In a wonderful interview he did with comedian W. Kamau Bell, actor and producer Levar Burton explained the significance of the current reboot of the series Roots on the History Channel.
“Whether you feel like it has any relevance or meaning to you, the real truth is that it does,” Burton said featured in the magazine Mother Jones. “If you are part of the fabric of America, this is your story, too.”
That was, in part, what appealed to viewers so much when the original mini-series premiered almost 40 years ago. Roots drew in more than 100 million viewers at the time and garnered nine Emmy awards. Burton, then 19, starred as the young Kunta Kinte, both he and the series became a generational touchstone for many people, particularly African Americans.
Based on a novel by Alex Haley, the series tells a personal story of tracing Haley’s family history being torn from Africa, through the awful Middle Passage, and ultimately bondage in America. And driving that story all along was Haley’s own quest to learn about himself, his family and where his ancestors came from. In an article in Reader’s Digest in the 1970s, Haley said that yearning is universal.
“In all of us there is a hunger, narrow and deep, to know our heritage to know who we are and where we have come from,” Haley said. “Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is a vacuum, an emptiness and a most disquieting loneliness.”
Many Americans are interested in their ancestors and their own cultural origins, but for African Americans, that question can be particularly hard to answer. Slavery severed their connections to Africa and the rich diversity of cultures there. Haley’s book offered African Americans a roadmap of sorts for tracing their own family stories and it reminded Americans of their own country’s history. The advent of genetic testing has offered many African Americans a window into their ancestry that they couldn’t see any other way.
For Burton, who tested with 23andMe, testing was eye opening, and it’s offered others a goldmine of information that just wasn’t available before.
“I’ve always felt there was a piece of me missing,” Burton said. “I’m sure a lot of black people in this country have that same feeling… that who I am did not just begin here; that I’m part of a lineage that goes back much further than that… and to have the proof in my hand…it’s powerful.”
See Burton and the actor Malachi Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte in the new version of Roots, talk about using 23andMe to explore their ancestry.