By Matthew F. Delmont, author of The Nicest Kids in Town, Why Busing Failed, and Making Roots
When Alex Haley’s book Roots was published by Doubleday in 1976 it became an immediate bestseller. The television series, broadcast by ABC in 1977, became the most popular miniseries of all time, captivating over a hundred million Americans. As a scholar of popular culture and African American history I wanted to research and write this book because we know remarkably little about one of the most recognizable cultural productions of all time. One could fill a shelf with books on recent critically lauded television shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, but Making Roots: A Nation Captivated is the first book length study of this unprecedented cultural phenomenon.
Alex Haley and his collaborators left a fascinating paper trail that shows, sometimes on a day-by-day basis, how Roots took shape from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. In researching Making Roots I examined tens of thousands of pages of Haley’s letters, notes, and manuscript drafts in the collections housed at the University of Tennessee, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Goodwin College. At the University of Southern California, the archived papers of David Wolper and Stan Margulies offer similar insights into how these television producers adapted Haley’s story for the screen. In Making Roots, I foreground the voices and perspectives of the people who played a role in creating Roots: Haley, literary agent Paul Reynolds, Doubleday editors Ken McCormick and Lisa Drew, Haley’s editor Murray Fisher, Wolper, Margulies, screenwriter Bill Blinn, and actors like LeVar Burton, John Amos, and Leslie Uggams.
Alex Haley never published another book after Roots. He loved talking to people but found himself overwhelmed by the praise, criticism, and legal troubles Roots generated. “He made history talk,” Jesse Jackson said of Alex Haley at the author’s funeral in 1992. “He lit up the long night of slavery. He gave our grandparents personhood. He gave Roots to the rootless.” In this light, pointing out the flaws in Haley’s family history feels like telling your grandmother she is lying. Fortunately, Haley’s fabrications are only a small part of a much larger, more interesting, and more complicated story of the making of Roots. Making Roots tells that story.
Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or UC Press (save 30% at ucpress.edu; enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).
Matthew F. Delmont is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University and the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ’n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, both published by UC Press.