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
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.