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174 6 HERITAGE TOURISM, MUSEUMS OF HORROR, AND THE COMMERCE OF MEMORY 10:00–10:15 Opening Ceremony 10:30–11:00 Annapolis Marching Band 12:00–12:45 Annapolis City Wide Gospel Choir 1:15–2:00 The Band Belief (R&B/Hip Hop) 2:20–3:05 The David Arthur Project (Jazz) 3:20–4:05 Nazu & Company (African Dance) 4:20–5:05 Earth Wind and Fire Tribute Band (R&B) 5:20–6:05 The Clones of Funk 6:20–7:05 Sankofa Dance Theater (African Dance) —Performance Schedule, Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, Annapolis, Maryland Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts! —George to Beneatha, A Raisin in the Sun Roots was one of the most important cultural phenomena of the late 1970s. A twelve-hour miniseries dramatizing Alex Haley’s 1976 best-selling novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the show was not expected to pull in strong ratings. The series historicized (in Hollywood fashion) the slave trade and the making of an American family—a story in which blacks were noble and whites were villains. It was certainly not the kind of material that a “mainstream” American audience typically consumed. ABC executives The Commerce of Memory / 175 safely anticipated that black Americans as well as sympathetic whites would watch the show, but they were not prepared for its tremendous popularity. The series would become the most watched television event in history up to that time. The viewership would remain steady or increase for the eight consecutive nights the show aired. Over half of the nation’s households would watch the final episode.1 From January 24 through January 31, 1977, the day after each episode aired, offices, classrooms, and everyplace in between became a site of recapitulation and reflection. The post-episode public performances were worthy of their own documentary. Many whites were astonished, not wanting to believe that “we” would treat “them” so horribly (I was never sure what to make of the pronouns when I heard these observations). Many blacks who weren’t astonished self-righteously declared that they would have never let themselves be treated in the same manner as the slaves (of course, pointing out the fact that in many cases this anger was a condemnation of their ancestors ’ survival would be a bit pedantic). More than anything else, though, there was a lot of absolution going around, since we as a nation had come so far from those difficult days. That week in January was a moment—one that could never be repeated today in our world of endless channels and digital video recorders—in which a nation collectively watched a dramatization of its history and found itself having to make sense of this new narrative of the American past. As a memoir, Haley’s book was a mixture of fact and fiction—and, indeed, discerning the exact mix of the two became increasingly difficult as revelations of inaccuracies, impossibilities, and plagiarism bedeviled Haley’s assertion that it was a truthful record.2 Unsurprisingly, the television show took greater liberties with the story’s facts for the sake of entertainment. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the importance of Haley’s accomplishment cannot be diminished. In testament to this, Haley’s childhood home in Henning, Tennessee, the place where he listened to his grandparents narrate his family’s history while they whiled away the time on the front porch, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1978. I was not sitting at my parents’ knee when the miniseries about Alex Haley’s life aired, but I was in the room with them all the same. I don’t recall whether my brother and sister, respectively, a senior and junior in high school, were there as well, but my memory tells me that we watched the miniseries from beginning to end as a family. Like so many black families, we were riveted to the TV set not only because of the dramatic quality of the show but also because finally (finally!) there was something on the television that spoke to a part of our collective history. Watching Roots, then, was 176 / The Commerce of Memory not just about getting the opportunity to stay up late for eight nights in a row (no small issue, since I was in fifth grade at the time); it was about bearing witness to an important moment in the mythic national black...


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