Forty years after the original "Roots" debuted on television, the miniseries reboot is once again spotlighting a shameful part of history. But, according to Ben Vereen, who acted in the 1977 version, the miniseries is so much more than an important story about slavery and the past. It also presents an opportunity to ask ourselves a crucial question.
As the 69-year-old Vereeen tells "Oprah: Where Are They Now?", this is a sentiment he felt strongly when he visited the island that was named after the miniseries' originating character in Alex Haley's novel, based on his own ancestry.
"I went to Juffureh. Juffureh's a place where Alex Haley found the Kunta Kinte family, his family roots," he says. "Off of Juffureh is a little island."
That island used to be known as James Island, off the coast of Gambia. It was renamed to Kunta Kinte Island in 2011. Vereen paints a picture of the atrocities that happened there during the West African slave trade.
"Once you were captured, they took you there and they held you in little cells," he says. "I mean, here's these huge African warriors jammed into this little room. Some would die. [Others] would stand in this room until the ships came."
When Vereen visited the island, he was overcome with emotion.
"I stood in this cell and wept like a baby," he says. "I said, 'This is my Wailing Wall.'"
This moving experience is part of what why the actor urges everyone to seize the opportunity that has come with the renewed conversation about "Roots" and the slave trade.
"My want is that, yes, we talk about the show 'Roots,' but do something for the people of Juffureh. Show them your gratitude," Vereen says. "We cut our teeth and got great fame from the miniseries -- thank you, Alex Haley. But what are we going to do for Juffureh, for the people of Juffureh?"
Vereen's full interview airs on "Oprah: Where Are They Now?" this fall.
Another "Roots" actor opens up: