Why do some academics feel the need to exaggerate? Roots and the legacy of slavery

I do not want to take anything away from Alex Haley. I watched Roots as a child (dubbed in Spanish!) and as a junior in college I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X straight through one summer.  I loved both.

But I think it is possible to make up a story about Roots that exaggerates its impact, especially when nothing other than the Nielsen rating is presented as evidence.  Why would an academic do that?  The tagline should give a hint: “Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Arizona State University, is the author of the forthcoming “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated.”” So… he has a pretty darn big financial and career interest in making it sound like Roots was “revolutionary.”  In his words:

[“Roots”] made the slave trade and black history inescapable parts of national popular culture and produced a unique moment when ordinary Americans talked about slavery in workplaces, bars, churches and schools… “Roots” was a hit because no one had ever read or seen anything like it.

To which the Wikipedia entry for Maya Angelou provides a ready riposte:

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years.

We might also think of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison.  And by the way, That Nigger’s Crazy by Richard Pryor won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album for 1974:  “You better get your ass back to Mars, you done landed on Mr. Gilmore’s property.”  And: “Officer, I am reaching into my pocket for my license.”

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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