The seminal 1977 miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley, was not only an important television event for its high ratings and critical acclaim, but a crucial part of popular culture that explored the various evils of slavery in all of its different forms (Creeber 166; Gantz 204). From the late 18th century to the post-Civil War America, Roots follows several generations of slaves, from Kunta Kinte (played by LeVar Burton as a young man, John Amos as an older adult) to Chicken George (Ben Vereen) and Tom (Georg Stanford Brown), all of whom experience different levels of injustice and harassment at the hands of their white masters. As a major television event in a medium that was mostly white, Roots allowed many of these conflicts and racial tensions to come to the forefront, making them doubly important to show in all their honesty and cruelty (Tucker & Shah 325). The serialized nature of the miniseries itself allowed different themes of black injustice to be revisited time and time again, to show how the cycles of violence would continue (Creeber 12). Roots’ central purpose is to showcase the varying ways in which slavery stripped people of their humanity, agency and dignity, taking everything from them that all free men hold dear in a self-perpetuating system of injustice.
The first major protagonist of Roots, the young defiant slave Kunta Kinte, acts as the introduction of native Africans to the forceful, aggressive subjugation of slavery. Taken from his home of Africa, where he has been taught that the sky is “the only thing greater than [himself],” Kunta is shamed and humiliated by cramped conditions on the slave ship. The first episode evinces a stark contrast between the wild freedoms and pride of manhood that are presented to them as proud members of their tribe and their subhuman treatment by their first (of many) white masters (Holsey, 2004). Though Kunta attempts to help in a mutiny on the slave ship, they fail because of the white man’s superior firepower, and the tough tribal warriors are shown to be no match for this new level of power. This first level of subjugation in slavery involves taking away the proud warrior traditions and tribal identities of the slaves, showing that, for all the power they think they have, they must turn to the gods for help (Kunta praying to Allah to be merciful following the failed revolt).
Perhaps the most important development in Kunta’s life, and the most effective example of the indignities of slavery, in the miniseries is the scene in which Kunta Kinte is forced to accept his new slave name of Toby (Carter 57). Being dragged by chains by a slaver on a horse after being caught running away, dogs nipping at his heels, Kunta is stripped and tied up by Ames, getting ready to be beaten and whipped outside in front of the other slaves (to make an example of him). Perhaps even more undignified is that Ames gets his slave James to whip Kunta for him, forcing other slaves to police each other and exerting even more control over them. “Your name is Toby!” shouts Ames; Kunta, however, defiantly replies “Kunta Kinte,” hoping to keep his very identity in the face of such dehumanizing behavior. “When the master gives you something, you take it,” replies Ames, trying to reframe this changing of who he is as a gift, calling Toby “a good name.” Kunta’s continued refrain of his name, then, becomes the most coherent and concerted effort to defy the tyrant of slavery in the work; even then, he eventually fails and accepts the name “Toby.” With this display being performed out in front of the other slaves, the lesson is meant for all of them as well – white slavers want to show they can tame even the most defiant slave.
Meanwhile, Fiddler tries to get his white masters to help, but they are unconcerned; they ignore his requests, clearly valuing the lives of whites more than the lives of slaves. Ms. Reynolds tells Fiddler, “Don’t overstay your welcome,” turning the plea to save someone’s life into a matter of politeness. Mr. Reynolds is condescending to Fiddler, constantly using large words and asking if Fiddler knows them (“you understand the word deduction?”).This is a tactic he uses to make himself feel smarter and more civilized than his slaves. This is further evidence of the callousness and lack of care slavers held toward their property at the time; damaging their goods was less important than establishing their moral and intellectual superiority over the black man.
Even after taking his name and his identity, the slave owners in Roots see fit to start taking parts of slaves’ bodies to keep them under control. When the adult Toby (Amos) tries to escape once more, a pair of slave-catchers catch him and cut off part of his right foot to make it harder for him to run away again. He is returned to his master William Reynolds (Robert Reed), and placed under the care of Belle (Madge Sinclair), whom he falls in love with. After getting married, however, Belle tells Toby, “you keep talking about Africa and gettin’ free, something terrible is going to happen.” Belle regales Toby with her story about how her first husband, Ben, was taken from her because “our master didn’t believe in Jesus for niggers” – after an escape attempt, he was caught, and their master sold all of them off separately, never to be seen again. In these sense, slavers are shown to exert control over their slaves not only by crippling them physically, but by separating them so they cannot form family attachments and grow to have agency of their own.
Toby and Belle’s daughter Kizzy provides a window into the complex relationships that young black slave girls experience on the plantation. The first and most important relationship that Kizzy has is with Missy Anne, the illegitimate daughter of William and John’s wife. Missy Anne and Kizzy have a close friendship, as they spend a lot of time together, though in limited ways. Kizzy relates to her parents that Anne secretly teaches her how to read and write. This is verboten in slave-master culture, as Toby and Belle warn her, “White folk know a nigger can write, that nigger be whipped! That nigger be sold!” Nonetheless, Kizzy is optimistic about Anne’s intentions toward her; while they cannot truly express their friendship outside of the plantation culture, they find ways to befriend each other within the limits that have been set for Kizzy. Anything beyond that (like the teaching of reading and writing) must be kept secret.
Kizzy’s naively positive attitude towards Missy Anne also shows the generational gap that has occurred between Toby’s generation and Kizzy’s. While Toby’s generation focused chiefly on getting out of slavery, the white masters working hard to subjugate and terrorize their slaves to make sure they do not assert their agency, Kizzy’s generation has settled into a more relaxed, accepting nature of their lot as slaves . Even some whites start to be more sympathetic towards them, like Anne; however, this comes from an innocent naiveté, as Anne never truly claims Kizzy as her equal, but a plaything she gets to interact with when she wants. This delusion is paid off later in the miniseries when old Kizzy is reunited with old Missy Anne, who pretends to not remember her: “I'm sorry, butI don't recollect knowing any darkie by name of Kizzy.” Here, the ephemeral nature of these slaves’ relationships with their masters is made clear; white slavers and their families were not allowed to be true friends with their slavers. To that end, what Kizzy thought was an innocent, equal relationship between two young women culminates in Anne casually asking her forgotten slave friend for “another cup” of water. The only rebellion Kizzy can offer is spitting in Anne’s cup.
The rape of Kizzy Reynolds by her new master, Tom Moore, is yet another terrifying facet of slave life that is highlighted in Roots. After she is sold for helping her boyfriend Noah escape (in an echo of Belle’s husband Ben’s escape attempt), Tom Moore approaches her in her cabin at night, stating that she is his property now and that “I’m gonna get my money’s worth right now.” This statement sums up the justification white slavers gave themselves for raping their female slaves; as they were not human, but property, they had the right to do what they wanted with them. Furthermore, female slaves’ value was at least partially measured in their capacity for granting sexual gratification for their slavers, whether they liked it or not; as Tom says, “I’d rather not hurt you, but I ain’t got no time to play.” Tom’s threat of violence shows his lack of care for her sexual dignity, simply seeing her as an object for himself to use and abuse. Though Kizzy tries to fight him off with a shovel, Tom overpowers her and rapes her brutally (as evidenced by Eliza’s treatment of Kizzy later). She informs him, “He’s one of them white men that likes nigger women. Young’uns” – the implication being that she used to be a plaything of Tom’s, but has moved on to Kizzy. This cycle of sexual abuse and violence is seen as a natural, inevitable part of the slave trade, women being traded for their sexual uses just as men are traded for their field work.
The character of Chicken George provides yet another perspective into the relationship between whites and slaves in Roots. Learning from another older slave Mingo (Scatman Crothers), George makes himself particularly and uniquely useful to his master, Tom Moore, through the art of cockfighting. Tom makes George the “cock of the walk,” granting him privileges and friendship that is seemingly uncharacteristic of white slavers. While George is excited about this possibility of being granted his freedom, his mother Kizzy warns him,“Don’t you trust that man.” Chicken George replies, “Why, massa, he treat me fine. Why, he more like a daddy to me!” This response shows the endlessly wavering cycle of friendship and rebellion that occurs between white slaver and black slave, as many of the main characters in Roots must go through that painful, unfortunate process where they learn that their masters are not really their friends.
For Chicken George, the moment that turns his optimism about Tom around is the day of the Nat Turner rebellion, in which he and his family are held at gunpoint by Tom. Paranoid about his slaves rising up, Tom points a shotgun at them and forces them to put anything that could be a weapon away. “You got any ideas about rising up and killing me and my missus, you just forget them. You come near the house - I catch you with so much as a sharpened nail on you - I'll blast you to kingdom come!” After this frenetic, paranoid encounter, George sees Tom for who he is – not a friend, but someone who is using him to make money through cockfighting. As his wife says to him, “There be your fine friendship, George.” Here, George, like Kizzy, learns the lack of value in befriending his master.
Tom Harvey’s journey, the last one taken in Roots, is perhaps the most tragic attempt at exerting black agency in the miniseries. As he and his sister Irene are constantly harassed by the brothers Evan and Jemmy Brent, events come to a head when Jemmy tricks Tom into running and errand for him so that he can rape Irene. In the ensuing melee, Tom ends up drowning Jemmy, in a way acting as a bit of cathartic justice for all the rape, murder and violence that has been inflicted on generations of slaves prior to this moment: “Take this message with you to hell: The last hands that touched you on this earthwas my black hands.” This move is not without consequences, of course, as it leads Evan to bring the burgeoning KKK to Tom’s doorstep to harass his family, with no help from the community. Even George Robinson – the white man who successfully entered into an amicable relationship with the slave community and Tom some time ago – is forced to whip Tom to save his life. This series of events draws white and black alike further into the cycle of violence, even at the end of legal slavery; though the Civil War was ending by that point, the exerting of white superiority over blacks will not let up (.
Through the trials and tribulations of the characters of Kunta Kinte/Toby, Belle, Kizzy, Chicken George and Tom Harvey, Roots shows the evils of slavery and the complicated ways in which white masters manipulated their slaves into doing their bidding for them. The simple overpowering of black slaves through physical violence is the most direct manner, using cannons, guns and whipping to pacify rebellions male slaves and sexual assault to dominate female slaves. Of course, there is also the emotional relationship that occurs between whites and blacks; whites use a combination of intellectual superiority (as Bill Reynolds does to Fiddler when he pleads for Kunta’s life) and the illusion of friendship (as with Missy Anne and Tom Moore) to get slaves to do what they want. Each of these slaves is betrayed and harmed deeply by these tactics, most eventually settling into a passive life of no resistance, trying to stay under the radar so they can avoid violence. This is the true tragedy of slavery exposed in Roots – the stripping away of slaves’ humanity, dignity and agency, until they become nothing more than objects and playthings for their white masters.
Carter, Richard G. "How Roots and Black. White. broke racial TV ground."Television
Quarterly 37.1 (2006): 55-60.
Chomsky, Marvin J., Erman, John, Greene, David and Gilbert Moses (dir.). Roots. Perf. LeVar
Burton, Ben Vereen, John Amos. ABC. 1977.
Creeber, Glen. Serial television: big drama on the small screen. British Film Institute, 2004.
Gantz, Walter. "The Routes Not Taken: A Look at the Long Term Impact of ‘Roots.’" (1978).
Holsey, Bayo. "Transatlantic dreaming: slavery, tourism, and diasporic
encounters." Homecomings: Unsettling paths of return (2004): 166-182.
Taylor, Helen. "‘The Griot from Tennessee’: The saga of Alex Haley's Roots."Critical
quarterly 37.2 (1995): 46-62.
Tucker, Lauren R., and Hemant Shah. "Race and the transformation of culture: The making of
the television miniseries Roots." Critical Studies in Media Communication 9.4 (1992): 325-336.