Alex Haley’s 'Roots' rebooted: Does it matter in the age of Obama and Trump?

ASU associate professor of history talks about miniseries remake


May 17, 2016

This Memorial Day, a remake of “Roots” hits the little screen in a revival of the most popular miniseries of all time. Based on the late Alex Haley’s bestselling book, “Roots” traces the history of Kunta Kinte, a man captured in Gambia and turned into a slave in America, and seven generations of his descendants. 

In his forthcoming book, “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated,” Matthew F. Delmont, associate professor of history at Arizona State University, narrates the personal odyssey of Alex Haley and the absorbing behind-the-scenes details that led to the widely watched miniseries. Download Full Image

Below, Delmont talks about the 15-year production history of the original “Roots” and how the highly anticipated reboot on the History Channel could pave the way for greater dialogue in a culture that still battles how slavery is taught in schools and how it is portrayed in film.

Question: The original broadcast in the ’70s captured a nation trying to heal after the Civil Rights Movement. Now we have a black president and a presumed presidential nominee pledging to deport Hispanic undocumented immigrants. Who will watch, and what will the effect be?

Answer: “Roots” is a story about American identity that is as powerful today as it was in the 1970s. This multigenerational family history reminds viewers that African-American roots run deep in this country and that black people have always had to fight to be fully counted as Americans. Slavery remains one of the subjects Americans are most uncomfortable discussing, but I expect the new series to spark new conversations and arguments about our nation’s history. 

Q: The reboot arrives amid the “Black Lives Matter” protests, debates on racial representation and diversity in film and television, as well as long-standing battles over the way slavery is taught in America’s schools. How might a revival of the original “Roots” miniseries affect the way we view this part of our nation’s history?

A: The original “Roots” miniseries is the definitive mainstream portrayal of slavery and changed the ways generations of Americans view the subject. The racial climate in the U.S. is actually tenser today than it was in 1977, and slavery is being debated today with renewed urgency. The new “Roots” series will encourage viewers to see slavery as a story about black families and to identify with the sorrow, pain and joy of enslaved people in ways that are not commonly seen in popular culture.

Q: While the original miniseries broke television viewing records, the way the world consumes entertainment is different today. Do you think the remake will be able to speak to the new generation?

A: The “Roots” remake has the potential to reach across generational lines, bringing together younger viewers who have never seen the original series, and their parents who watched it with their families in the 1970s. Only the Super Bowl reaches the kind of massive audience “Roots” did in 1977, but the new series should reach as many viewers as critically praised shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad,” and the subject matter is more historically important.

Q: Despite its mass audience success, “Roots” fell out of favor among critics and scholars because it was quickly discovered Haley exaggerated, fabricated and embellished pieces of his own history. What more can you tell us from your research regarding the shadow this cast over Haley’s otherwise highly acclaimed bestseller?

A: “Roots” is due for a re-evaluation. The plagiarism cases and other controversies surrounding Haley’s book have prevented people investigating and appreciating how this unprecedented cultural phenomenon was made. “Roots” encouraged more people to engage seriously with the history of slavery than anything before or since, but this legacy has been overshadowed.

To schedule an interview with professor Delmont, please contact Judy Keane at 480-965-3779 or Judy.Keane@asu.edu

In memoriam: Guido G. Weigend, ASU geography professor and dean


May 17, 2016

Guido G. Weigend, who served as dean and professor at Arizona State University from 1976 to 1989, passed away on April 1 at the age of 96. Weigend’s career included roles as a professional geographer, college dean and professor, and spy.

Born Jan. 2, 1920, in the small Austrian town of Zeltweg, Weigend grew up in Vienna and attended school there. In 1938, at the age of 18, he watched as the German army marched into Austria and annexed his country. Soon afterward, he found himself drafted into the German army. Naturally alarmed by this prospect, his father — then living in Chicago — encouraged him to try to come to America.  Guido Weigend Guido G. Weigend. Courtesy University Archives/ASU Libraries Download Full Image

Like most European refugees of the period, his route was circuitous. He first went to Sofia, Bulgaria, where his mother co-owned a coffee shop. There he spoke to someone in the American consulate who successfully helped manage the difficult feat of getting him an exit visa. He left Europe by passing through Italy and North Africa, eventually making his way to the United States.

A linguist with facility in several European languages, his transition to life in America was relatively painless. He took advantage of his good fortune, timing and location by soon enrolling at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1942. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943. 

His talent for languages and his familiarity with European geography and cultures was put to quick use by his adopted country. Between March 1943 and December 1945, he served in the U.S. Army in the office of the OSS (forerunner to the CIA), going on several missions behind German lines during the war. It was long suspected, although never completely confirmed by him until late in his life, that he continued with clandestine activities long after the war. Some evidence of his intelligence work is provided by Weigend’s inclusion in the KGB-influenced book, “Who's Who in CIA,” published in East Berlin in 1968.

Returning to the University of Chicago after 1945, he completed a master’s degree with a thesis “Water Supply of Central and Southern Germany.” Soon afterward, he began work at the doctoral level, completing that degree in 1949 with a dissertation titled “The Cultural Pattern of South Tyrol.” His dissertation was published by the University of Chicago as Research Paper, No. 3. He proudly considered himself a professional geographer for the rest of his life. 

After his return to Chicago, he met and married Areta Kelble after a six-week courtship. Areta and Guido had a common link — both had been in Europe during the war, she in the Red Cross. Their long marriage ended with the passing of Areta in 1993. 

While working on his dissertation he taught at Beloit College, but upon completion of the doctoral degree he accepted a job at Rutgers University, where he spent 27 years on the geography faculty, teaching students, researching and writing. He wrote scholarly articles on many topics, most of them on Europe, and on ports and shipping in general. Two of the articles were published in French, and he reviewed several French and German books in major U.S. journals.

Weigend rose steadily in the ranks at Rutgers from assistant professor to professor. He chaired the geography department for 16 years between 1951 and 1967, and he then served as associate dean from 1972 to 1976.

In 1976 Weigend headed west to ASU, where he assumed the position of dean of liberal arts and professor of geography. His leadership skills and personal style as dean of the largest college on campus were especially appreciated during the next eight years, as Arizona State University continued its transition into a major research institution.

During his years as dean and afterward, the Weigends frequently hosted parties at their home in the Shalimar Country Club, a few miles from ASU. These gatherings were joyous, entertaining and stimulating affairs. Invitations were a pleasant and coveted perquisite of their friendship and generosity.

Stepping down from the dean position in 1984, Weigend took a one-year sabbatical in southern Africa, producing additional scholarly papers, including two on Namibia. Upon his return to Arizona, he re-entered the geography department full time, mentoring students, doing research and providing a living example of how to be a scholar, administrator and gentleman. He retired from ASU in 1989 and lived in the Phoenix area the rest of his life.

The Weigends welcomed three children into the world. Kenneth Weigend is national sales manager at WR Lynch in the San Francisco Bay Area; Nina Wilkey-Olejarczyk is a physician in Glendale, Arizona; and Cynthia Buness is an attorney in Paradise Valley, Arizona, now focused on patient advocacy work.

Written by Malcolm Comeaux and Martin J. Pasqualetti, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, with guidance from Cynthia Buness.