Roots: The Story of an American Family
Roots: The Story of an American FamilyIntroduction
For Further Study
Roots: The Saga of an American Family became a sensation immediately after its publication in 1976. It was adapted into a popular miniseries, and became one of the most-watched television programs in American history. Two sequels, The Next Generation and The Gift, quickly followed.
Roots appealed to readers of every background: for African American readers, the story inspired pride and a greater understanding of the past; and for readers of other ethnicities, it was a powerful look at an American family's immigrant past. Moreover, Haley's work is widely credited with starting the American genealogy craze.
The continuing controversy over Haley's writing and research methods and the facts of his narrative has not dimmed his achievement. Roots is viewed as a mythic saga of African American history, portraying the ways in which enslaved Africans endured suffering and fought for their place in American society. It has earned a place among the popular classics of American literature and remains a profoundly influential and well-loved book.
In 1921 Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and even after his family moved, he spent his summers there. Haley's mother, Bertha, died when he was only twelve years old. Haley's father, Simon, was a respected professor of agriculture who died just before Roots was completed.
Haley was an indifferent student and eventually joined the Coast Guard. He found he had a talent for writing, and began to submit pieces to magazines. When he left the service at age thirty-seven, he had become the chief journalist for the Coast Guard, a position that had been created for him.
After struggling to make ends meet in his new civilian life, Haley received an assignment from Playboy to interview Miles Davis, the first of what were to become infamous as "the Playboy interviews." Soon afterwards, he began to collaborate with Malcolm X on his autobiography, which after Malcolm X's death in 1965 became a bestseller.
After finishing his book on Malcolm X, Haley began researching his own family history. He traced the names of Tom and Irene Murray, his great-grandparents, and found a griot in Africa with knowledge of the Kinte family.
After twelve years of research, he wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which became an immediate best-seller. It was adapted into the wildly popular television miniseries of the same name. The miniseries was followed by another, Roots: The Next Generation, and the television movies Roots: The Gift, Queen, a drama about Haley's paternal grandmother, and Mama Flora's Family, centering on the life of his maternal great-grandmother.
After the publication of Roots, Haley spent much time lecturing around the country. On a lecture trip to Seattle in 1992, Haley suffered a heart attack and died at age seventy-one.
Roots begins in a small African village named Juffure with the birth of a son to Omoro and Binta Kinte. The boy is named Kunta Kinte in honor of his famous grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, who saved the people of Juffure from a terrible drought.
At the age of five, Kunta graduates to the second kafo. He begins to herd goats and go to school. When he is eight, Kunta goes with his father on a journey to visit the new village his uncles, Janneh and Saloum, have founded. By this time, he has formed a close relationship with his younger brother, Lamin.
At the age of ten, Kunta completes his schooling and goes through his manhood training with his mates. He moves into his own hut and gets his own land to farm. By fifteen, he has built a thriving farm. One day, while hunting for wood with which to make a drum, Kunta is captured by white slavers, known as the toubob.
On the long journey to the United States, the slavers place Kunta in the hold of a ship with dozens of other men. After a harrowing journey across the ocean, Kunta and the surviving men and women arrive in Virginia. Kunta begins plotting his escape.
Almost as soon as he has the strength, he tries to escape; he is quickly recaptured. He tries again three more times. On the fourth attempt, the two white patrollers who catch him cut off half of his foot. He quickly loses consciousness, and wakes to find himself on a new farm.
While he recovers, he is tended by Bell, a young African American slave who will later become his wife. Kunta soon meets Fiddler, a talkative man who teaches him English and tells him about events beyond the plantation. He is given the name "Toby" but he insists to Fiddler that Kunta Kinte is his real name.
Kunta begins to work in the plantation garden. He realizes that he prefers life on the plantation to the certainty of death if he tries to escape, though he knows that this acceptance will come at a terrible price to his soul. After Luther, the driver, is sold for helping a young girl escape, Kunta becomes the new driver for the master of the plantation, a doctor named Master Waller.
His new position makes him a source for information about current events. Fiddler resents Kunta's new position, although it does not destroy their friendship. One Thanksgiving, after he has driven Master Waller to a ball, he meets another African, one of the most joyous experiences of his life. Soon afterward, influenced by Boteng Bediako's words to him, "[s]eeds you's got a-plenty, you jes' needs de wife to plant 'em in," he marries Bell and they have a daughter, Kizzy.
Although Kunta loves his daughter, he does not approve of the friendship she forms with Miss Anne, Master Waller's niece. When he drives Kizzy to Miss Anne's house, he tells her about Africa and teaches her many Mandinka words, something Kizzy will pass on to her descendants. When Miss Anne and Kizzy are teenagers, they begin to drift apart, as Anne starts courting and their difference in status becomes too much to ignore.
Kizzy begins an affair with Noah, another slave, which ends in tragedy when she is caught trying to help Noah escape. Bell and Kunta plead with Master Waller not to sell Kizzy, but she is sold to a man named Tom Lea. She never sees her parents again.
Almost immediately, Tom Lea rapes Kizzy and impregnates her with her only child, a son Lea names George. Although Kizzy initially rejects George, she comes to love him—as do the other blacks in the quarters, Sister Sarah, Malizy, and Uncle Pompey. As soon as George is old enough, Kizzy teaches him about her father, Kunta Kinte.
By the time George is nine, he has begun to "preach," amusing the blacks and whites alike. Tom Lea decides to apprentice George to Uncle Mingo, who cares for Lea's fighting cocks. When he orders George to move in with Mingo, nearer to the birds, Kizzy, in her anger, blurts out that Lea is George's father.
George quickly becomes expert at handling the cocks, and begins to make money from "hack fighting" with other African Americans, using the master's rejected birds to stage side fights. After liaisons with women on neighboring plantations, George marries Matilda.
The religious and responsible Matilda—known as Tilda—quickly becomes part of the slave community on Lea's plantation. As George and Tilda's children grow up, George teaches them about their heritage. George's fourth son is named after Tom Lea, and grows up to become a blacksmith and the leader of the family.
George, Tom, and Tilda try to earn enough money to buy the family's freedom. Unfortunately their entire savings is lost when Tom Lea bets his own and George's money at a cockfight against Lord John Russell. George is sent to England with Lord Russell as part of Lea's payoff on the bet, though Lea promises George his freedom on his return to the United States.
In George's absence, Lea's fortunes continue to decline. He sells Tilda and her children, leaving Kizzy, Malizy, Sarah, and Pompey on the plantation. Lea agrees to Tom's request that he sell the older folks too, but Tom knows it might take years to do so. Uncle Pompey is found dead on the day they are due to leave.
Tom diligently works to save money to buy freedom for his family members. He marries a half-Native American woman, Irene, who brightens the family's lives. They quickly start a family of their own; the youngest is Cynthia, who will grow up to be Alex Haley's grandmother.
When George arrives from England, he gets his freedom from a drunken Tom Lea. He arrives on the Murray plantation for a reunion with his family, but is soon forced to leave because free blacks are not allowed to live in the state.
Soon after, the Civil War begins. Tom works for the Confederate Army, is accused of stealing, and nearly killed. The white boy who actually did the stealing, George Johnson, ends up begging for food from the slave cabins, and is made the overseer by Master Murray. Eventually Johnson endears himself to the slave community by working as hard as they do, and never exhibiting any prejudice. "Ol' George" remains a part of the community even after they are emancipated, which they are in 1865, at the war's end.
The family soon moves to Henning, Tennessee after George meets some whites who need their help building a new town. Tom earns the respect of the whites after he builds a traveling blacksmith shop. The African Americans in Henning build a strong community of their own, and they construct a church that becomes the center of the community.
Tom forbids his daughter Elizabeth from marrying a "high yaller" light-skinned black man. Tilda dies, followed by a heartbroken George. Tom's youngest daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer, who becomes the owner of Henning's only lumber business.
Cynthia and Will Palmer have a daughter, Bertha, who marries Simon Alexander Haley at a wedding that everyone in town—black and white—attends. Bertha and Simon quickly surprise Cynthia and Will with a son, Alex, who will grow up to write Roots.
Alex spends a lot of time in Henning as a child, developing a close relationship with his grandfather, Will Palmer, and his grandmother and great aunts, particularly after his mother dies. After growing up and becoming a writer, Haley decides to research the family stories he so often heard as a child.
Alex meets a linguist who pinpoints the origins of the remembered African words, and he journeys to Africa. He arrives in Juffure to meet a griot who knows of the Kinte family, and learns of a man named Kunta Kinte who went to chop wood for a drum and is never seen again. Haley excitedly tells the griot that in his family story, an African named Kunta is captured after going to chop wood for a drum.
The men of Juffure give thanks to Allah for the return of one who has been long lost. The villagers call Haley "Mr. Kinte," which touches him deeply. Haley decides to write a book that will be a symbolic saga of all people of African descent. After twelve years of research, he writes Roots.
Bell is the cook on Master Waller's plantation. Eventually, she becomes Kunta's wife. When she is in labor, she tells Kunta about the two baby girls who were sold away from her when she was younger. In response, he gives their daughter the name Kizzy (the name means "you stay put").
Bell is sometimes exasperated by her husband's African ways and by his refusal to accept Christianity, but they have a deeply loving relationship based on mutual respect. Like Kunta, Bell is devastated by the sale of Kizzy.
Nyo is Kunta's grandmother, a woman who cares for the children of the village and fears no one. When he leaves on his first trip away from the village, she gives him a saphie charm to ward off evil spirits.
One of the most colorful characters in Roots, Fiddler is "half-free," as he explains to Kunta, because his former master was drowned and he must stay near another master for protection. He plays his fiddle at parties and learns much about current events. He is the one, for example, who tells the other slaves about the Boston Massacre.
Fiddler is garrulous, likes to drink, and is a staunch friend to Kunta. He saves $700 hoping to buy his freedom, but is devastated to learn that Master Waller wants twice that amount to free him. In his anger and pain, he smashes his fiddle, and his playing is never the same after that.
Kizzy's flamboyant son, George is doted on by the adults on the Lea plantation. As he grows up, he becomes the apprentice to Uncle Mingo, and quickly becomes an expert trainer of gamecocks.
Often absent from his family's lives, George is not faithful to his wife, but is in his own way a loving father and husband. He plans to buy his family's freedom with money he's saved from cockfighting, but loses it all when Tom Lea—at George's urging—bets too much in a cockfight. George is forced to travel to England and work for Lord John Russell for several years, returning to find his family has been sold. Lea gives him his freedom, and he finds his family at the Murray plantation, only to be forced to leave the state.
When the family is emancipated in 1865, George rejoins them. The family journeys to Henning, Tennesee. After his wife Matilda's death, George dies from a bad burn.
The author of Roots, Haley is the son of Simon and Bertha Haley. He grows up in Henning hearing stories of his African ancestors and his other relatives. After a long career in the Coast Guard, Haley becomes a writer; he is eventually driven to research his family's past. The high point of his life comes when he hears of his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, while on a journey to Africa. After twelve years of research, Haley publishes Roots.
A railroad employee who becomes a professor, Simon is Alex Haley's father. He is devastated by his wife's early death. Roots ends with an account of his funeral.
Ol' George Johnson
After begging on the Murray plantation, Ol' George is a white man that becomes the overseer. He earns the respect of the slaves by working hard and never exhibiting any prejudice. When the Murrays leave their plantation, he and his wife journey with them to Henning. Ol' George becomes a part of the black community and is subject to the same treatment the blacks suffer.
Binta is the mother of Kunta Kinte and his brothers Lamin, Suwadu, and Madi.
Janneh is Kunta's uncle and the son of Kairaba Kunta Kinte and his first wife. Janneh and his brother Saloum have traveled over much of Africa before founding their own village.
The protagonist of Roots, Kunta Kinte is born in Juffure, Africa, to Binta and Omoro Kinte. Soon followed by three brothers, Kunta grows up according to the traditional ways of his village. By fifteen, he already owns a thriving farm, has traveled within the Gambia, and has made plans for a trip to Mali with his brother Lamin.
- Roots was adapted as a television miniseries in 1977, starring LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen, John Amos, Leslie Uggams, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Edward Asner, Harry Rhodes, and Robert Reed.
- A sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, was shown in 1979 as a miniseries. It covered the lives of Haley's ancestors after the Civil War. A Christmas movie, Roots: The Gift, heralded the return of Kunta Kinte, played by Burton, as well as the Fiddler, played by Louis Gossett, Jr., to network television.
When Kunta goes one morning to chop wood for a drum, he is captured and enslaved by the toubob (white slavers). After a harrowing journey to the African coast, Kunta is placed in the hold of a ship, which arrives in Virginia several weeks later. He attempts to escape from his captors four times, and on the last attempt his foot is cut off by two white patrollers.
While he recovers, he is sold to Master John Waller. Kunta becomes the gardener on the plantation, and later is assigned to be Waller's driver. Gradually Kunta learns English, aided by his friend the Fiddler, who teaches him many English words. Kunta becomes a part of the slave community, though he does not forget his African identity.
Unlike the other blacks on the plantation, Kunta refuses to become a Christian, and continues to pray to Allah. Likewise, he tells the other slaves his name is Kunta Kinte, not Toby, the name given him by his original master. Kunta marries Bell, the plantation cook, and they have a daughter, Kizzy. Kunta teaches Kizzy about his heritage, including his life in Juffure and many Mandinka words. Kunta and Bell are devastated when Kizzy is sold away from them at sixteen, after she has helped her lover Noah escape.
Lamin is Kunta's younger brother. Lamin accompanies Kunta on his trip to find gold.
The father of Kunta Kinte, Omoro is stern but loving. When Kunta loses a goat to a wild animal, he expects his father to punish him. Instead, Omoro tells Kunta that he still bears the scars from trying to save one of his own goats when he was a boy, and, out of his concern for Kunta, he tells him never to run toward a wild animal. Omoro also takes Kunta on his first trip, which gives Kunta a love of traveling.
Saloum is Janneh's brother and Kunta's uncle.
Yaisa is Kunta's grandmother. When he is a child, she cares for him and tells him stories. Her death is Kunta's first experience of loss.
Assimilation and Separatism
Kunta Kinte's story illustrates an enduring theme of African-American life: the conflict between assimilation and separatism. In Africa, Kunta would never have been confronted with this issue, but in the American colonies he is subject to the powerful pressures of assimilation.
Kunta tries to hold onto his African identity, which has always defined him. Yet he is forced to accept a new name. As a slave, his entire social context has been redefined. Kunta cannot fully express himself because he is not free; he has lost his autonomy, which had so defined him as a young man in Africa.
Moreover, Kunta is very lonely away from his home, family, and culture. In order to assuage his loneliness, he reaches out to the other blacks. Eventually Kunta realizes that he prefers life on the plantation to certain death, which he risks if he attempts to escape again.
Topices for Further Study
- Create a your own account of Kunta and Bell's Create a your own account of Kunta and Bell's time on the Waller plantation after their daughter Kizzy is sold. What do you think happened to these characters?
- Research your family tree. How far back can you go? What do you know about your family's history and heritage?
- Research the Haitian slave revolt and Kunta's hero, Toussaint Louverture. How did slave life in Haiti differ from slave life in the American colonies? How did conditions in Haiti make a successful slave revolt possible?
- Examine the central beliefs of the Quakers, who were the first American abolitionists. Did their religious faith and practice influence their commitment to abolitionism? How did other religions in the antebellum period treat the question of slavery?
Yet the knowledge that he has to surrender part of himself to survive is soul crushing, and he realizes that he has lost an essential part of himself. However, Kunta does pass on as much of his African knowledge as he can to his daughter, Kizzy, who in turn passes stories of her father on to succeeding generations, who cherish their African heritage while seeking the American dream of freedom and success.
Coming of Age
The first part of Roots is a coming-of-age story: the young hero, Kunta Kinte, learns how to be an adult. This is not an emotional or intellectual journey so much as it is a process of learning the steps to adulthood. As a young child, Kunta hears stories that teach him his place in the world. When he is older, he has a job taking care of his father's goats and he attends school. At ten, he embarks on his manhood training, formally becoming an adult in his culture, which means he has his own farm and his own hut.
Kunta's continued growth into adulthood is halted by his descent into slavery. He must come of age all over again, learning a new language and culture. However, Kunta can never fully become an adult in a slave society. Like a child, he is forever subject to the whims of others. He has no freedom of movement, and most heartbreakingly, he cannot save his daughter Kizzy from being sold. Although Kunta behaves with an adult sense of responsibility, he is always subject to the humiliating realization that he is treated as less than a man, human being, and adult.
Roots is a story that illustrates the incompatibility of slavery with basic human dignity. The crux of incompatibility is the manner in which individual family members are sold without regard for family ties.
For instance, Kunta and Bell have their daughter sold away from them, and Kizzy suffers the same fate when Tom Lea sells her daughter-in-law and grandchildren from her. It is in these heartrending scenes that the cruelty of treating humans like property is most evident.
Slaves who are sold away from their families never see them again, cannot attend a loved one's funeral, hold a grandchild, or celebrate a son's marriage. Master Waller can order Kunta to drive him to see his family whenever he wants, but when he sells Kizzy, Kunta knows he will never see her again. Although both Master Waller and Master Murray are portrayed as relatively fair owners, the constant threat of separation shows how inhumane slavery is and how their participation in slavery makes them inhumane.
Roots is narrated by a third-person narrator. The device of a third-person narrator enables the text to change settings when the characters do. For example, when Kizzy is sold away from the Waller plantation, the narrative moves with her, recording her actions and thoughts on the Lea plantation. In this way the narrative moves from generation to generation, from Kunta Kinte to Bertha Palmer Haley.
At the very end of the book, the narration switches from the third person to the first person with the arrival of Alex Haley, the book's author. Haley records his own thoughts and actions in his own voice.
The setting of Roots changes as the characters are sold or move. It begins in Juffure, Kunta's village, and then moves to the ship in which Kunta is placed for his journey across the Atlantic.
The narrative then moves to Virginia, on the Waller plantations where Kunta lives. When Kizzy is sold away from the Waller plantation, the setting switches to Tom Lea's plantation in North Carolina. Kizzy's daughter-in-law and grandchildren are later sold to Master Murray in Alamance County, also in North Carolina. After emancipation, the family moves to Henning, Tennessee. At the end of the novel, Alex Haley journeys to Juffure and the narrative comes full circle.
Haley called his book "faction," a mix of fact and fiction. Although Haley creates the thoughts and dialogue of his characters, Roots is meant to be a realistic account of Mandinka culture and slave life in the American colonies and the United States. Haley frequently has his characters refer to historical events, and he relies on oral and written accounts in order to realistically imagine what the lives and thoughts of his characters may have been like.
The plot of Roots becomes more episodic as the story goes on. Haley presents the extraordinary events in the lives of his characters such as birth, marriage, death or sale, or important events like George's biggest gamecock matches or the Fiddler's inability to gain freedom. At times, the narrative skips years in the lives of the characters because not much of consequence occurs.
Haley began writing his novels during the Civil Rights movement, and he researched and wrote Roots at a time when African Americans and European Americans were reevaluating slavery and its legacy. Many Americans believed in what has often been called the "Gone With the Wind version" of slavery, in which enslaved Africans were happy-go-lucky, childlike people who were cared for by benevolent, paternalistic masters. One consequence of the Civil Rights movement was the reevaluation of this myth.
The reality of slavery was much more complex. White masters were certainly invested in the myth of paternalism, which allowed them to justify the enslavement of human beings on the grounds that the relationship of slaves and masters was a reciprocal one—the master took care of his slaves and claimed the fruits of their labor.
Although African Americans opposed this myth, they were often able to use paternalism to demand rights. The slaves came to accept certain things as their due: the right to practice their religion; no work on Sundays; and the right to be adequately fed and sheltered. As Haley's characters do, the slaves also made distinctions between good and bad masters. They may have keenly felt the horrors of slavery in general but recognized that it was easier when they had a humane master.
Family was a very important concept for slaves who were under constant threat of being sold away from their families. A master who sold individual family members was a bad master. After they were emancipated in 1865, many slaves went to great lengths to find lost family members.
Frequently, slaves formed strong communities; they often considered all blacks on the plantation as members of their family, much like those on the Lea plantation do. Children grew up with an extended group of people who would care for them, and, in particular, allowed for children without fathers to experience the care and example of a male role model. Chicken George has this kind of relationship with Uncle Mingo, his mentor in cockfighting.
The romantic myth of slavery held that blacks and whites on plantations formed a kind of family unit. To some degree, this was true, and it can be seen in Matilda's concern for the Murrays after the black Murrays are freed. Yet, like many slaves, Matilda's concern only goes so far—she does not hesitate to move to Henning when she gets the chance.
Eugene Genovese notes that many slaves pretended devotion in order to make their own lives easier, but often the most "devoted" slaves on a plantation were the first to leave after the Civil War. Whites believed that blacks cared for them as if they were family, but even if some did, they chose to assert their own freedom rather than remain with their former masters. Most slaves valued their own kin far more than they did their masters and mistresses. Although proximity can lead to close bonds, most slaves found that it was difficult to love someone with the power to punish, sexually abuse, or sell them, even if that power was not exercised.
Sometimes, the blacks and whites on a plantation were relatives; the coercion or rape by whites of African American women was a common practice. As in Kizzy's situation, even when the man didn't use violence, it was impossible to obtain a slave woman's consent for sexual relations because her owner had the power to make her submit.
It was not uncommon for the children and siblings of a master to also be his slaves, as in Chicken George's case. Although some slaveholders treated their own kin better than the other slaves they owned, often they treated them no differently.
In spite of the hardships of being owned, slaves created a strong culture that enabled them to survive. Chief among their comforts was religion, which enabled them to look forward to freedom in the next world. Their religious practices bound slaves together in a community created by God. Slaves took care of each other, calling each other "brother" and "sister" as at the Lea plantation, and helped each other to survive.
Contrary to the myth, all slaves felt the hard-ships of their slavery; as Tom says, it was sometimes impossible for whites to understand that "being owned by anyone could never be enjoyable." Some slaves did run away successfully, sometimes with the help of whites and free blacks, though Kunta Kinte was never able to.
Most slaves, much like Kunta, decided to stay with their families and plantation communities. Although slaves longed for the rights whites took for granted, they made accommodations to slavery. The slaves' ability to accommodate slavery did not mean that they preferred it to freedom, as many whites insisted. Haley's book, which documents the slaves' yearning for freedom, was an eye-opener for many, blacks and whites alike, who believed the old myths about slavery.
Compare & Contrast
- 1760s: Thousands of enslaved Africans arrive at every port in the American colonies.
1970s: African Americans explore their African heritage.
Today: The term "African American" becomes the most popular term for Americans of African descent. Henry Louis Gates Jr. makes a series of public television programs about African cultures.
- 1760s: Most white people cannot read. Slaves are legally prohibited from learning to read and write.
1970s: In the first full decade of mandated school integration, many black students are bused to white schools in order to integrate these institutions. Busing becomes a controversial issue.
Today: Many African Americans question the merits of integration. A sobering statistic: more black men are in jail than in college.
- 1760s: African Americans are brought over to America as slaves to work on plantations in the South, as well as other areas of the colonies.
1970s: The legacy of slavery and the realities of racism make race relations a controversial subject in America. A dialogue about racial issues is initiated as many artists, writers, cultural figures, and politicians bring race into the foreground of the American consciousness. Many African Americans become interested in their heritage and begin to appreciate the accomplishments of African Americans.
Today: The wounds of slavery have still not healed. Racism still exists, but many laws have been enacted to battle institutionalized racism.
For the most part, Roots was a critical success, although no amount of critical acclaim could have overshadowed its overwhelming popular reception. Critics of Roots have tended to focus on the historical accuracy of the novel, Haley's use of dialect, and the book's emotional power.
Russell Warren Howe asserted that Roots "is crammed with raw violence and makes valid demands on the tearducts of the dourest reader."
Arnold Rampersad contended that Haley's "recreation of Kunta's middle passage journey in the hold of a slave ship is harrowing, the major place in the book where facts are incontrovertibly alchemized into vivid narrative."
Likewise, critics praised Haley's renderings of heart-wrenching scenes like the one where Kizzy is sold away from her parents, about which Paul Zimmerman wrote, "this soapy passage is heart-breaking."
Even critics who have found themselves moved by Roots have taken issue with the historical accuracy of the book. Some have argued that Roots is a mythic account, not a strictly factual one—more of an "unchallengeable testament of symbolic truth."
Nevertheless, other critics have continued to find fault with Haley's historical accuracy. Howe maintained that Kunta would never have identified himself as "African" while still in Africa, nor would he have seen African slavers as traitors. He wrote, "the people of his village, Juffure, did not see all 'Africans' as brothers. Indeed, they had no concept of Africa."
Other critics have maintained that Haley's portrayal of slave life unrealistic. David Herbert Donald contended that "he simply has not done enough reading about the South, about slavery, about American agriculture."
Some critics of Haley have also seen his portrayals of whites as monolithic. Howard Stein saw in Roots "a reversal of white stereotypes, popular and sociological, [which] obscures much of the interpersonal complexity and internal anguish in those both Black and White."
Almost all reviewers and critics of Haley noted his use of black dialect. Rampersad asserted that "Haley's ability to write dialogue and dialect is competent at best, and stilted and artificial far too often." Zimmerman deemed the dialect "authentic," but argued that it "grows wearing and turns ridiculous when forced to convey historical bulletins."
Several critics found fault with Haley's introduction of American historical events into the action of the book. Rampersad called the inclusion "uninteresting" and Donald wrote, "it is awkward that the only way Haley can devise to introduce chronology is to have house slaves rush down to the quarters announcing the latest big-house gossip."
Most critics have noted that Haley's portrayal of Kunta Kinte is by far his strongest characterization. Rampersad called Haley's "presentation of Kunta's unfolding consciousness of the strange new white world of America" "brilliant." Although some critics praised Haley's rendering of life in Juffure, Howe argued that "only when Juffure has become a distant childhood memory, and Kunta is acculturated into slave America, does the character become arrestingly true."
There have been periodic challenges to Haley's research methods and veracity. One critic, Philip Nobile, has argued that because "the uniqueness of Roots lay in the fact that it claimed to be painstakingly researched, and true," inconsistencies between Haley's account and historical records meant that Haley was basically a fraud.
In a rebuttal to this claim, Clarence Page argued that "the difference between fiction and journalism is that journalism deals with 'facts' while fiction deals with 'truths.' If so, it will always be easier for somebody to chip away at Haley's 'facts' than for anybody to deny his 'truths.'"
On the whole, most critics of Roots have tended to agree with Rampersad, who wrote that the book is "a work of extremely uneven texture but unquestionable final success."
Jane Elizabeth Dougherty
Dougherty is a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University. In the following essay, she explores Haley's use of the past in Roots.
When discussing Roots, Haley contended that he was "just trying to give his people a myth to live by." If one definition of myth is "a useable version of the past," Haley's saga certainly succeeds in overturning other myths about the Black American experience and giving African Americans a proud history.
Haley's book must be seen, at least in part, as a corrective to prevailing American myths about slavery and about Africa. Some critics have called Roots a counter-narrative to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, which depicted happy-go-lucky, childlike slaves with no connection to their African heritage.
Instead, Haley presents a harrowing account of the devastating toll slavery took on American blacks and the cultural strategies they used to endure it, an account which is intended to give African American readers a useable version of their shared past.
Haley concludes Roots by asserting that he set out to write a book not only about his own family's history, but one that would serve as 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."
Haley assumes this task in part because he recognizes how fortunate his family is compared with many other African American families. Most African Americans cannot trace their ancestry back to a specific African ancestor because of the dislocations of slavery.
For example, in Haley's book, Bell has had two girls before Kizzy, both of whom were sold away from her. Neither girl would have grown up knowing who her parents were, nor where she had come from. Fortunately, Haley's family is able to stay together and they can pass their story on to their descendants. In addition, the Haley family takes pride in their African past, and they want to pass their story on because it says something about who they are: in their stories of their ancestor "Kintay," their hope for freedom stays alive.
It was long held by apologists for slavery that the Middle Passage made by enslaved Africans across the Atlantic effectively erased their identities. This tabula rasa, or blank slate theory, excused the social control slaveholders sought to exercise over their slaves by making slavery "paternalistic" in nature. In other words, it was believed that because their former identity was erased that Africans had to be treated like children.
In the myth of paternalism, as Eugene Genovese notes, the master became the slaves' father, caring for them because they could not care for themselves. For the myth of paternalism to operate effectively, the African past of the slaves had both to be destroyed and denigrated. The family of master, mistress, children, and slaves had to replace the African families left behind; for paternalism to work effectively, slaves had to identify with their masters, not their African forebears.
Africa represented a powerful independent source of identity that had to be eliminated. Moreover, because African cultural practices were often adapted as survival strategies, and were used to undermine the all-encompassing power of slavery, it was felt that they had to be resisted, denigrated, and destroyed.
Through the character of Kunta Kinte, Haley offers a powerful counter-story to the myth of the tabula rasa. Kunta carries all his African experiences and expectations across the ocean with him in spite of the agony he endures on the passage. Indeed, he has a greater experience of his African-ness on the ship than he would have on the land, where, as Russell Warren Howe notes, he would have identified with clan, village, region, and religion before identifying as African.
What Do I Read Next?
- Song of Solomon (1977), Toni Morrison's lyrical novel, recounts the story of a black man searching for his roots.
- Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter (1998) is a fictionalized account of the saga of John Brown narrated by his son, Owen Brown.
- Praisesong for the Widow (1983), written by Paule Marshall, presents a middle-aged black woman's journey into her own past.
- Chinua Achebe's classic novel, entitled Things Fall Apart (1958), chronicles life in an African village.
Kunta's experience of his African identity is forged by the suffering he shares with the other men—all Africans—in the hold of the ship and by their common desire to resist the men who hold them there—all Europeans. The men comfort each other, pass on information, and plan their resistance. Through these communications, they become a community. Haley writes:
The relaying of any information from whatever source seemed about the only function that would justify their staying alive. When there was no news, the men would talk of their families, their villages, their professions, their farms, their hunts. And more and more frequently there arose disagreements on how to kill the toubob, and when it should be tried. Some of the men felt that, whatever the consequences, the toubob should be attacked the next time they were taken up on deck. Others felt that it would be wiser to watch and wait for the best moment. Bitter disagreements began to flare up. One debate was suddenly interrupted when the voice of an elder rang out, "Hear me! Though we are of different tribes and tongues, we must remember that we are the same people! We must be as one village, together in this place!"
Although the men forge a kind of pan-African community born of their suffering in the hold, Kunta retains his tribal identification. He stops speaking to his Wolof neighbor when he realizes that he is a pagan, and even in the American colonies, he instinctively identifies other blacks according to their tribes.
The American blacks have little time for what they call Kunta's "heathen Africanisms"; when Kunta tells his wife Bell that she is like a Mandinka woman, the highest compliment he can think of to pay her, Bell takes it as an insult. The American blacks have been taught to denigrate their own African heritage and to identify with the European culture of their masters; in fact, Kunta is astonished to see black slaves obediently following orders instead of rising in revolt.
Clearly, being forced to give up their African identities is one step toward identifying with the slave system; Kunta is named "Toby" as a symbolic attempt to rid him of his old identity and replace it with a slave identity. To the end of his life, Kunta will resist the master's attempts to separate him from his own identity, and insist that his name is Kunta, not Toby.
Although they denigrate their own African heritage, the American blacks have familiar practices. Kunta often notices how black American cultural practices are like African ones. Haley writes:
And Kunta had been reminded of Africa in the way that black women wore their hair tied up with strings into very tight plaits—although African women often decorated their plaits with colorful beads. And the women of this place knotted cloth pieces over their heads, although they didn't tie them correctly. Kunta saw that even some of these black men wore their hair in short plaits, too, as some men did in Africa.
Kunta also viewed Africa in the way that black children here were trained to treat their elders with politeness and respect. He saw it in the way that mothers carried their babies with their plump little legs straddling the mothers' bodies. He noticed even such small customs as how the older ones among these blacks would sit in the evenings rubbing their gums and teeth with the finely crushed end of a twig, which would have been lemongrass root in Juffure. Although he found it difficult to understand how they could do it here in toubob land, Kunta had to admit that these blacks' great love of singing and dancing was unmistakably African.
Clearly, even the American blacks who denigrate their African heritage are engaging in cultural practices that are unmistakably African. These cultural practices bind the community together in a shared African American culture, which is separate from that of the master. These enduring Africanisms give the lie to the theory of tabula rasa, and thus loosen the grip of paternalism: the slaves maintain separate identities from their masters, building a powerful communal culture.
By far the most important element in the culture of the slaves is their religion. When Kunta goes to his first black Christian religious service, he is "astonished at how much it reminded him of the way the people of Juffure sat at the Council of Elders' meetings once each moon." In spite of this realization, Kunta remains true to his Muslim faith.
Yet for his descendants, Christianity represents a way to hold onto the idea of freedom. As Genovese notes, slaves identified with the sufferings of Jesus, and expected that one day a new Moses would lead them to the Promised Land of freedom. Likewise, Kunta's descendants expect to see their lost relatives in the next world, which helps them bear terrible separations in this one.
Genovese notes that many masters tried to control their slaves' religious expressions, but didn't succeed. They were more successful in their attempts to destroy and denigrate African culture. In particular, they sought to destroy those aspects of African culture that could be used against them. It was routine for tribesmen to be sold to different farms, lest they be able to plot insurrection or escape in their own languages.
Likewise, Kunta noted that the drumtalk that was a constant feature of life in African villages had been stilled in black communities in the American colonies. Drumming was made often made illegal in Southern communities because slaveholders thought it "agitated" their slaves, often not realizing that drumming was actually a way of communicating.
Kunta also noticed that American blacks had secret ways of communicating, much like the "sireng kato" language of his village. These secret methods of communication included special handshakes and ways of talking and, most famously, the secret messages in slave spirituals. For these reasons alone, the masters encouraged the destruction and denigration of African culture.
This denigration of African culture is a common feature of American life even today; most Americans, both black and white, are ignorant of the history, diversity, and magnificence of African life. Moreover, many blacks do not have direct access to their African heritage because of the dislocations of slavery. For many readers, Roots was their first chance to see an African past which they could admire.
As Chester Fontenot maintains, "this book stands as the first thorough attempt by an Afro-American to come to terms with his African heritage." Haley offers a powerful myth of a beautiful African culture and its enduring influence in black American life, and thus gives black American readers a profound source of pride. As Haley asserts, Roots is a myth his people can use.
Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Taylor discusses the enormous success and popularity of Roots in the following essay, paying particular attention to the feeling of connection to the past that it offered so many rootless people.
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Source: Helen Taylor, "'The Griot from Tennessee': The Saga of Alex Haley's Roots," in Critical Quarterly, Vol.37, No.2, Summer 1995, pp. 46-62.
Michael Steward Blayney
In this essay, Blayney argues that prior to Roots white America did not perceive African Americans as having the same "noble" stature that had been accorded Native Americans.
Time Magazine called it "Haley's Comet." Black readers hailed it as the most important event in civil rights history since the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama. In January 1977 Roots was proclaimed the most popular television program in the medium's history, with the last of eight consecutive episodes reaching an unprecedented 90,000,000 viewers. Roots attracted a larger audience than such all-time favorites as Gone with the Wind and the 1977 Superbowl. Spurred by the television success, Alex Haley's novel went into fourteen printings after its initial publication in October 1976. During and after the nights it was telecast long lines formed outside bookstores displaying Roots. Those too impatient to wait broke into bookstores to obtain copies of the bestseller. Haley was instantly transformed from writer into celebrity. The author's appearance at book parties frequently produced mile-long lines. Haley was deluged with fan mail, and he reportedly received about one thousand letters per week. Meanwhile, the American Broadcasting Company announced plans to air Roots Two, a production for 1979 which concentrated on the adventures of Haley's ancestors since the Civil War. Juffure, the village of Haley's famous African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, rapidly became a shrine for boatloads of tourists, and Gambian President Dawda Jwara declared the village a national monument. In South Africa, Roots threatened to spark an international incident when the white government there openly voiced its fears that the showing of Roots by the United States Information Service might provoke race riots. Meanwhile, the novel has been translated into twelve languages and made available to twenty-eight countries. The mini-series has been broadcast in thirty-two countries.
Despite the frequent criticism of Roots as a shallow melodrama, it has been granted academic respectability in 276 colleges and universities which adopted the novel as a standard part of the curriculum in black history. At least one Afro-American history text boasts Alex Haley as its consultant. Clearly, Roots is a significant phenomenon in American popular culture.
The almost universal acclaim the broadcast of Roots received startled its creators. In producing a period piece of slavery from the slave's perspective, ABC executives took a high-risk gamble. They feared that white audiences might refuse to watch a twelve-hour drama in which whites were consistently portrayed as villains against a group of heroic blacks. One reason well-known television personalities like Loren Greene and Edward Asner were given parts was to counter a possible negative white reaction. Despite its heavily charged racial theme, Roots enjoyed a popularity rare for any television presentation. While one can easily understand why blacks hailed Haley as a "savior," Roots' popularity among its larger white audience requires further explanation. It seems likely that Roots failed to appreciably affect white attitudes, and perhaps no novel or television program could hope to accomplish such an enormous undertaking.
Why then did the Roots phenomenon succeed in capturing the white imagination? To better understand the appeals of Roots for white Americans, we should consider the noble savage, that long-held romantic image of the American Indian. From the time of the earliest American settlements, whites, when not viewing Indians as agents of Satan, have frequently perceived the red man as living in harmony with nature, possessing deep spiritual wisdom and extraordinary courage. By contrast, blacks have been pictured as either comic Sambos or fiendish devils in literature and popular culture. Even the recent departure from some of the more vicious stereotypes since the end of the Second World War has failed to produce a black hero the stature of Hiawatha or Chief Joseph. It was not until the publication of Roots that Africans and the descendants of Africans for the first time became heroes in the tradition of the noble savage. The concept of the noble African is central to an understanding of Roots' appeal to whites, because unintentionally, both novel and broadcast provided whites with a safe Negro. Just as popular treatment of the legendary noble red man fails to address the contemporary situation of native Americans, so Kunta Kinte was palatable to white audiences precisely because of his failure to remind whites of the plight of contemporary blacks.
From the first white contacts with the New World, the American Indian has been romanticized. Christopher Columbus viewed Indians as innocent, kind, intelligent, and generous. Rationalistic philosophers of the eighteenth century invented the term noble savage as part of a larger attack upon the Christian doctrine of the fall of man. For these European philosophers, the Indian became an idealized "child of nature," not the savage fiend and child of the devil depicted by American frontiersmen. The noble savage experienced a primitive, unburdened existence in the wilderness free from tyrannical government and class distinctions. His simplicity enabled him to live in harmony with nature and his fellows. He was articulate, intelligent, and handsome. Being freer than civilized man, the noble savage was also happier. He was a stranger to the greed, materialism, and pretense of white civilization.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson praised the political system of American Indians as having very little external coercive power. Since laws of nature were part of their normal condition, man-made laws did not need to be imposed from without. Jefferson also admired Indians because their society possessed no artificial class distinctions, and he speculated on the possible racial amalgamation between Indians and whites. On the other hand, Jefferson opposed any future racial union between whites and blacks. For Jefferson, noble savages were found only in America. For white Americans like Jefferson, much of the Indian's nobility grew out of his integration with nature. Throughout the early years of discov-ery and settlement, many Americans perceived America in Edenic terms. In a similar way, Europeans portrayed the new world as a Garden of Eden, a paradise on earth. Those who held the garden image also intended to view the Indian as a noble savage.
The noble Indian spoke with an eloquence and a wisdom few white men possessed. Chief Logan's famous speech to Lord Dunmore, for example, was used in McGuffey's fourth-and fifth-grade readers in the 1850s and 1860s. The speech taught white children Christian ethics and further served to idealize the American Indian.
No early American writer popularized the myth of the noble savage more than James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper's Leatherstocking tales offered nineteenth century readers two types of Indians: the savage fiend and the noble savage. While in no way minimizing the importance of the Indian as the devil in Cooper's works, characters like Satanstoe, Uncas, Chingachgook, Hard-Heart, and Rivenoak all perpetuated the noble savage myth in the popular mind. Cooper gave his noble Indians physical beauty and a keen intelligence. Like the slaves in Roots, Cooper's Indians looked backward to an earlier age of glory. As a species already vanishing, at least some Indians could be sentimentally regarded. The hero Chingachgook, for example, emerges as a "brave and just minded Delaware," respected by his "fallen people." White civilization's depravity ultimately corrupts Cooper's Indian. The white man brings firewater which disrupts the Indian's harmonious integration with nature.
Unlike their image of the American Indian, the image of Africans held by whites was conceived in almost wholly negative terms. Sixteenth century Europeans likened Africans to the apes that inhabited the Dark Continent. For Elizabethan Englishmen, a fine line existed between black people and anthropoid apes like the chimpanzee ("orangoutangs"). Like apes, Africans were though of as lewd, wanton savages devoid of humanity. Similarly, Europeans imagined Africa a hostile, forbidding place inhabited by dangerous animals and an appropriate home for uncivilized men. Unlike America, the black man's home was never seen in idyllic paradisic terms. The black man was a savage, without nobility and a Garden of Eden. Perhaps for these reasons, Negroes were therefore fit only for the ignominious burden of slavery.
Despite his eighteenth century rationalist convictions, Thomas Jefferson found it impossible to place blacks on the same level, either intellectually or physically, with whites. Jefferson rejected environmental arguments for the intellectual equality of the races. Jefferson reluctantly concluded that Africans were therefore incapable of future intellectual growth. He favored African colonization, not integration, as the most desirable alternative to slavery, and opposed any future racial union between blacks and whites. Jefferson attributed the peculiar body odor of blacks to their skin glands, which secreted more, and to their kidneys, which secreted less than whites. Even on a purely aesthetic level, Jefferson chose red and white rather than black as nature's most beautiful colors.
James Fenimore Cooper's novels juxtaposed blacks to Indians. In The Redskins, the Littlepages' English servant observes that "the nigger grows uglier and uglier every year,… while I do think sir, that the Indian grows 'andsomer and 'andsomer." Cooper believed that the black's intellect was also inferior to the Indian's, and because Indians possessed an integrity and independence surpassing blacks, the two were never natural allies. The common enemy, the white man, in no way made for common interest between the two races. For Cooper, the lack of nobility in the black man's character meant he could never rise to the level of the noble savage. The Indian's death provided another source of nobility over the African, for even though the red man was destroyed physically, he endured spiritually while the black man merely survived on a physical level.
White Americans during the nineteenth century often viewed the Negro as entertaining, but never as noble. Negroes figured largely in the popular culture of the early republic. The nineteenth century minstrel show, which accurately mirrored the common man's thinking, portrayed blacks as comic Sambo figures. The minstrel show served important cultural and psychological needs for their white audiences. Minstrels created "a ludicrous Northern Negro character that assured audience members that however confused, bewildered, and helpless they felt, someone was much worse off than they were." Minstrel shows provided a non-threatening view of race at a time when race threatened the Union, while at the same time helping to justify racism.
In the twentieth century, a new form of popular culture, the motion picture, continued to deny black nobility. David Wark Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) was in many respects the first modern motion picture. This hundred-thousand dollar spectacle achieved unparalleled heights of screen realism. Grifith boasted "magnificent settings, gorgeous costumes, thousands of actors and smiles, tears and thrills." In The Birth of a Nation the Negro was portrayed as a brute whose demonic instincts were unleashed with emancipation. Freedom for blacks during Reconstruction ended in tragedy as freedmen attempted to soil the purity of white womanhood. Only the dramatic intervention of the Ku Klux Klan at the film's climax saved the white South and reconciled the two sections.
With the advent of the talkies, negative black stereotypes were heard as well as seen. Two popular types in the 1930s were "coons" and "Toms." "Coons" were lazy, good for nothing and shiftless, and were constantly getting into trouble. The best known "coon" of the 1930s was Stepin Fetchit, who became the most successful Negro in Hollywood. Stepin Fetchit was laziness and ignorance personified. His performances followed in the tradition of the nineteenth century minstrel characters, for the characters he played lacked humanity, much less nobility.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the most famous "Tom" of the era, frequently co-starred with Shirley Temple. Unlike Stepin Fetchit, "Uncle Billy" was well-mannered and always knew his place. Robinson delighted Shirley by dancing for her. He was both intelligent and reliable. For white audiences, he represented a safe, if hardly noble, Negro.
By the end of the thirties the black Hollywood image underwent considerable improvement. Negro characters in Gone with the Wind (1939) were a far cry from those in Birth of a Nation. In Gone with the Wind Hattie McDaniel turned in an exceptionally strong performance as the mammy of the O'Hara household. As both counselor and manager, she was much more than a fawning servant. McDaniel became the first black to receive an Oscar, an honor that divided liberals, some of whom objected to her demeaning servant role. Yet even those who found her role demeaning found it difficult to criticize her Oscar. Gone with the Wind represented a turning point in which Negroes began to take more attractive roles in films. Like McDaniel, however, most continued in traditionally inferior roles.
Despite improvement during and following the Second World War, the black image in American film remained fundamentally dissimilar from white perceptions of Indians as noble savages. War against a racist power necessitated opposition to racism at home. Typical of the improved image was Dooley Wilson as Sam, the piano player in Casablanca (1942). Following the war Home of the Brave (1949) became the first movie to attack white bigotry openly. In Lost Boundaries (1948) whites rejected a light-skinned negro family that passes as white in a small New England community. Their race is finally discovered, and white friends turn against them until the town's minister persuades the community to accept the family.
In the 1950s and the 1960s individual stars and movies with racial themes won white audience approval, but none captured the white imagination like Roots. Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Richard Roundtree, and Pamela Greer enjoyed widespread popularity among whites, but none of these stars performed in any motion picture whose popularity matched Roots.
Source: Michael Steward Blayney, "Roots and the Noble Savage," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter 1986, pp. 1-17.
David Herbert Donald, in a review in Commentary, December, 1976.
Chester J. Fontenot, "Radical Upbringing," in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1977, pp. 98-9.
Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Vintage, 1974.
Russell Warren Howe, "An Elusive Past," in The New Leader, January 3, 1977, pp. 23-4.
Philip Nobile, "Was Roots One of the Great Literary Hoaxes?" in The Toronto Star, March 8, 1993, p. A13.
Clarence Page, "Alex Haley's Enduring Truths," in The Courier Journal, March 11, 1993, p. 8A.
Arnold Rampersad, in a review in The New Republic, Vol. 175, No. 23, December 4, 1976, pp. 23-4, 26.
Pascoe Sawyers, "Black and White," in The Guardian, September 13, 1997, p. 6.
Howard F. Stein, "In Search of 'Roots': An Epic of Origins and Destiny," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. XI, No. 1, Summer, 1977, pp. 11-17.
Paul D. Zimmerman, "In Search of a Heritage: Roots," in Newsweek, Sept. 27, 1976, p. 94.
Russell Adams, "An Analysis of the Roots Phenomenon in the Context of American Racial Conservatism," in Presence Africaine, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 125-40.
This article explores the factors that contributed to the success of Roots.
Helen Davis Othow, "Roots and the Heroic Search for Identity," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March, 1983, pp. 311-24.
Chavis describes Haley's book as the embodiment of the "feverish search for meaning in an alien universe."
Elizabeth Stone, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us, Penguin, 1989, 254 p.
Stone interviews one hundred people and records their family histories.
Tommie Morton Young, in Afro American Genealogy Sourcebook, Afragenda, 1998, 199 p.
Young provides a multitude of genealogical resources for those interested in exploring their own genealogy.