How ‘Roots’ Reverberated in Africa

May 30, 2016

When the landmark TV miniseries Roots premiered to a U.S. audience of almost 100 million viewers in January 1977, the West African nation where author Alex Haley purportedly found his ancestor Kunta Kinte—The Gambia—did not yet have a national television broadcasting system.

But Africans were far from in the dark about Roots, the award-winning historical drama that took Haley more than ten years to write and research. The epic miniseries, which united black and white Americans in a viewing experience that the late journalist Chuck Stone called both “an electronic orgy of white guilt” and “one of greatest emotional experiences of all time”—set off a chain of reactions in sub-Saharan Africa.

As the A&E, Lifetime, and History channels prepare to simulcast a remake of Roots starting on Memorial Day, it’s worth recalling how the original miniseries pushed African nations to publicly come to grips with slavery’s brutal history; their often-complicated relationships with the worldwide African diaspora; and their own contemporary struggles with inequality within their borders.


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