I managed to catch most of a BBC4 programme celebrating the 30th anniversary of the screening of the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book, and I’m glad I did. The programme neatly fitted into the current series of programmes marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. I didn’t watch the series all the way through in 1977. In those days I was rarely in during the evening, being at meetings, at work or the movies. However, I saw enough to know how it worked and I was well aware of it as a cultural phenomenon. What intrigued me most about the BBC4 programme was the use of a clutch of high profile 40 something British actors and writers to tell us about their memories of the programme as young schoolchildren. The likes of Adrian Lester, poet Lemn Sissay and actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah all spoke about how the programme had been a revelation since they had not learned enough about the slave trade in the classroom to understand what their own identity meant. Indeed Kwame Kwei-Armah changed his name from the ‘slave name’ of Ian Roberts, partly because of his experience of watching Roots. This set me to thinking about how much I knew about the experience of slavery and where I had learned this.
We certainly did cover the ‘triangular trade’ in secondary school history (but not by age 10-11 as the interviewees attested). I think I must have picked up most of my knowledge from popular literature, film and television and certainly a great deal from Jamaican music. I’ve got to acknowledge that it was coming across Bob Marley and the Wailers in the early 1970s that really got me interested in Jamaican history and led me towards Marcus Garvey and the powerful music of Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Sometime before 1977 I must also have got into Walter Rodney the Guyanese historian, probably through meeting Black activists in London.
One thing I certainly learned from the BBC4 programme was the extent of Alex Haley’s success as a journalist and writer. I’d forgotten that Haley was the journalist to whom Malcolm X told his story and which produced a book that went on to sell millions of copies as ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. I bought that book sometime in the mid 1970s and it had a big impact on my teaching. I remember the fuss over the release of the film Mandingo in 1975 (a melodrama about sex and race championed by Movie magazine), but I don’t suppose that even that controversy penetrated far into the popular imagination of the period. That was the achievement of Roots. I wonder how the mini-series would do today? And I wonder too, how much today’s students really know about the history of slavery? Do they have time (or the inclination) to look for the literature and the music that tells the personal stories that carry the emotional power of a Roots? More on this please BBC4.