While he was alive, I had the great good fortune to hear Alex Haley speak on many occasions. He was a master storyteller. Not only was his delivery spellbinding, he also possessed a rare kind of charisma that had magnetic properties in both directions; people were drawn to Alex, and Alex had an indefatigable fascination in people.
His Pulitzer Prize winning novel was called Roots: The Saga of an American Family and in late January, of 1977, when the ABC mini-series, Roots (based upon his book) was first broadcast, most of America was gripped in one of the coldest spells of weather in recorded history. Although I don't recall forecasters assigning catchy phrases like "polar vortex" to the weather phenomenon, schools and businesses were closed, frozen pipelines burst and due to extreme temperatures for a period of a few weeks (in some instances the mercury dipping to -70 degrees), life was safer lived indoors.
It was in fact the severity of the weather outside that contributed mightily to the unprecedented viewership of the heroic story of Kunta Kinte, the young man kidnapped and sold into slavery and the patriarch of subsequent generations of Alex Haley's family. America watched Roots in record numbers, the likes of which broadcast and cable entities in the modern era can only dream. History records that roughly 100 million Americans tuned in during the final night of broadcast, making it the third most watched episode of television in the history of the medium.
In retrospect it is easy to look back now and see how Mother Nature, the power of a nascent storytelling art form in the televised mini-series, and a nation largely ignorant of and reluctant to come to terms with the horrors of its slave-owning past, conspired to create a 'perfect storm' of enlightenment in America. In eight consecutive nights of programming, Roots literally obliterated for both white AND black America, the notion that slavery was simply an economic engine, necessary in order for America to rise from its colonial origins to the stature of world leader. Roots illuminated for all who gathered to watch, both the highest and most low expressions possible in the human condition; the sheer indomitability of the colossal spirit that resides in all humanity, as well as our uniquely human penchant for unspeakable cruelty against one another.
Thirty-seven years later, filmmaker Steve McQueen has delivered to us another difficult chapter of our American story to digest. Twelve Years A Slave is a film I found heart breaking to watch; due in part to the violent nature of story. Simultaneously stunningly beautiful in its visual lyricism while gut wrenchingly brutal, it was a feat only achievable by the most adept of storytellers. McQueen reminds us through the re-telling of Solomon Northrup's narrative, that the nature of humanity can be deplorably evil in the exploitation of our fellow man, or glorious in one's relentless pursuit of the justice, fairness and equality deserving of all men, women and children under the sun. In my opinion, both Roots and Twelve Years, should be required reading and/or viewing for every human being.
For those Americans on either side of the color line who question the value in continuing to revisit these painful parts of our common past, I can only offer the famous quote of philosopher, George Santayana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
About LeVar Burton:
Cofounder and Chief Curation Officer of RRKidz, Burton along with his business partner Mark Wolfe, lead the RRKidz team in developing innovative new digital learning solutions for kids. Best known for his Reading Rainbow stewardship as well as his other distinguished TV roles (most notably Kunta Kinte on Roots and Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation), LeVar Burton comes from a family of educators and is widely recognized for his lifelong advocacy of children's literacy. He speaks passionately on the topics of children's learning and technology and has been a keynote speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW) Edu and received the Eliot-Pearson Award for Excellence in Children's Media from Tufts University.
About Reading Rainbow:
The Reading Rainbow App, available on the iPad (download on iTunes App Store) and Kindle Fire (download on Amazon App Store), is a completely re-imagined experience reminiscent of the original TV series. This chart-topping education App features hundreds of children's books and newly produced video field trips hosted by LeVar Burton. Each book is matched to a child's specific interests and can be experienced as either "read on my own" or "read to me," with voice-over narration by LeVar Burton and other professional actors. Reading Rainbow's continuing mission is to inspire a love of reading in children and connect them to the world they live in so they can "go anywhere, be anything."...
The first time I was cast to portray Dr. Martin Luther King was in a school play. The role was little more than a cameo at the end of a production at St. Ann's...