Starting Monday night, the History, A&E and Lifetime channels will present a four-episode remake of “Roots,” the groundbreaking exploration of slavery that aired on ABC in 1977. The original eight-part miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s book, shattered viewership records. One hundred million Americans watched the final episode, which remains one of the highest-rated TV programs in history.
It is impossible to imagine that the new version will achieve the astronomical popularity of the original. And that is a good thing.
Captivated by the suffering and resilience of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, many viewers, particularly African Americans, welcomed the frank assessment of slavery “Roots” offered in 1977. In the most gripping scene, Kinte endures a vicious beating for refusing to accept the name imposed by his master, exposing the myth that slavery nurtured loving bonds between benevolent whites and their contented black servants.
But critics constituted a significant portion of the viewing audience, too. Some focused on historical inaccuracies, while others bristled at its depiction of slavery. These skeptics dismissed the miniseries as one-sided and inflammatory.
The “Roots” remake cannot match the popularity of the original, and it’s not because of today’s fragmented media landscape. The real cause is a fundamental shift in how Americans understand slavery. What seemed inflammatory in 1977 no longer shocks in 2016.
Tours at historic homes and plantations from Massachusetts to Louisiana now focus on more than the “big house.” Guides also take visitors through slave cabins. New museums shine a bright light on slavery’s inhumanity. The Old Slave Mart Museum, founded in Charleston, S.C., in 2007, tells of the horrors of the domestic slave trade, in which hundreds of thousands of Upper South slaves were sold to labor on Mississippi Valley cotton plantations. Whitney Plantation, opened outside New Orleans in 2014, features ceramic heads on spikes – a reminder of slaves beheaded after an 1811 revolt.
Georgetown and other universities have launched initiatives to document their complicity in the slave trade, and several communities have erected memorials to slavery’s victims. Among the more remarkable examples is a monument to Demark Vesey, a former slave who masterminded a failed 1822 insurrection in Charleston.
Popular culture has also come a long way. Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning 2013 film “12 Years a Slave” underscored the sadism of slavery. A forthcoming biopic about Nat Turner, who led a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Even the U.S. Treasury has gotten on board. It plans to replace slave-holding President Andrew Jackson with ex-slave and abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill.
Americans still have a ways to go to honestly confront our enslaved past. In three weeks, we will observe the first anniversary of the Charleston church massacre, committed by a man who denied the cruelty of slavery and lamented its abolition.
Still, the response to this tragedy has been heartening. South Carolina took down the Confederate flag at its state Capitol; the New Orleans City Council authorized the removal of four Confederate monuments; and this month the U.S. House voted to outlaw the display of the Confederate battle flag at all Veterans Administration cemeteries.
The “Roots” remake will surely find appreciative viewers, including us. But it won’t make the same splash as its predecessor. And that, strange as it may seem, is something to celebrate.
Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are associate professors of history at California State University, Fresno, who are writing a book on the memory of slavery. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.