Roots: The Saga of an American Family (Alex Haley, 1976) is, I would venture to say, one of the best and most influential books I’ve read. I’ve never seen the miniseries, so I came to the book with only the vaguest knowledge that it was about slavery and the genealogy of Haley’s family back to its African roots. It is at times harrowing, hopeful, nostalgic, longing, powerful, and unforgettable. It is one of the most difficult books I’ve read, not just because it clocks in at 728 pages, but because it contains some of the most graphic scenes of torture I’ve ever come across. It is not for the faint of heart and I found myself, on multiple occasions, trying to suppress my emotion while reading it on the el. But for all the history it contains, much of it we would like to wipe from our collective American memory, it is worth the effort.
In short, Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped by white slave traders as a teenager and brought to America to work on a plantation. With the majority of the book dedicated to Kunta’s life in Africa and his time as a slave, he is the strongest character and the backbone that upholds the future generations of the Kinte family – his daughter Kizzy, her son George, his son Tom, his daughter Cynthia, her daughter Bertha, and finally the author. It is through Kunta that we learn just how dismal life as a slave was – the inhumanity of their passage at sea, the power behind the urge to escape, the heartbreaking fear that the family would be torn apart and sold to different plantations. And it is also through Kunta that we see the discrepancy between how slave owners believed they lived and how they actually lived. On the big parties he drives his massa to, Kunta thinks:
He couldn’t believe that such incredible wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.
By tracing back these seven generations, Haley exposes where many prejudices were born, with many of them continuing to survive today. I was most struck by how fervently Kunta distances himself, as an African, a true black, from those he calls “brown,” that is, a mix of African and white blood. Where the “one drop” rule excluded those born to white slave masters from their society, so too were they excluded from those who considered themselves pure African. This reappears later in the book when Tom, Kunta’s great-grandson, who is the grandchild of his former white slave owner, forbids his daughter to marry her suitor because, “He too high-yaller. He could nigh ‘bout pass fo’ white – je’s not quite… He too light fo’ black folks, too dark fo’ white folks. He cain’t help what he look like, but don’t care how hard he try, he never gon’ b’long nowhere. An’ you got to think ‘bout what you’ chilluns might look like!” As a half-black American, this struck a particular nerve with me. It’s a dilemma I think we’ve yet to solve.
If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that it mostly skips over how women were affected by slavery. For all we spend with Kunta – a full half of the 700 page book – we spend relatively little time with his daughter Kizzy, who, after being discovered helping a fellow slave escape, is sold to another massa who commences to rape her regularly. Haley quickly turns the focus to her son George and his efforts to become a successful cockfighter. Perhaps this oversight is unintentional or perhaps there is less documentation on women’s lives during slavery, or perhaps, as a man, Haley felt himself most qualified to tell other men’s stories. Whatever the case, I do wish we had gotten to spend as much time with the women in Haley’s family tree as we do with the men. Their story is important too.
A final note: While reading this book, I became aware of the surrounding claims of plagiarism. Going into it, I knew there was no way a book like this could be 100% factually accurate and assumed much of it had been drawn from whatever existing slave documentation there was. The book is, after all, billed as a novel. But, if the idea of an imagined history seems off-putting, Haley has this to say toward the end of book: “My own ancestors’ would also automatically be a symbolic saga of all African-descent people – who are without exception the seeds of someone like Kunta who was born and grew up in some black African village, someone who was captured and chained down in one of those slave ships that sailed them across the same ocean, into some succession of plantations, and since then a struggle for freedom.” For that reason, it matters not to me how much of this story is an accurate representation of Haley’s ancestry, for it is the story of our collective ancestry. As Americans, it is our history. For the way it captured America’s interest and brought to light the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, it is one of the most important books we can read.
[I’ve decided this year to follow Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and will be categorizing my reads accordingly. I plan to read at least one book per item, but will note where they fulfill multiple categories. For Roots: read a book over 500 pages, read a book of historical fiction set before 1900, read a book that was adapted into a movie (miniseries, in this case).]