Roots, Alex Haley

Over the past month I’ve been engaged with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print in reading Alex Haley’s seminal, important, groundbreaking 1976 novel of the history of a (his) African American slave family. They will I’m sure put up reviews shortly but having a gap in my schedule so to speak, I’ll put up my initial thoughts now while the main elements of the book – which I listened to while they were reading – are still in my head.

I missed Roots when it was on TV, though of course I didn’t miss the hype, so I’m only now realising why it was so important. And that is that Black Americans were for the first time seeing themselves centre stage, taken seriously, with documentable genealogies.

To start at the end, Haley, a relatively middle-class boy from Tennessee, sat at the feet of his great aunts before WWII and heard the oral history of his mother’s family which began with an ‘African’, Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers as a young man in the late 1760s, transported across the Atlantic, and sold for plantation work on arrival at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the final chapters, Haley describes how some of the names of places and objects, indeed the Kinte name itself, which had been passed down for nearly 200 years, could be identified as from the Mandinka nation of The Gambia, a literate, Muslim people. That this history is now, and was almost immediately, challenged does not affect my reading of the novel.

Roots is a long book, a family saga covering the stories of one or two people over four generations, from before the War of Independence to the period following the Civil War. There are 120 chapters, so we read and discussed between ourselves 30 chapters each week. Which suited me as I could listen to my 7-8 hours each weekend while I was driving, then write it up when I got home.

Haley spends a long time, the first quarter of the book, establishing Kunta as a boy and then young man, learning to read and count, memorizing the Koran, being taught his responsibilities, taken on journeys, meeting people from other tribes with other customs (and languages). He is aware that white men, with the assistance of Africans, are taking people away, overseas, possibly to eat them, but he is not particularly cautious and at about age 18 he is captured.

The voyage to America is horrific, chained in pairs, lying damp and stinking on shelves below decks, frequently whipped, badly fed, a thirty percent death rate. Haley I think does a good job not just of telling the story but of imagining what Kunta must have been thinking and feeling.

In the US Kunta is sold onto a plantation, he is a frequent runaway, and just as frequently recaptured until at last he attacks one of his captors and his foot is chopped off. We then have a long period – 20 years – where Kunta comes to terms with being a slave, living with people who have been slaves for some generations already. Finally he marries, a cook, Bell, and they have one child, a daughter Kizzy.

At 18 Kizzy helps her boyfriend escape. He’s recaptured. She’s sold as a field hand to a small plantation further south (we hear no more of Kunta), is raped by the owner and has a son, George. Unfortunately for us, the new owner makes his money cockfighting, George grows to become his principal trainer, and we learn far too much about ‘chickens’ and the sport/industry surrounding them.

George in turn marries Matilda who is a much better woman than he deserves and they have a whole host of kids. No. 3 (I think) is Tom who apprentices as a blacksmith and grows to become a responsible man and father and head of his family.

This brings us up to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The family is largely unaffected by the War but soon afterwards, George who has been away, returns and on his word of a ‘promised land’ in Tennessee, 17 Black families (and one white couple) make their way there in a wagon train, and take up 30 or 40 acre plots on rich soil just opened up for settlement. Tom, despite opposition from the local whites, opens up for business as a blacksmith. And the families settle down to prosper.

That, more or less is the end of the saga. In the space of a chapter or so, Tom’s youngest daughter marries a Haley, who has a lumber business, and so in a couple of generations more we have young Alex.

The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story. We are forever being updated on ‘background’, ie. US history, by slaves telling each other what they had overheard or glimpsed in newspapers, which the other two found less intrusive than I did.

I think Haley’s intention was to do with being Black and proud. The survival of ‘the African’ in his family’s history. What I got out of it was firstly the centrality of the matriarch in each generation, holding the family together, despite the stories mostly revolving around the men; and secondly, once Kunta had been beaten down, the slaves mostly just got on with life, rather as you would with a tedious job you were never able to leave.

.

Alex Haley, Roots, first pub. 1976. Audiobook read by Avery Brooks, 2011. 30 hours

see also:
Adventures in reading, running and working from home (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print, Slavery: Past and Present #280898 Reasons (3.5 of 4)
The Australian Legend, Project 2022 – Reading North American Black & Native American Lit.

31 thoughts on “Roots, Alex Haley

  1. You’ve done such an amazing job of describing this novel:that you (almost) make me want to read it again. However did you track all those details via your listening; I am a sloppy audiobook listener (but I will need to hone my skills). I think both Liz and I are planning our posts for the #1976Club week (next week), but I can see why you’d want to get down to this while it’s fresh in your mind. (I’ll include a link to your post here.) I’ve not seen that cover to the book before, but I like it. Earlier today I picked up Queen from the library. It looks like it’s a million pages long as well! Don’t suppose you’re tempted to watch the mini-series? (Liz already turned me down. *chuckles* Can’t blame her.)

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    • Thankyou! Writing to you guys helped make enough details stick for me to put together an outline anyway. The audiobook cover was actually the Penguin one with the ‘oo’ in Roots stylised handcuffs, but I thought the one I used illustrated the story pretty well.

      Queen I think you said was the story of the women’s side of the family. Interesting, but no mini-series, sorry!

      I really enjoyed the interactive side of reading with you guys. Probably the last time I did anything similar was in Philosophy tutorials in 1971.

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  2. This was one of those books I heard about when it was released but never got round to reading.
    What you say about challenges to the book’s authenticity seems highly likely to me, but also sad. I looked it up at Wikipedia, where modern DNA is mentioned as evidence that Haley had it wrong. But who could blame him? I’ve seen it among other family history aficionados, people forging a link between names because they so badly want there to be one.

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    • It seems highly unlikely that so detailed an oral history could be passed down over that length of time. I think Sue (WG) has a convict ancestor – do the stories in her family point to her ancestor’s sheep stealing in Dorset? It’s almost exactly the same period. But the point is, that’s not the point. Roots makes sense as a family saga novel, and it’s importance lies not in its literal accuracy but in giving life to African American history.

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      • Yes, indeed. I think I mentioned in our chats that I have oral family history going back to my grandmother’s grandfather, (and presumably as far forward as my cousins’ children) but we only really know he was Spanish and which bit of Spain he came from. But the importance of the story lies as you say in the life it gives to the history. I really enjoyed this review and will link to it when I post mine on 12 October. I enjoyed reading it along with you and Marcie, too, it was fun discussing it each week and I got different perspectives from the two of you. I quite often do readalongs but not usually in this way.

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      • Liz, I’m glad you enjoyed my brief review, I’m looking to you and BIP to add a bit of heft. The problem with oral history in my family is that there is so much written history. The other problem is none of us talks much. I asked my grandfather and his older sister a little about their lives, but they didn’t say anything about their parents or grandparents, and that would only take us back to the 1850s anyway (I do have a bureau from the 1850s handmade by my paternal grandfather’s grandfather. My brothers got the books.)

        I have previously read books at the same time as, and subsequently discussed them, but this made much more sense, discussing the book while we were reading it (which I think Melanie sometimes does by Zoom). Thank you for inviting me to take part.

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      • That’s right, and it made that point at that point in time. Now (I suspect) it’s more important to acknowledge that not knowing your family history is one more thing that was stolen.

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      • Haha, Bill, It was a donkey actually! But no, you are right, because my grandfather was horrified and wouldn’t talk about his family before the “gentlemen farmers” of the mid to late 19th century!

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  3. My only recollection of this is being sent to bed as a 10 yr old when my parents sat down to watch the original tv series back in the late 70’s, and seeing the hefty book sitting on dad’s bookshelf, with a half naked black man on the cover. At the time I thought I was banned from watching it because it was a ‘sexy’ story.

    Family history and oral stories are a fascinating subject – in the end it doesn’t matter if they turn out to be false or based on false assumptions – the story has already woven its way into the family’s origin story.

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  4. Already woven it’s way literally in the case of Haley. It’s believed that Haley’s queries about Kunta Kinte led to oral historians in the Kintes’ home village incorporating the probably fictional Kunta into their sagas before Haley got to hear and ‘learn’ from them.

    But what you say is true. What we believe about ourselves as families (and nations), ‘true’ or not, have an effect on how we behave.

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  5. In the U.S. around the time Haley was writing and publishing, Black Power was the cry of the people, along with Black is Beautiful. You see African Americans start to dress in African clothing and look back on their histories and see themselves as not as the descents of slaves, but as the descendants of proud Africans with complex societies who were enslaved. Whether Alex Haley gets some of his own history wrong is of no importance to me. Roots is pretty much categorized as fiction anyway. His contributions, from his time as a journalist to writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X to his work in genealogy, are important.

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    • Melanie, I totally agree with you. It was the telling of the story that was important. I tried to ignore the ‘factual’ rabbit hole in my review, though I seem to have allowed myself to be sidetracked in Comments. I forgot for a while that Haley was Malcolm X’s co-writer (and I’d better get a move on and work out how you and I are to deal with Malcolm X next year)

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      • I just remembered that when I was working at the library I saw that Roots was actually shelved under 929 in the Dewey Decimal System, which is nonfiction genealogy. It sure is a book that doesn’t want to be categorized, but I will add that I was so interested in Kunta Kinte’s story, which took up a large part of the book, that I started to care less about the later generations. A common experience with me and sagas. Part of the issue is the first generation studied goes through so much turmoil that the last generation appears an ungrateful, spoiled lot despite responding to their environment, as we all do.

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      • That’s interesting about its classification. I guess if the author says Nonfiction then that’s how it’s classified.

        Just Kunta in Africa took a quarter of the book from memory, but I think Haley needed to set the scene. Personally I could have done with more Kizzy and less Chicken George.

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    • Yes, it’s a bit rough that we kidnap them, transport them halfway round the world, give them new names, keep them and their descendants locked up and denied education for a century (or two) and then say now prove who you are.

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  6. I had only heard of this as a miniseries and didn’t realise it was also a book. I quite agree with your conclusion in the comments that it doesn’t matter if Haley got some of the details wrong, as it is more important to tell the story.

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    • If I knew it was a book, then I certainly wasn’t aware of its significance until recently when I proposed my North American reading project for next year and bloggers, notably Melanie and Liz, began pushing me to read it.

      I think Haley should have gone with ‘fictionalised’ and avoided arguing with his detractors, but it was probably important to him to stress how truthful the story was.

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  7. Many decades ago on a holiday in The Gambia, we were taken to the Kinte’s village and introduced to one of his supposed ancestors – an ultra wrinkled old woman who clutched a copy of Time magazine whose cover was all about Roots. It was a strange experience even though at that time I wasn’t aware of the controversy about the truth of Hayley’s story.

    Oral history invariably contains fabrications – in our own family my mother insisted that her father was a colour sergeant in the Boer War. My research proved that yes he was in the war, but was never a sergeant let alone a colour sergeant. In fact he was a drummer and a marksman.

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    • Your family must have bigger gaps than mine. My mother’s father was too young for WWI let alone the Boer War. My other grandfather joined up in 1917 and was in the trenches in France (or Belgium) about which I don’t think he ever spoke. I would have liked a romantic story or two. Maybe your grandfather met Breaker Morant, who told a few whoppers himself.

      You can’t blame the old woman for claiming kinship, and I think Kinte was a real family name. Meeting her in that situation would certainly feel like stepping back 200 and more years.

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  8. I haven’t read this or seen the series either. Alex Haley has never inspired me as a writer – and your “The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story” sort of confirms that – but I’ve always felt I should read this. BUT it’s so long. Do I want to give my time to it? For me, Toni Morrison’s Beloved stands out.

    But, wait, isn’t Roots historical fiction? I’ll say no more…. because I guess you are going to say that, like Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, this is different and allowed! Just making my usual point. Haha.

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    • I’ve now read the comments. I always understood this was historical fiction? A novel based on family history, like many (first in particular) novels are to greater or lesser degree. As you have all said, it’s the story that’s important no whether the facts of his partially family are. It’s whether the “story” is true about the times.

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    • I agree with you about Beloved, it is one of the best US works I have read (not a universal opinion, I know).

      I am consistent in my views about Hist.Fic. (and will stick to them). I think it’s time old white guys in particular stopped telling other people’s stories and it’s time we made it clear we are not paying them any attention when they do. I also think it’s time old white guys stopped applying a revisionist lens to their own history, though that is a harder case to make out.

      Haley seems to have been the first African American to imagine his people’s history in this way and so it is important. And that is true too of all Kim Scott’s work (well except the first about his time as a teacher up north).

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      • I will just say one thing, I don’t like generalisations. You have a point of course about “old white guys” but generalising is a dangerous thing to me, in most circumstances.

        Also, I think you are changing the playing field a little because your main argument used to be you only want to read stories written at the time they happened. Now you are saying SOME hist. fic. is ok?!

        And that, I think, is two or three things!

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  9. This is the first book about slavery I read, and I read it in high school. I would like to read this again because I remember loving it, but who knows when that’ll happen. It’s nice to revisit it via your blog post!

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