Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roots: The Saga of an American Family. To celebrate, we’re highlighting Matthew F. Delmont’s Making Roots: A Nation Captivated, which looks at the importance of the book and original mini-series, as it was the first time Americans saw slavery as an integral part of our nations history. In Making Roots, Delmont investigates the decisions that led Alex Haley, Doubleday, and ABC to invest in and share the story of Kunta Kinte. Below is an excerpt:
Roots began as a book called Before This Anger, which Alex Haley pitched to his agent in 1963. Haley signed a contract the following year to write the book for Doubleday, while he was also finishing work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley originally planned for Before This Anger to focus on his hometown of Henning, Tennessee, in the 1920s and ’30s, and to use this nostalgic vision of rural southern black life as a contrast to the urban unrest and racial tensions of the 1960s. Haley’s vision for the book expanded after family elders told him about someone they called “The Mandingo,” who had passed down stories of having been captured in Africa and sold into slavery. This initial family store sent Haley on a research quest motivated by both personal and financial concerns. On a personal level, Haley felt a natural human desire to understand his family’s history. For Haley, like other descendants of enslaved people, this desire for genealogical knowledge was thwarted by the fact that his ancestors had been forcibly uprooted from Africa and treated as property for generations in America.
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Matthew F. Delmont is 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.