Roots Essay - Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley

Introduction

Roots: The Saga of an American Family Alex Haley

(Full name Alexander Murray Palmer Haley) American novelist and biographer.

The following entry presents criticism on Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976).

Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) is an historical novel that purports to trace the African American ancestry of its author, Alex Haley, back to a tiny village in Gambia, West Africa. Within two years of its publication, more than eight million copies of the book had been printed in twenty-six languages, and Roots had won 271 awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1976, the volume also inspired a generation of ancestor-seeking Americans and led to one of the most ambitious and most-watched television productions ever undertaken.

Biographical Information

Roots author Alex Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, the eldest of three sons. His father was a college professor; his mother a schoolteacher. Haley grew up in the small town of Henning, Tennessee, where his early memories reportedly included stories from elderly relatives about an African ancestor who refused to respond to the slave name “Toby.” The tales of his childhood eventually inspired the search for his past that led to the writing of Roots. Although Haley's reputation in the literary world rests primarily upon this much-acclaimed historical novel, he is also remembered for writing Malcolm X's “as told to” autobiography in 1965. Haley wrote many articles for popular magazines, appeared on countless television shows, and lectured throughout the country until his death in 1992.

Plot and Major Characters

Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinkan from the small village of Juffure, Gambia, in West Africa, and his American descendants. Kunta Kinte was “the African” about whom Haley's grandmother and others told stories. Roots imaginatively recreates the life of Haley's ancestor in Africa, his capture into slavery in 1676, and his experiences as a slave in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Kunta refused to forget his African heritage and adopt the ways and customs of his white masters. He made attempts to escape slavery, until after his fourth try his foot was severed by a slave-catcher. He later married Bell, the slave cook in the big house on the plantation, and they had a daughter named Kizzy. Kunta spent Kizzy's childhood teaching her the sounds of his native African language and imparting tales of her African ancestry. At the age of fifteen, Kizzy was sold to a master whose rape of his new young slave resulted in the birth of the third generation, George, who in turn learned of his African heritage through the stories of his mother. This was the most famous of Haley's ancestors, after Kunta Kinte. George, known as “Chicken George” for his success as a gamecock trainer, fathered eight children with Mathilda. His fourth son, Tom, was the father of Haley's maternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was taken to Henning, Tennessee, on a wagon train of freed slaves. In Henning, Cynthia met and married Will Palmer and had a daughter named Bertha, who married Simon Haley: these were Haley's parents.

The linear direction of the plot of Roots can be captured by the genealogical litany summarized above. The saga, however, incorporates the violence and degradation experienced by slaves at every turn in the story, from the inhumane capture of young men and women on the shores of West Africa and the unspeakable horrors of the subsequent Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, to the beatings, rapes, mutilations, and brutal living and working conditions to which slaves were routinely subjected, when they were not being bought and sold in marketplaces. Each generation from Kunta Kinte on preserves memories of the ancestral past while achieving incremental and achingly slow progress toward the day when they would be slaves no more.

Major Themes

Roots riveted public attention on one of the most painful chapters of American history, and yet it was read—and in its television version, watched—by millions of Americans, black and white. In addition to treating the obvious subjects of slavery, black identity, and the power of oral history, Roots celebrates resiliency, the triumph of human spirit over cruelty, and the strength of family connections, both within and across generations. Families work together to protect their members. Children are taught that principles are worthy of risk. Ancestral memories are preserved and passed on through the telling of stories to one's children, and humankind's universal search for its identity is given a personal face. These themes cross racial and ethnic boundaries and help account for the book's immense popularity. At the time of its publication, Roots was called “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League. The creative revelation of one family's story opened doors that had long been locked, in individual families and in American culture as a whole.

Critical Reception

Although critics generally lauded Roots, they seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. While the narrative is based on factual events, the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Haley himself described the book as “faction,” a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics concurred and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. Newsweek applauded Haley's decision to fictionalize: “Instead of writing a scholarly monograph of little social impact, Haley has written a blockbuster in the best sense—a book that is bold in concept and ardent in execution, one that will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves.” Some black leaders viewed Roots “as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma,” according to Time.

Not all the attention accorded Roots was positive, however. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, alleged separately that Haley plagiarized their work in Roots. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander $500,000. The same year other accusations arose, alleging that Haley had altered data to fit his objectives, fabricating ancestors and changing timelines or geographic details to make the story into the one he wanted to tell. These charges were never proven or resolved, but Haley's supporters maintain that the author never claimed Roots was a factual document, calling it instead a work of “faction,” fiction based on the facts of his ancestry, as he discovered them. Despite these controversies, the public image of Roots doesn't seem to have suffered. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their curriculum.

Principal Works

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (biography) 1965

Roots: The Saga of an American Family (historical novel) 1976

A Different Kind of Christmas (novella) 1988

Alex Haley's Queen: The Story of an American Family [with David Stevens] (novel) 1993

The Playboy Interviews (interviews) 1993

Criticism

Alan Crawford (essay date 4 March 1977)

SOURCE: Crawford, Alan. “All in the Family.” National Review 29, no. 8 (4 March 1977): 278-79.

[In the following essay, Crawford reviews Roots.]

“The end of the American artist's pilgrimage to Europe is the discovery of America,” Leslie Fiedler writes. So, too, the American artist's pilgrimage (if he is black) to Africa: after 12 years of research and half a million miles of travel, Alex Haley has discovered an America that is feasting on his book [Roots] and has devoured a television adaptation as well. Haley thus finds himself an Instant Celebrity, that most American form of notoriety and one which, I suspect, leaves him feeling most ambivalent. For...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Richard West (essay date 23 April 1977)

SOURCE: West, Richard. “Roots and the Sunday Times.Spectator 238, no. 7764 (23 April 1977): 19-20.

[In the following essay, West questions the veracity of Haley's ancestral and historical claims in Roots.]

As long ago as the mid-eighteenth century, a Negro slave from North America who had been given his freedom by a considerate white man, returned to his home by the Gambia river, afterwards writing a book about his experiences. Until well into the nineteenth century, some of those freed slaves who went to the settlements at Sierra Leone and Liberia were able to find their relations or at least their kinsmen. Perhaps the majority knew to which tribe...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Sandra Rattley (essay date May/June 1977)

SOURCE: Rattley, Sandra. “The Impact of Roots: Real or Imagined?” Africa Report 22, no. 3 (May/June 1977): 12-6.

[In the following essay, Rattley questions the premise that Haley's book and widely-acclaimed mini-series will have a significant impact on civil rights and issues of equality in the United States.]

Time magazine of February 14, 1977 said, and we quote:

In Chicago, they were talking about “Haley's comet.” … In New York, Executive Director Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League called it “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America.”

...

(The entire section is 3628 words.)

David A. Gerber (essay date fall 1977)

SOURCE: Gerber, David A. “Haley's Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Popular Phenomenon.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5, no. 3 (fall 1977): 87-111.

[In the following essay, Gerber examines the social and popular culture phenomenon of Roots-inspired interest in family ancestry and African culture.]

For the moment let us withhold judgment and consider the following:

—While ABC-TV originally assumed it could lay claim to approximately 50,000,000 viewers for its $6,000,000 production of Roots, in fact at least 85,000,000 and perhaps as many as 135,000,000 Americans watched the prime-time...

(The entire section is 12836 words.)

Merrill Maguire Skaggs (essay date fall 1978)

SOURCE: Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. “Roots: A New Black Myth.” Southern Quarterly 17, no. 1 (fall 1978): 42-50.

[In the following essay, Skaggs compares Roots with Richard Wright's Native Son.]

The extreme popularity of Alex Haley's Roots, a book which seemed to reshape the literary image of blacks, suggests that the public was ready to reverse a whole cluster of attitudes toward black Americans, and to view blacks exactly as the book demanded. But, as William James remarked, “The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing. … New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. … The...

(The entire section is 3376 words.)

Herb Boyd (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Boyd, Herb. “Plagiarism and the Roots Suits.” First World 2, no. 3 (1979): 31-3.

[In the following essay, Boyd examines passages in Roots that author Harold Courlander charged were plagiarized from his novel, The African.]

Plagiarism is a concept and a practice that can be traced all the way back to Roman law, and while it can be defined in several ways, for our modern sleuths and lawyers it has come to simply mean the act of one author appropriating the writings of another author—in short, literary larceny.

Such esteemed giants of Western literature as Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and even Homer were accused,...

(The entire section is 2610 words.)

R. Baxter Miller (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Miller, R. Baxter. “Kneeling at the Fireplace: Black Vulcan-ROOTS and the Double Artificer.” MELUS 9, no. 1 (spring 1982): 73-84.

[In the following essay, Miller traces parallels in Roots between the mythological Roman Vulcan, patron of arts and crafts, and the character of Kunta Kinte, craftsman and himself a mythical character to generations of his descendants.]

Most reviewers of Roots have overlooked Alex Haley's allusions to Vulcan.1 L. D. Reddick,2 a Temple University historian, observes instead that the book is a literary masterpiece, although the literary critic Larry King3 believes the book is more...

(The entire section is 5400 words.)

Helen Chavis Othow (essay date March 1983)

SOURCE: Othow, Helen Chavis. “Roots and the Heroic Search for Identity.” CLA Journal 26, no. 3 (March 1983): 311-24.

[In the following essay, Othow discusses Roots as a modern epic that has wide cultural appeal because it embodies the ongoing human search for meaning.]

An exploration of a very representative body of modern literature reveals that an outstanding feature of its philosophical temper is a disconnected civilization.1 The works of Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Albert Camus (to some degree), Samuel Beckett, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon, all reflect the malaise of our times. Alex Haley's Roots2 also embodies...

(The entire section is 4979 words.)

Carol P. Marsh (essay date March 1983)

SOURCE: Marsh, Carol P. “The Plastic Arts Motif in Roots.CLA Journal 26, no. 3 (March 1983): 325-33.

[In the following essay, Marsh traces the significance of three major crafts—carving, weaving, and blacksmithing—in the multi-generational saga of the African family traced in Roots.]

In Alex Haley's Roots, one of the prevailing motifs is that of the plastic arts. As the reader examines the novel, he finds that the motif forms a part of the spiral structure, which, in turn, creates the work's theme of returning.1 Thus, we find that Roots abounds with direct references to the plastic arts, and the motif seems to develop with...

(The entire section is 3303 words.)

Michael Steward Blayney (essay date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Blayney, Michael Steward. “Roots and the Noble Savage.” North Dakota Quarterly 54, no. 1 (winter 1986): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Blayney discusses similarities between the Roots portrayal of Africans and the portrayal of North Americans as the mythical “noble savage.”]

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....

(The entire section is 7325 words.)

Christopher O. Griffin (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Griffin, Christopher O. “Roots, Violence, and the Context of Intention.” Griot: Official Journal of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies, Inc. 15, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Griffin examines the use of violence as symbol in Roots.]

This is ultimately the most profound claim that any ritual or any religious system can make: that through their thoughts and actions, people can fill their existence with meaning.1

PREFACE

Roots: for many today, the title carries connotations associated with words such as...

(The entire section is 7226 words.)

Leslie Fishbein (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Fishbein, Leslie. “Roots: Docudrama and the Interpretation of History.” In Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV, edited by Alan Rosenthal, pp. 271-95. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Fishbein discusses the merits and shortcomings of the use of television drama as a medium for preserving history.]

Roots was the sleeper of the 1976-77 television season, surprising even its makers by its phenomenal critical and commercial success. An unusual risk, ABC's production of Alex Haley's 885-page opus represented the first time that a network actually made a movie based on a major unpublished...

(The entire section is 10778 words.)

Helen Taylor (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Taylor, Helen. “Everybody's Search for Roots: Alex Haley and the Black and White Atlantic.” In Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens, pp. 63-90. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Taylor traces numerous effects of Roots on American popular culture, academic black studies programs, and Southern identity.]

Gone With the Wind created, and perpetuated, a white myth of the South for international readers and audiences throughout the century. In the bicentennial year, 1976, however, a work appeared that looked set to sweep Scarlett, Rhett, and their faithful Mammy into...

(The entire section is 12058 words.)