August 12, 2014 11:10 AM EDT

The most watched TV drama ever, Roots reached the height of TV’s ability to spur social discussion by surveying the depths of America’s original sin. The show, viewed by over 100 million Americans, provided a surrogate family story for millions of African Americans whose histories were lost in the culture-obliterating diaspora, and confronted whites with the brutalities of slavery. How authentic Roots‘ history was remains open to question: scholars have cast doubt on Alex Haley’s novel (which he said was based on genealogical research into his own family); the miniseries itself tended toward melodrama. But it started an important conversation about race in America and spurred popular interest in long-neglected African American history. Whether Roots offered the right answers or not, its power came from getting America to ask the right questions.

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