”Roots is more than a story of one African-American family; it’s the story of our collective history and ultimately it’s the story of America,” says theGrio’s own David A. Wilson in his video intro to Roots: The Enhanced Edition, available now on the iPad and coming to the Kindle, Nook and other digital forms soon.
In his impassioned written introduction, also found in the enhanced edition, Michael Eric Dyson expounds on that sentiment. “From the very beginning,” he writes, “Alex Haley’s Roots counted as much more than a mere book. It tapped deeply into the black American hunger for an African ancestral home that had been savaged by centuries of slavery and racial dislocation.”
To those in high school and even college, it’s hard to comprehend the significance of Roots. With DNA testing offered by sites like African Ancestry, and showcased on the Henry Louis Gates’s PBS series African American Lives, which helps people track their African lineage as well as similar shows which highlight tracing one’s heritage, the impact of Roots is ever apparent but the source is largely invisible.
WATCH theGRIO’s DAVID WILSON DISCUSS THE NEW ‘ROOTS’ EBOOK ON THE TODAY SHOW:
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Heritage trips to Africa taken by generations of African-Americans have become more common. Black families now talk openly about their “roots.” Yet the chances that young people will pour through the book, which arguably inspired this shift, is less likely than it was a decade or two ago. That’s why an enhanced edition gives us hope.
With questions about the viability of African-American culture and history in the United States swirling around as the result of Barack Obama serving as the first black president of the United States, Roots, Alex Haley’s classic exploration of his own “roots” that ignited the nation, couldn’t have picked a better time to join the newest digital wave.
There have been eBook versions of the classic tome before, however, those were just words on the screen. This version is more of a multimedia event. To see Alex Haley on The Today Show with Tom Brokaw in the late 70s is much more of a visceral experience. There’s also fascinating video of Haley discussing researching and writing the book as well as family photos and a full Haley lecture about Roots.
Good value aside, this enhanced eBook version of Roots, is a great model for other African-American works of art. Black history and cultural products have largely failed to keep up with the times. Some of the most exciting scholarship may be taking place within the field of African-American history and culture. Yet, translating that research for a broad digital audience has come about very slowly. It would be great if academics related to the masses but most cannot. That’s where people like Alex Haley come in. Think about it: how many would have bet that Roots, a story from an African-American writer based on tracing his own family history back to Africa and through slavery, would captivate the nation? Haley was not the first African-American writer to think about tracing his family tree and build an epic tale around it. But, having served as a senior editor for Reader’s Digest and conducted popular interviews with such giants as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali for Playboy, made him a popular writer. After all, it was he who served as the conduit for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Roots leveraged that mass appeal. Back in the 1970s, it was television that allowed Roots to touch a wider audience and today, it might well be the iPad and other similar devices.
Make no mistake, Carter G. Woodson, who founded Negro History Week, which has now evolved into Black History Month, back in 1926, would approve of this method. “While he was most concerned with the promotion of black history,” writes his biographer Jacqueline Anne Goggin in Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History, “Woodson also used his scholarship to influence social and cultural change.”
There is no denying that Roots influenced social and cultural change in the mid-1970s with both the publication of the book and the miniseries. An eight night broadcast on ABC in 1977, the Roots television mini-series shattered viewing records. On the average, the first seven episodes drew an estimated 80 million viewers each and almost half the country or 100 million people watched the final episode. The mini-series inspired discussion not just in the classrooms but at work and in other public spaces. It was a monumental feat that perhaps will never be duplicated.
Still, it is great that Roots is not resting on its laurels. In the context of these times, Roots may appear tame but the archival footage helps to contextualize its cultural significance. It also puts a face to the work, which is important since Haley passed away on February 10, 1992. And most importantly, it presents the actual work that inspired the other media offshoots in its entirety.
Let’s hope this enhanced version of Roots is a pioneering move that will be mimicked. “Haley’s monumental achievement helped convince the nation that the black story is the American story,” writes Dyson. And in times when that is continually questioned, no form of media should be off limits when it comes to promoting African-American history and culture as an American essential.