IN MUCH THE SAME WAY moviegoers are praising and discussing “12 Years a Slave” today, more than 36 years ago, American television audiences were engaged with the ABC miniseries “Roots.” It was appointment television for eight consecutive evenings beginning Sunday, Feb. 23, 1977.
IMG_9726 Granted, Steve McQueen’s new film has been lauded for its Oscar-worthy performances, artful cinematography, historical accuracy and unsparing depiction of slavery’s violence and psychological brutality. And regardless of critical opinion, “Roots,” adapted from the book by Alex Haley, was a relative triumph, too. Promoted as a landmark event, it was the first time such a lengthy dramatization of slavery had been produced.

A generation ago, any television event worth its mettle appeared on the cover of TV Guide and “Roots” was no exception. The weekly’s Jan. 22-28, 1977, issue features an essay by Haley and Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was enlisted to illustrate the cover.

At the start of Haley’s article, which appears on pages 6-9, the magazine gives a nod to Bearden:

“This week’s cover is by Romare Bearden, who, like author Alex Haley, is the descendant of slaves. Bearden is internationally recognized as one of America’s most eminent artists. His work hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and many other collections, public and private. The cover, commissioned by TV GUIDE, is a collage as are most of the artist’s works.” — TV Guide

The dynamic image is rife with symbolism. Bearden invokes many of his familiar references, including the sun, moon and birds. The profile of an ebony-hued Black male figure is silhouetted against the continent of Africa. Cloaked in an American flag-inspired shirt, he appears to be confronting a slave ship, its underbelly brimming with human cargo.

Bearden employed his collage technique to convey deep meaning. According to the Smithsonian:

“The tensions between these bold shapes carried special meaning in the 1970s for the many African Americans who were interested in exploring their origins. As Bearden’s image suggests, this conflicting heritage — an ancestral African homeland, a long history of enslavement and oppression, and a patriotic commitment to American ideals—plays an important part in shaping African American identity.” — Smithsonian

While “Roots” and “12 Years a Slave” (which was also adapted from a book, a narrative by Solomon Northrup) are vastly different creations, both cultural benchmarks exposed mainstream audiences to America’s shameful, unresolved history.

Historian David Blight, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, gave an informative interview about “12 Years a Slave” to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Blight said he “liked the film very much” and that its depiction of slavery was effective and accurate.

His most compelling comments were about the institution of slavery itself and the failure to recognize its lasting imprint on American society:

“We love being the country that freed the slaves.…We’re not so fond of being the country…that had the biggest slave system on the planet.”
— David Blght, Fresh Air

A New York magazine interview asked LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in “Roots,” about the legacy of the mini series in the wake of “12 Years a Slave” — whether either had “vanquished the myth of “Gone with the Wind.” He summed up his thoughts thus:

“…Social justice requires rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. And I think moments like ‘Roots’ and ’12 Years a Slave’ are opportunities for art as a cultural force to step forward and lead the way. What we do with it is up to us.” — LeVar Burton, New York

Certainly, Bearden’s politically charged TV Guide image made a powerful statement when it landed in White and Black households in the late 1970s.

The Smithsonian further describes the significance of the “Roots” image:

“While Bearden’s work advertised the broadcast, it is effective because it also refers to other historical events and trends. The flag T-shirt, for example, suggests the bicentennial of American independence, which was celebrated in 1976. At the same time, the map of Africa, which takes center stage, evoked racial pride and unity and, for some Black nationalists, symbolized independence from America. By including contemporary, often conflicting, references to historical origins in an image meant for a wide audience, Bearden’s work highlights a Black history and identity that were becoming widely valued and debated.” — Smithsonian

A lithograph of Bearden’s collage was produced in an edition of 150. The 1977 print varies slightly from the original created for “TV Guide.” The red sphere emerging at the top of Africa has shifted to the left, moving further away from the horn of Africa to the northwest coast of the continent.

Several months after Bearden created the “Roots” cover, TV Guide commissioned the artist to illustrate a September 1977 cover for the new NFL season. CT

 

TV Guide, Jan. 22-28, 1977 (cover by Romare Bearden), “Roots: The Story Behind the Search,” by Alex Haley, pages 6-9.

 

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TV Guide, Jan. 22-28, 1977: Pages 6-7.

 

The cover line for Haley’s essay is “Roots: The Story Behind the Search.” Inside, the article carried the following title: “‘I Began Weeping Like Some Baby…’: The author’s 12-year search for his roots came to a moving climax in a remote African village.” In the years since “Roots” first aired, the originality and authenticity of parts of Haley’s account have been questioned.

 

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Pages 8-9.

 

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