Alex Haley Essay - Haley, Alex (Vol. 8)

Haley, Alex (Vol. 8)

Haley, Alex 1921–

An American journalist, essayist, and historical novelist, Haley first earned his reputation as a prominent black writer in the mid-1960s with the publication of his The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley's next major effort, Roots, required twelve years of intense personal research in the United States and Africa, and it is the enormously successful chronicle of his own family's history from slavery to freedom.

The world of ["Roots"] begins in Gambia West Africa in 1750 with the birth of one of [Haley's] ancestors, Kunta Kinte, born of Omoro and Binta Kinte, of the Mandinka tribe, and of the Muslim faith. In the re-creation of this time and place, Haley succeeds beautifully where many have failed. He must have studied and sweated hard to achieve such ease and grace, for he would appear to have been born in his ancestral village and to be personally acquainted with everybody there. The public ceremonies of this people are revealed as a precise and coherent mirror of their private and yet connected imaginations. (p. 1)

We know that Kunta will be kidnapped, and brought to America, and yet, we have become so engrossed in his life in the village, and so fond of him, that the moment comes as a terrible shock. We, too, would like to kill his abductors. We are in his skin, and in his darkness, and, presently, we are shackled with him, in his terror, rage, and pain, his stink, and the stink of others, on the ship which brings him here. It can be said that we know the rest of the story—how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don't think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn't turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country. Alex Haley's taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage, but this book is also an act of love, and it is this which makes it haunting.

The density of the African social setting eventually gives way to the shrill incoherence of the American one. Haley makes no comment on this contrast, there being indeed none to make, apart from that made by the remarkable people we meet on these shores, who, born here, are yet striving, as the song puts it, "to make it my home."

The American setting is as familiar as the back of one's hand. Yet, as Haley's story unfolds, the landscape begins to be terrifying, unutterably strange and bleak, a cloud hanging over it day and night. Without ever seeming to, and with a compassion as haunting as the sorrow songs which helped produce him, Haley makes us aware of the disaster overtaking not the black nation, but the white one….

"Roots" is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one—the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can't but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. (p. 2)

James Baldwin, "How One Black Man Came to Be an American," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1976, pp. 1-2.

It was in the midst of [the] mass assertion of black/African identity that a remarkable literary claim made the international press: Alex Haley, a writer who was greatly admired for his meticulous rendering of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, actually had traced his ancestry back to Juffure, a village in The Gambia, to the very captive slave who started Haley's family in America….

It was a unique claim…. The odds were so against it. More than 40 million Africans had been dragged off the Continent over a period of 300 years. The African diaspora now spread clear around the globe…. Had the claim been made by anyone with a reputation less than that of Alex Haley, it would have been dismissed out of hand as an inevitable fanciful claim of the sort born in cultural revolution. And when years passed without anything between hard covers, tongues wagged and jokes were common about Haley's claim.

Now, a decade after his story first made the papers, Alex Haley's Roots is a reality. The book is here to be judged for itself. I picked it up in suspicion and put it down so overcome by the power of the narrative that my first reaction was to wonder how much it mattered whether every detail of Haley's lineage had been precisely established. Overwhelmingly, this is the story of how Africans became Afro-Americans; the connection Haley seeks to make gives the narrative a certain tension that would be difficult to maintain otherwise, but I found myself not really caring as much about that as about an extremely engaging young Mandingo named Kunta Kinte who was stolen from the outskirts of his village at the age of 17 and shipped across the middle passage. I have read a bit of village life and about the middle passage, but never has either been brought to full-life scale as in the masterful hands of Alex Haley. And by the end, as he tells how he made all the connections necessary to establish that Kunta Kinte was his ancestor, I found myself persuaded of his claim. I would have preferred a book loaded with footnotes and other documentation, but that is not this book. I am told … that Haley's next book, The Search for Roots, will provide us with detailed resource material. What is surprising to me now is how much less important that documentation became as I moved through the story of seven generations of a family. I found myself disturbed by something, but lack of documentation wasn't it.

I kept wondering whether there are large number of black people in America today who feel they would like to trace their genealogy as Haley has—to find the place where their ancestors were held as slaves, and work their way back and back until they came to some village in Dahomey or Ghana or Senegal and looked some villager in the face in the conviction that but for the brutal advent of slavery, this might be immediate kin. The reason that question disturbs me is the awareness of the pain so many people feel at the realization of how much of their past has been—and continues to be—robbed. (p. 1)

Haley's accomplishment is a far-fetched dream for practically all Afro-Americans. We are African villagers no more, but part of a unique formation in history, the Afro-American people.

Just as Haley says, we began on the slender shoulders of such as Kunta Kinte…. Very few of those in the African diaspora, whether Afro-Cuban or Afro-American, have been able to thread back through the maze to a specific point of origin. Since that number is so small, Haley means for this book to stand as all our story, a summary of all our experience, not just the story of his own family. And so it does, while taking nothing away from those of us who cannot duplicate the feat. The more important point is that black Americans and all Americans will find in Kunta Kinte the personalization of a slavery whose dimensions are so monstrous that its full meaning can be only approximated through the moving account of one person. It is in that sense that this book is bound to have a lasting impact on American culture. It was worth the wait. (p. 2)

Robert C. Maynard, "The Making of an American," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 26, 1976, pp. 1-2.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family is [Alex] Haley's memorial to [the] past. (p. 109)

[The book] most closely resembles a historical novel, a form that Haley does not seem to have studied too carefully. His narrative is a blend of dramatic and melodramatic fiction and fact that wells from a profound need to nourish himself with a comprehensible past. Haley recreates the Old South of mansions and slave shacks, fully aware that chains and blood ties were at times indistinguishable. The book dramatically details slave family life—birth, courtship, marriage ("jumping the broom"), death and the ever present fear of being sold off and having to leave your kin. (p. 109, K11)

In general, the more verified facts that Haley has to work with, the more wooden and cluttered his narrative. Yet the story of the Americanization of the Kinte clan strikes enough human chords to sustain the book's cumulative power. Haley's keen sense of separation and loss, and his ability to forge a return in language, override Roots' considerable structural and stylistic flaws. The book should find a permanent home in a century teeming with physical and spiritual exiles. (p. K15)

R. Z. Sheppard, "African Genesis," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), October 18, 1976, pp. 109, K11, K15.

When asked whether and how true Roots is to life, Haley is reported to have responded that it is "factional," a strange term that suggests that the primary incidents and historical moments are true, but that in reconstructing the emotions of his personalities in the grip of their fates, in supposing their motives, indeed, in filling their mouths with conversation, he has done the best he could, as other writers of historical fiction try to do.

Roots is not precisely a historical novel, because the main carriers of the story were indeed true people. Although it is clear that Haley has few specific facts about the three Africans, Omoro, Binta, and Kunta, even they are more than exclusive constructions of the author's imagination. Nevertheless there is as much fiction as fact in Roots, some of it designed to life the spirit, some to amuse, and all of it to tell the collective story of a people. Roots hasn't the plot of a novel but in following the generations it has instead the spirit as well as the form of a saga….

Haley has no trouble beginning his saga, and getting it moving. But the problem of characterizing the individual people of so many generations, of making more than a score of persons come alive in the special circumstances of two vastly different cultures, and over a span of two centuries, challenges Haley the artist, and taxes Haley the historian. There are long sections in the book that will cause the historian to call Roots fiction, when literary critics may prefer to call it history rather than judge it as art. For Roots is long and ambitious, and all of its parts are not as good as the best parts.

The splendid opening section on African life is beautifully realized. It is an artistic success. But that the real Juffure of two hundred years ago was anything like the pastoral village Haley describes is not possible. (p. 3)

Conveying the passage of time becomes a serious problem, both aesthetically and historically, after Kunta Kinte reaches America. Haley writes with power, and often with lyrical effect, but his feeling for the probable talk of slaves is often marred by a too-exposed mechanical purpose. He puts these conversations up to little lessons in history that are more distracting than informative. He has difficulty showing how the information picked up at the white man's dinner table, or from the driver's seat of the massa's buggy, or from a surreptitiously read newspaper, is relayed in the kitchen and the quarters….

Kunta Kinte's own life poses no such problems about time for Haley, for the process of assimilation is one of the strongest and subtlest themes in Roots. For the miseries of Kunta in the land of "toubob" (white man), the reader will not only feel a vivid sympathy; he may even laugh a little at the incomprehensible ways of Kunta's captors…. Especially effective is the inner contempt the African hero (for that is his role) feels for those of his color who shuffle and scrape when they say "Yassuh, Massa." Those who had learned this manner of dealing with power returned Kunta's contempt with a predictable suspicion, for they saw in the African's wild ways the courage of desperation, and its dangers.

It is all convincing, for we are made to feel that inevitably this is how things happened….

But the account of the external conditions in which Kunta lives in Virginia before, during, and after the American Revolution is disconcerting. The reader of any basic book on Southern history will be startled to learn that Kunta was put to work picking cotton in northern Virginia before the Revolution (or ever, really), under the whip of an overseer, in fields loaded with the white stuff "as far as Kunta could see." Surely this is Alabama in 1850, and not Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in 1767….

These anachronisms are petty only in that they are details. They are too numerous, and chip away at the verisimilitude of central matters in which it is important to have full faith….

Haley's sense of historical setting becomes more surefooted in the pre-Civil War decades, and after Reconstruction, when the whole family moves under the guidance of the steady blacksmith Tom to Henning, Tennessee…. Sagas must have many persons and many stories, many deeds. But there should be one dominant soul, and in Roots it is Kunta Kinte, whose gloomy intelligence inspires the action through three-fifths of the work. Kunta's final departure from the book (and not by death) is its most poignant moment, and the subtlest statement on the finality of slavery that this reviewer has read. (p. 4)

Willie Lee Rose, "An American Family," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), November 11, 1976, pp. 3-4, 6.

Prior to its publication date, [Roots] was billed as "an epic work destined to become a classic of American literature." Upon a perusal of Roots, it is clear that this advance judgment was not far off track. Haley has managed to weave incredible details about West Africa during the 1750s—the cultural habits, values, rituals, and myths of the people—into a narrative. This mode of historical recall seems to be as valid as any other one might think of, but it does raise some questions: How much of the narrative is historically accurate? How much of it is the result of Haley's fictional plotting? These questions vary in importance, depending, of course, on the perspective of the reader—that is, whether the reader is interested in the book as historical record of Haley's lineage, or if he is interested in it as a symbolic attempt to capture the lost heritage of Afro-Americans. Insofar as I am concerned, the first perspective is not a valuable one, as it shares in common many of the problems which surround the search for the historical Jesus. The latter vantage point, however, comes closer to seeing Roots in terms of its significance to Afro-Americans, to cultural historians, and to American civilization.

Within this latter perspective, it is important to take into account the manner in which Haley chooses to tell the story. He borrows techniques from the novelist—setting, narrative voice, flashback—to give his story imaginative form. Specifically, Haley tells the story from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This gives the narrative an authoritative posture, and brings the reader closer to an intimate understanding of the culture of West Africa in 1750, of the physical and psychological problems incurred by, first, kidnapping Africans, second, transporting them in an inhumane manner across the Atlantic Ocean, and, finally, selling them into slavery. This perspective also allows Haley to interweave historical facts together with fictionalizations in fluid prose. There is one unfortunate side effect in all of this: When Haley finally moves the reader through the various generations of his clan to the point where he is born …, his narrative voice shifts suddenly from omniscient narrator to that of first-person participant. The last two chapters of the book relate the process by which Haley became intimately involved with the project, and by which he came to discover the story he tells in the book. This sudden change affects the unity of the story; the narrative may be construed at this point as discontinuous and sketchy. That there are one hundred and twenty chapters in Roots adds to this problem.

Yet these objections to Haley's process are not enough to devalue Roots as history, as literature, or otherwise. This book stands as the first thorough attempt by an Afro-American to come to terms with his African heritage. Its significance to scholars and critics is that it solidifies the view that African oral traditions are rigid cultural forms; that they are valid historical records. (pp. 98-9)

Chester J. Fontenot, "Radical Upbringing," in Prairie Schooner (© 1977 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1977, pp. 98-9.