#7CheapThings: A Cheap Work Reading List

Welcome to the third post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

The concept of cheap work can be traced back to Christopher Columbus and Spanish and Portuguese usage of slaves on sugar plantations, and is far from gone in today’s society:

The appropriation—really, a kind of ongoing theft—of the unpaid work of “women, nature and colonies” is the fundamental condition of the exploitation of labor power in the commodity system. You can’t have one without the other. When we talk of cheap work, then, we’re getting at the ways that capitalism sets in motion not just human work and not just agriculture and resources—but how they fit together, and the relations that bind human and extrahuman work at every turn.


As Edward Thompson observes, the governance of time follows a particular logic: “in mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time.’ ” The connection of specific activities to larger productive goals didn’t allow for time theft, and the discipline of the clock was enforced by violence across the planet.

As such, the cheapening of work continues today, albeit under a different guise than several centuries prior. With wages stagnating and hours increasing, current labor conditions benefit capitalism with a cheap and disposable work force. To help understand our current labor climate, we’ve selected a few books from our list that shed light on this issue and offer some solutions.

Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson

This pathbreaking anthology peeks behind the hype and supposed glamor of screen media industries to reveal the intensifying pressures and challenges confronting actors, editors, electricians, and others. It examines working conditions and organizing efforts on all six continents, offering broad-ranging and comprehensive analysis of contemporary screen media labor in such places as Lagos, Prague, Hollywood, and Hyderabad. The collection also examines labor conditions across a range of job categories that includes, for example, visual effects, production services, and adult entertainment.


The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West by Ryan Dearinger

For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality.


The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli

Long-haul trucks have been described as sweatshops on wheels. The typical long-haul trucker works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, often for little more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t always this way. Trucking used to be one of the best working-class jobs in the United States.  The Big Rig explains how this massive degradation in the quality of work has occurred, and how companies achieve a compliant and dedicated workforce despite it. The author outlines how deregulation and collective action by employers transformed trucking’s labor markets–once dominated by the largest and most powerful union in US history–into an important example of the costs of contemporary labor markets for workers and the general public.


Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep Southby Angela Steusse

This book takes readers deep into Mississippi’s chicken processing plants and communities, where large numbers of Latin American migrants were recruited in the mid-1990s to labor alongside an established African American workforce in some of the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in the country. As America’s voracious appetite for chicken has grown, so has the industry’s reliance on immigrant workers, whose structural position makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.



Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World edited by Marion Crain, Winifred Poster, and Miriam Cherry

Across the world, workers labor without pay for the benefit of profitable businesses—and it’s legal. Labor trends like outsourcing and technology hide some workers, and branding and employer mandates erase others. Invisible workers who remain under-protected by wage laws include retail workers who function as walking billboards and take payment in clothing discounts or prestige; waitstaff at “breastaurants” who conform their bodies to a business model; and inventory stockers at grocery stores who go hungry to complete their shifts. Invisible Labor gathers essays by prominent sociologists and legal scholars to illuminate how and why such labor has been hidden from view.


Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops by Sarah Adler-Milstein and John Kline

Sewing Hope offers the first account of a bold challenge to apparel-industry sweatshops. The Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic is the anti-sweatshop. It boasts a living wage three times the legal minimum, high health and safety standards, and a legitimate union—all verified by an independent monitor. It is the only apparel factory in the global south to meet these criteria. The Alta Gracia business model represents an alternative to the industry’s usual race-to-the-bottom model with its inherent poverty wages and unsafe factory conditions. Workers’ stories reveal how adding US$0.90 to a sweatshirt’s production price can change lives: from getting a life-saving operation to a reunited family; from purchasing children’s school uniforms to taking night classes; from obtaining first-ever bank loans to installing running water.

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.

Upholding Lincoln’s Legacy: How Can Governments and Citizens Build a World Without Slavery?

In recognition of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, we observe his greatest, most lasting accomplishment: the abolition of slavery. Through this lens, we look at the historic and modern day slave trade to ask the question: how can governments and citizens build a world without slavery?

The U.S. State Department, in their 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, estimated that there are currently more than twenty million people worldwide trapped in human trafficking, a $150 billion industry. How does this happen? And what role does trafficking play in capitalism? We’ve compiled a selection of recommended titles that explore the ways in which slavery and human trafficking, historically and currently, are tightly interwoven into global economies.

Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea by Johan Mathew

What is the relationship between trafficking and free trade? Is trafficking the perfection or the perversion of free trade? Trafficking occurs thousands of times each day at borders throughout the world, yet we have come to perceive it as something quite extraordinary.  In Margins of the Market, Johan Mathew traces the hidden networks that operated across the Arabian Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following the entangled history of trafficking and capitalism, he explores how the Arabian Sea reveals the gaps that haunt political borders and undermine economic models. Ultimately, he shows how capitalism was forged at the margins of the free market, where governments intervened, and traffickers turned a profit.


Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Updated with a New Preface by Kevin Bales

Kevin Bales’s disturbing story of slavery today reaches from brick kilns in Pakistan and brothels in Thailand to the offices of multinational corporations. His investigation of conditions in Mauritania, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan, and India reveals the tragic emergence of a “new slavery,” one intricately linked to the global economy. The new slaves are not a long-term investment as was true with older forms of slavery, explains Bales. Instead, they are cheap, require little care, and are disposable. Through vivid case studies, Bales observes the complex economic relationships of modern slavery and offers suggestions for combating the practice, including “naming and shaming” corporations linked to slavery.


Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World by Kevin P. McDonald 

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, more than a thousand pirates poured from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. There, according to Kevin P. McDonald, they helped launch an informal trade network that spanned the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, connecting the North American colonies with the rich markets of the East Indies. Rather than conducting their commerce through chartered companies based in London or Lisbon, colonial merchants in New York entered into an alliance with Euro-American pirates based in Madagascar. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves explores the resulting global trade network located on the peripheries of world empires and shows the illicit ways American colonists met the consumer demand for slaves and East India goods.


Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World edited by Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker 

This groundbreaking book presents a global perspective on the history of forced migration over three centuries and illuminates the centrality of these vast movements of people in the making of the modern world. Highly original essays from renowned international scholars trace the history of slaves, indentured servants, transported convicts, bonded soldiers, trafficked women, and coolie and Kanaka labor across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. Together, the essays provide a truly global context for understanding the experience of men, women, and children forced into the violent and alienating experience of bonded labor in a strange new world.


Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Roots with Making Roots

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:

Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

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.

For this special occasion, we’re offering readers 30% off. Use the discount code 16M4197 on our website while checking out today.

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.

Roots: The Groundbreaking Series Reimagined Recap, Episode 4

This is the last daily recap by Matthew Delmont, author of Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (coming August 2016) about the remake of Alex Haley’s Roots television miniseries airing on HISTORY Channel. If you have not seen the entire series yet, you may be spoiled.

The new Roots series ended last night and, having spent a lot of time researching the original book and television miniseries, I am really impressed with the reimagined Roots.

Across its four episodes, Roots covered over a hundred years and featured almost a dozen significant characters. The scale of the story makes it difficult to maintain continuity and momentum and the final episode suffers at times from these narrative challenges. When Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page) returns from England as a free man, we meet the family he was forced to leave behind. Viewers are introduced to his and Matilda’s (Erica Tazel) children, but other than Tom (Sedale Threatt, Jr.) none of these characters are on screen long enough to learn anything about them. The most troubling example of this rushed pacing is when Tom sees Irene (Carlacia Grant) being raped by a white man in a barn. Witnessing this horrific act convinces Tom to collaborate with Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin), a Union spy who is masquerading as a Southern belle.  Irene, however, does not appear much in the episode before or after this rape scene and Carlacia Grant does not appear among the principle actors credited for episode four in A+E’s promotional materials. Unlike the story arc for Kizzy, where sexual violence is part of the fully realized character, rape is used here more as a plot device.

Still, there is much to like about this episode. Like Kunta Kinte fighting with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment in the Revolutionary War, the writers added another battle scene that does not appear in the original book or miniseries. George joins other black soldiers (including rapper Tip “TI” Harris as Cyrus) at the Battle of Fort Pillow. In this Civil War fight, Confederate soldiers commanded by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest killed over three hundred African-American Union troops after the Union troops had surrendered. This is a fascinating addition for two reasons.  First, the film Forrest Gump (1994) made a joke of the fact that the title character was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. If the original Roots challenged the legacies of epic and racist films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), this reference to the Fort Pillow Massacre and Nathan Bedford Forrest is a subtle challenge to the ways the histories of the Confederacy are still soft peddled in popular media and public discourse. Second, this scene highlights how military service has been both a point of pride and, at times, disillusionment for African Americans. Roots debuted on Memorial Day, which makes the addition of Fort Pillow Massacre scene all the more poignant.


The music in Roots has been superb and a tune from earlier episodes show up here again. An African-American string group is playing the song that Kunta Kinte learned from his mother in the Gambia. And we’re told that musicians play the song across the South, although they do not know exactly where it came from. This music narrative line has been subtle, never more than a couple of minutes in each episode, but it highlights how African culture helped create American culture and how much cultural mixing and remixing took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This new Roots also reimagined the naming scene from the original miniseries beautifully. The scene is repeated in every episode, but changed in important ways each time. In this final episode, Tom holds his baby daughter while his father, George, looks on. The scene is touching because neither man knows exactly how to perform the ceremony in the traditional way. “What do I do daddy? How do I give her her name the right way?,” Tom asks. George replies, “I can’t say I know for sure. Just talk to her.”  Holding his baby daughter, Tom says, “I don’t know any Africa words. I know you’re my first baby not born a slave…still gonna have to fight to stay free…everyday…always gonna be somebody who wants to take away your freedom…That’s why I got to tell you this story, so I can be the kind of father I want to be.” The screenwriters, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, did something remarkable here: They took one of the most iconic scenes in television history and made it even more moving.

The series opens with a brief voice over by Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne), and the series concludes with Haley seated at a typewriter working on the story we have just watched. Haley is joined in the room by George and Tom (his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather), and then walks through a field where he sees more of his ancestors (Kizzy, Kunta, Omoro and Binta. “The truth can never be known, it can only be told in a story,” Haley says. “I hope my story honors him.”

Having spent hundreds of hours reading Haley’s archived letters, drafts and notes, I was captivated by the end of this episode. In his unpublished manuscript “My Search for Roots,” Haley described how he felt haunted by the spirits of his ancestors as worked on Roots. “Sometimes I would feel as if I was going crazy or something. Not really ghosts, they seemed fleshed in some ephemeral way, but translucent… I had the feeling they were right there in the room with me, sitting in chairs watching, with no eye or face movements.” What became clear to me as I researched Making Roots was that the boundaries between fact and fiction in Haley’s story were less important and less interesting than how he conjured the lives of his family into this epic, mythical story. The final scene of the series captures this sense of conjuring beautifully and the new Roots series is an entertaining and timely update on this cultural phenomenon.

Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at IndieboundAmazonBarnes & 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.

Roots: The Groundbreaking Series Reimagined Recap, Episode 3

This is the third of four daily recaps by Matthew Delmont, author of Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (coming August 2016) about the remake of Alex Haley’s Roots television miniseries airing on HISTORY Channel. If you have not seen the first three episodes yet, you may be spoiled.

The acting in the new Roots series has been tremendous, and it was especially good last night. The third episode, in which Anika Noni Rose plays the adult Kizzy, picks up the story in 1816, nearly two decades after Kizzy gave birth to a baby that was produced after she was raped by her master. At the start of the episode Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is raping Kizzy again. This is a starting way to open the episode, but it makes it clear that sexual violence was an inescapable part of life for Kizzy and many enslaved women. Narrative time has passed between the two episodes and it is horrifying to imagine what Kizzy endured in these years. When Tom finishes and leaves, Kizzy prepares to go to work. This is a subtle scene and the details of Kizzy washing her body, rinsing her mouth, and steadying herself hint at what daily survival looks like for this character.

Much of the episode focuses on the relationship between Kizzy’s son, Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page), and his father and owner, Tom Lea. Chicken George gains Tom’s admiration when he becomes a skilled trainer of gamecocks. Regé-Jean Page and Jonathan Rhys Meyers play off each other well, and this plotline explores family and ancestry from a different angle. If passing the family story from Kunta Kinta to Kizzy was about maintaining a sense of continuity between Africa and America, passing the family story from Kizzy to Chicken George requires acknowledging that ancestry also contains elements of violence.


Alex Haley was fascinated by cockfighting, so I think he would have loved this episode. I was less enthralled by the cockfighting scenes (of which there are several), but I appreciate how this episode uses cockfighting as Chicken George’s path to freedom. After his bird wins a climatic fight, it looks like George has won his freedom. This moment of joy quickly evaporates, however, when the English cockfighting rival calls for a rematch and produces a larger bird that kills George’s bird and with it his chance of freedom. After losing, George is forced to go to England to work as a slave for man whose bird won the cockfight. The scene is ludicrous, especially since slavery was illegal in England by 1830s when this scene is set, but it speaks to how precarious freedom and the hope of freedom was for enslaved people.

There are powerful scenes between Chicken George and Kizzy, but too few of them. In one, Kizzy tells George that she almost drowned herself and him as a baby, and in another, Kizzy helps George perform the naming ceremony for his son. Overall, this episode felt rushed (there is, for example, a brief scene regarding Nat Turner’s Rebellion). I wished there was more time to explore this relationship between Chicken George and Kizzy. Or maybe I just wanted to see two amazing actors, Anika Noni Rose and Regé-Jean Page, share more scenes. Looking forward to the final episode on Thursday night!

Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at IndieboundAmazonBarnes & 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.

Roots: The Groundbreaking Series Reimagined Recap, Episode 2

This is the second of four daily recaps by Matthew Delmont, author of Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (coming August 2016) about the remake of Alex Haley’s Roots television miniseries airing on HISTORY Channel. If you have not seen the first two episodes yet, you may be spoiled.

I loved this episode and appreciate how it takes the original Roots story in new directions. It is much more clear now what the History Channel means when they call this a “reimagined” version of Roots.

The episode opens with Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) fleeing through the woods, being pursued by the Connoly (Tony Curran), the wicked overseer who whipped him at the end of the first episode. Kunta tackles Connoly and then uses the overseer’s rifle to choke him. As he chokes Connoly to death, Kunta declares, “My name is Kunta Kinte.” This scene of Kunta achieve revenge is unlike anything in the original Roots television miniseries or book where, after the failed slave ship revolt, Kunta Kinte is never shown fighting back physically. After seeing Kunta brutally beaten in the first episode, this scene is cathartic and shows that the new series is creating its own version of the Roots story.

This opening scene is set in 1782 during the Revolutionary War. The other characters in the woods are British troops. Kunta appeals to the British, “I will kill many Americans for your King,” and the troops direct him to travel east to the Great Dismal Swamp to join up with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment of escaped slaves. The ensuing battle scene shows Kunta as a skilled swamp fighter. This Revolutionary War plotline is also a new addition to Roots. It should appeal to History Channel viewers who appreciate military history, but the scene also establishes this new Kunta Kinte as a sort of action hero akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Kunta’s fighting skills, however, do not keep him from being captured by slave catchers who cut off part of his foot to ensure that he won’t run away again.

When Kunta returns to Dr. Waller’s plantation, we meet the first major female character in the series, Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Belle tends to Kunta Kinte’s severed foot, but also has tough words for him when his will to recover and survive wanes. “What kind of warrior waits to die?,” she asks. “I seen plenty of men far worse of than you, no strip of skin left on they back. Overseer beat them near to death. I seen women worked to death, girls bodies used up hard, no older than children. But they found a way to get up. They was warriors, not you.” After watching Kunta Kitne fight and kill to try to achieve freedom, Belle’s speech is important because it makes it clear that enslaved people fought in a variety of ways.

After Belle and Kunta get married, Belle gives birth to a baby daughter. As Kunta and Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) carry the baby to perform the naming ritual, they encounter white patrollers on horseback. “Everybody in the state of Virginia knows a nigger can’t be on the road after sundown,” one of the patroller says. “We are not in the road,” Kunta replies. “This is Dr. Waller’s property.” The exchange calls to mind the curfews passed to quell protests in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. Things escalate when the patrollers demand a tax or the baby in exchange for letting Kunta and Fiddler go. Fiddler creates a diversion, telling the men, “You got it all wrong. My name ain’t ‘uncle,’ my name ain’t ‘boy.’ My name ain’t ‘Fiddler.’ My name is ‘Henry.’ So y’all call me Henry.” Fiddler’s real name is never revealed in the original Roots and in a series that places such emphasis on the importance of names, this is a powerful scene. After declaring his name, Fiddler/Henry tells Kunta to run and then attacks and kills two of the patrollers before being killed by the third white man. Whereas the original Fiddler (played by Louis Gossett Jr) dies peacefully under a tree, this new character fights to the death to protect Kunta and the baby. Kunta returns home and asks Belle to join him in running away. “I hate this country,” Kunta cries, “America will never be my home. I hate this country.” The scene concludes with Kunta naming the baby girl, “Kizzy.”

After a brief scene with Kizzy as a six year old, the episode jumps to 1798 when Kizzy (E’Myri Lee Crutchfield) is fifteen years old. Kunta speaks plainly to Kizzy about the perils facing enslaved women. “The country will always be dangerous for you,” he says. “Many masters, masters’ sons, and overseers rape slave women and pay no price. If you ever fear it, you must kill the toubob [white man] and do it without hesitation, only if you are prepared to die yourself.” This scene sets up the episode’s climatic conclusion. After helping her boyfriend, Noah (Mandela Van Peebles), plan an escape, Kizzy is sold away to a small farm owned by Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Lea rapes Kizzy the first night, declaring “I just spent six hundred dollars on you” and “this is my right,” while Kizzy pleads, “kill me.” When Kizzy delivers the child born from this rape, she initially refuses to hold the baby. Later that night, she is crying and holding the baby alongside a riverbank. She fills her apron with rocks and walks with the baby into the water. As Kizzy considers killing herself and the baby, she has visions of Kunta and Belle and the grandparents in the Gambia, Omoro and Binta, whom she has never met. Kizzy walks back out of the water and talks to the baby: “I’ve got to tell you about our people. My father is Kunta Kinte, he is a Mandinka warrior. You have got to know who he is so you can know who you are.” Raising the baby to the sky, Kizzy repeats the line from the iconic naming ritual: “Behold the only thing that is greater than you.”

This scene is a remarkable reworking of the Roots story. Haley’s book and the 1977 television miniseries showed the enslaved characters suffering pain, but the original Roots provided little insight into the ways their painful experiences could be traumatic or leave emotional scars on enslaved people. The idea that Kizzy would consider killing herself and her child was almost unfathomable to Haley, but here it provides insight into what it means for Kizzy to survive as an enslaved person.

In veering from the original story, this episode makes Roots even more powerful.

Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at IndieboundAmazonBarnes & 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.


Roots: The Groundbreaking Series Reimagined Recap, Episode 1

This is the first of four daily recaps by Matthew Delmont, author of Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (coming August 2016) about the remake of Alex Haley’s Roots television miniseries airing on HISTORY Channel. If you have not seen the first episode yet, you may be spoiled.

After nearly forty years, Roots is back and the first episode of the History Channel’s reimagined Roots was very promising. The differences between the original series and this new series were apparent almost immediately. The episode opens with a voice-over from Laurence Fishburne, who plays Alex Haley, the author of Roots. This introduction is very brief (“This is how I heard about the boy, Kinte, and this is how I will tell you his story”), but it sets the tone that viewers should see Roots first and foremost as a story that will combine elements of fact and fiction.

At the same time, the producers have made it clear in promoting the new series that this version aims to be more historically accurate than the 1977 version. This comes through clearly in the first half-hour of the episode, where were see Kunta’s birth and manhood training in Gambia. Kunta’s village, Juffure, is a busy trading hub and Kunta considers going to a university in Timbuktu. This episode portrays eighteenth century West Africa as a much more advanced society than how it was presented in the original book or television series. Alex Haley knew about this more complex history, but he chose to portray Gambia as an African Eden. “I, we, need a place called Eden,” Haley said. “My people need a Plymouth Rock.” Another way the new series troubles this vision of an African Eden is by detailing the ways Africans would capture members of different ethnic groups and use or sell them as slaves. This is the fate that befalls Kunta when he is captured, sold to English slave traders, and branded with the initials of the slave ship, the Lord Ligonier, which will carry him and 139 other Africans to America.

What is particularly interesting in this opening segment is that the series does not rush to get familiar actors on screen. In the 1977 version, producer David Wolper thought that the show needed to get established stars on screen early to keep the audience’s attention. Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou were in the first scene and the writers created the character of the slave ship captain so Ed Asner would be on screen in the first ten minutes. In the new Roots, by contrast, there are no established film or television stars in the opening segment and no white characters in the first half-hour. This is a bold way to open the series, but it allows viewers to be reintroduced to Kunta Kinte (played by Malachi Kirby), Omoro Kinte (played by Babatunde Olusanmokun), and others, while appreciating how these excellent actors are creating new versions of the characters.

One of the challenges with any remake is how to create narrative tension when audiences already know the basic story. This was especially true with the Middle Passage scene. Viewers know that Kunta Kinte has to survive the voyage for the story to continue. Viewers also know Kunta will be a slave in America, so when the enslaved Africans plan to take over the ship, viewers know that the revolt cannot be successful. Still the scene works because of the details. Kunta holds hands with the man next to him on the ship while they discuss the plan to fight back. This is a tender and touching moment amidst the swirl of violence and inhumanity on the ship. And the scenes where the enslaved women and men pass codes to each other through songs, nicely show the cunning and resistance that led to many revolts among enslaved people. I knew they were not going to be able to overtake the ship, but as the chanting intensifies (“Oh my brothers, dance!”) I still got chills.

Parts of this episode felt rushed, which is to be expected of a story that covers over a hundred years. The scene I found especially worrisome was when an unnamed enslaved woman offers herself to Kunta. We have not been introduced to her and do not learn anything else about her other than that she is willing to have sexual relations with Kunta. The scene is an occasion for Kunta to say that he does not want his children to be born into slavery, but there must be a way to convey this without having an unnamed character throw herself at him.

The most iconic scene in the original series is the whipping scene, where Kunta Kinte is whipped until he answers to his slave name, Toby. One interesting thing about this scene is that it is not in Haley’s book; it was imagined and written by television screenwriter Bill Blinn. The whipping is the climax of the first episode of the new Roots and, four decades later, it remains a powerful and disturbing scene. Connolly, the Waller plantation overseer (played by Tony Curran), is evil and sadistic. As he beats Kunta he demands, “Say your name so you know this isn’t Africa, this is Virginia; that you are the property of Waller no different than the hogs and horses.” Television is more violent today than it was in 1977 and I was not sure how this scene would work in the era of Game of Thrones. The scene works because the violence is connected to the narrative (“Your name is your shield” is one of the taglines for the series) and because, while this scene is fictionalized, it references countless historical acts of violence against enslaved people. In short, the stakes are higher here than in an ordinary television drama.

Let me end with my favorite moment from this first episode. Kunta is singing a song that he has learned from his mother in Gambia. Fiddler (played by Forest Whitaker) says he remembers his grandmother playing a similar melody and says, “I’ve been chasing that tune for a long time.” Fiddler asks what the tune is to which Kunta replies, “the song is mine, no one in this place can have it.” Fiddler assures Kunta, “I can wait ‘til you share it with me.” The scene is only a couple of minutes long, but it is beautifully acted and speaks to the themes of culture, memory, and loss that are at play in Roots. The quiet moments are what I appreciated most about the original Roots. I am happy to see that the new Roots is creating three-dimensional black characters to reimagine this remarkable story.


Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at IndieboundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (save 30% at ucpress.edu; enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).

matt delmontMatthew 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.

Introducing Making Roots

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 IndieboundAmazonBarnes & 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.


By Virginia Scharff

This guest post is published in advance of the Organization of American Historians conference in St. Louis. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference theme, Taboos. Come back for new posts every weekday until April 17.

Can we talk about shards of American history that seem vaguely forbidden? About a family of abolitionists bent on slaughter, Native American slaveholders, heroes of the Union who commit Indian massacres, woman suffrage advocates who favor the vote for white women to counterbalance the votes of black men, a Navajo woman, once a captive, meeting the President of the United States, Hispanic households reliant on unfree domestic labor, long after Emancipation? Can we talk about the deep contradictions and complexities of seeing the American struggle over freedom as a continental story?

If you don’t mind history that embraces unpleasant truths, then you are ready for the stories you’ll find in Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, companion volume to the exhibition opening at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles this spring. Eleven historians offer essays inspired by revealing objects. Consider the double-edged Bowie knife given to Cherokee leader Stand Watie, commissioned a colonel in the Confederate army, who would become the last Confederate general to surrender. Or perhaps you’d be interested in the papers carried by Chinese immigrants to prove their legal status, the flag sewn by Jessie Benton Fremont for her husband to carry on expeditions of continental conquest, the rifle they called a “Beecher’s Bible” when it was shipped by devout New England partisans to antislavery warriors joining the arms race in Bleeding Kansas.

These objects and the stories they illuminate show us how our two great national epics, the struggle over slavery and freedom, and the quest for continental dominion, are really one story. It’s a story across prairies and mountains and deserts and innumerable cultural divides, shocking and multifarious and indivisible, with liberty and justice still to come.


Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico. She is the co-curator (with Carolyn Brucken) of the “Empire and Liberty” exhibition at the Autry National Center, where she serves as Women of the West Chair. Her previous works include Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the WestThe Women Jefferson Loved; and Home Lands: How Women Made the West (with Carolyn Brucken).


In the Shadow of Slavery Wins Frederick Douglass Book Prize

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, by Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, has been named the winner of the Twelfth Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, one of the most coveted awards for the study of the African-American experience. Carney and Rosomoff will share the $25,000 award with Siddharth Kara, who won for his book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (Columbia University Press). The prize is given by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

In the Shadow of Slavery coverMartha Hodes, the 2010 Douglass Prize Jury Chair and Professor of History at New York University, said that “In the Shadow of Slavery tells the fascinating story of how enslaved Africans shaped and changed the landscape of the New World. With remarkable originality, the authors reveal how the men and women of the Middle Passage wielded their agricultural experience as part of the unending struggle to control their own lives. Interpreting archival evidence with both rigor and creativity, Carney and Rosomoff explore the provisioning of slave ships, the transfer and diffusion of African horticultural knowledge, the botanical gardens of slaves, and the gastronomic legacies of black slavery, among many other intriguing topics. Comprehensive and compelling, this is a work of truly global dimensions that narrates the ordeal of enslavement as a simultaneous story of food, memory, and survival.”

The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the man who escaped slavery and emerged as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the nineteenth century. It is the most generous history prize in its field, awarding $25,000 annually to the year’s best non-fiction book on slavery, resistance, and/or abolition.