Goodwin College examines race relations in Connecticut since ‘Roots’

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Logo for "Roots at 40" conference

Goodwin College in East Hartford  has scheduled a conference next month to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1977 broadcast of the television miniseries “Roots.’

The keynote address at the conference,“’Roots’ at 40, Reflections and Remembrances,” will be by author Colson Whitehead, whose recent novel, “The Underground Railroad,” won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. The conference is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The gathering will provide an opportunity to examine the impact of the TV series at the time of its original broadcast as well as the ways in which race relations have developed in the decades since.

“Roots” was a sensation, attracting a record-breaking audience and sparking a conversation about American history, African American identity and the nature of the past.  The program dramatized the savagery of slavery in a manner unprecedented in American popular media, let alone on prime time network television. A contemporary audience might find much of the acting and dialogue melodramatic, but the scenes of debasement suffered by the enslaved characters retain a raw emotional power.

The series demonstrated that an enslaved person could be the hero of his or her own epic drama. Enslaved people had previously appeared in popular media mostly as voiceless extras, contented dolts, or acting as comic relief.  This characterization of African Americans in popular film and television reflected the Lost Cause myth — the view that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, but over the Southern way of life. That narrative whitewashed the brutality of slavery, and its influence has been preserved in American movies such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With The Wind.’

Published in the American bicentennial year of 1976, Alex Haley’s novel on which the series is based proposed another way of looking at the past.  The title “Roots” suggests the plurality of the past — that our identities are grounded in a tangle of many roots that spread out and branch off in endless directions.  America, Haley demonstrates, is big enough to include more than one history.

While Haley’s book was groundbreaking, it is the miniseries that we remember. Its success showed the appetite that existed at the time for new ways of thinking about American history among all races.

The mid-1970s were a time of racial conflict, when the nonviolence of the Civil Rights generation was giving way to a more aggressive stance toward the struggle for racial equality and when race riots had become familiar stories on the nightly news.  The enticements that drew a mass audience to “Roots” in 1977 were more than cameos by big-name stars. Audiences were drawn by the hope that the story of Kunta Kinte and his ancestors would help them better understand themselves and their fellow Americans.

“Roots at 40: Reflections and Remembrances” reflects on Haley’s search to discover his own history in the stories of his ancestors. Both the book and TV series were a cultural phenomenon showing that our reality is woven out of the stories we share, and that listening to and sympathizing with other people’s points of view is ennobling, illuminating and potentially transformative.

For more information on the conference, contact Susan Hansen at shansen@goodwin.edu or at 860-727-6782. Reservations may be made at www.eventbrite.com/e/roots-at-40-reflections-and-rememberences-tickets-32911981623.

Randy Laist is an associate professor of English at Goodwin College, East Hartford.

 

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