of shame. Nevertheless, individuals such as Lenny Henry describe how they drew strength from the bravery of Kunta, a warrior and a survivor in a racist, brutal society. Non-black Britons also used the show to realise Britain's complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, previously generally seen as an 'American problem.' Broadcaster Greg Dyke states in the programme, 'it was the first thing in popular culture that showed the history of slavery. For me it meant tremendous guilt.'

Guilt, shame, empowerment, identity and strength, the impact of Roots across society was significant. In the discussion of the relevance of the programme for today's youth, Kwame Kwei-Armah affirms the importance of stories which change people's lives, which alter the way they see themselves in the world. This demonstrates that the issues raised by Roots such as identity, empowerment, complicity and responsibility are still pertinent within contemporary society, that they haven't gone away, and new forms of popular history and culture are needed to explore them.

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