Roots (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
Roots: The Saga of an American Family, published by Alex Haley in 1976, is one of the most widely read works ever written by an African American. A fictionalized version of actual events, Roots details the history of seven generations of an African American family in the United States. Haley began the story by detailing the life of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was sold into slavery and taken to the United States. Haley introduced readers to U.S. history as experienced by African Americans. His work was so compelling that Haley received a Pulitzer Prize for Roots. Network television serialized the saga in 1977, and it received tremendous attention and large viewerships. More than 130 million viewers reportedly tuned in to watch the incredible tale, which featured some of the most popular actors of the 1970’s. Historians praised the television series, which is now available on video in most school libraries and video stores, for its accurate depictions of U.S. history and eye for detail. Many people argue that both the book and the television miniseries had a significant impact on race relations because it introduced many Americans to the severity of the African American experience.
Arnez, Nancy L. “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of Roots.” The Journal of Negro Education 46 (Summer, 1977): 367-372. Sees the book as a gift to African...
(The entire section is 797 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Juffure (jew-FUR-ee). Village on West Africa’s Gambia River in which Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was born and raised. Two centuries after Kunta was forcibly taken from this village, Haley visited Juffure and met many of his African cousins, descendants of Kunta’s brothers. Drawing on his experiences in modern Juffure and his historical research, Haley produced a fascinating literary re-creation of the village as it was around 1750, as Kunta Kinte was growing up.
Through the eyes of young Kunta, readers see a village of round thatched huts surrounded by enclosing walls, pierced by the village gates, as well as the traveler’s tree, at which travelers are greeted by village children; fields on which men grow groundnuts and women grow rice; and the forest in which boys take goats to browse. Well removed from the main village of Juffure is the manhood-training village to which the boys on the threshold of manhood are taken to learn the skills and secrets of men.
In Haley’s novel, Juffure is a place rich in the history of a culture that knows its heritage and has reason to be proud of it. It is a place where each person is known to everyone else, where every action is rich with meaning and tradition, a place where Kunta belongs. However, Kunta does not remain there long, as one day he is ambushed while chopping wood in the forest and sold to slavers.
(The entire section is 691 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The first portion of Roots: The Saga of an American Family deals with Kunta Kinte’s capture, enslavement, and struggle to maintain his identity. From the time that he is dragged from his Gambian home in 1750, Kunta fights to retain his memories and his family identity. Throughout his passage to America in the hold of a slave ship, Kunta attempts to understand what has happened to him, why he was taken from his home.
The narrative intensity grows after Kunta arrives in America and is bought by a plantation owner. The first thing that an owner does is to remove any sense of identity from his slaves—in Kunta’s case, by making him accept a slave name, Toby. Kunta refuses and endures severe physical punishment to force him to say his slave name. When the pain becomes too great, he repeats the name Toby in order to stop the torture, but Kunta keeps his identity inwardly and remembers his heritage.
Kunta’s desire to maintain his identity is matched by his constant attempts to regain his freedom. Finally, after Kunta’s fourth attempt at escaping, his owner cuts off one of his feet. Kunta is hobbled and unable to make any further serious attempts to escape, but his spirit is not broken. He continues to tell stories of his family’s background so that his descendants will not forget who they are. Because of the stories that he tells and the stories that are told about him, Kunta Kinte will remain an inspiration for succeeding...
(The entire section is 617 words.)
Roots (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
The appearance of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976 was an event evocative of the publication of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin over a century ago. Both were novels describing the black experience in America and both quickly attained a level of public notice far beyond that warranted by their literary value. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Roots were avidly read, debated, and dramatized, one on the stage, one on television. Each shaped the mind of white America, but Roots also carried a particular message to blacks.
The timeliness of Haley’s Roots, like Mrs. Stowe’s “little book that caused the great war,” has been central to its popular success. Issued at the end of the modern Civil Rights Movement at a time of strong black consciousness, Roots has become a symbol of the search for a black identity. It reminds the nation of the continuing struggle for equality, but it also signals the entrance of many black Americans into bourgeois affluence. It has inaugurated a popular pursuit of black genealogy that has directed the nation’s librarians and archivists toward neglected plantation journals and musty county records.
Alex Haley, patiently telling and retelling his story to a hundred media interviewers, has been transformed into an American griot. This patently decent man learned the writer’s craft during a career in the Coast Guard, and following his retirement,...
(The entire section is 1410 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
The inspiration for Roots came from a series of stories which the author, Alex Haley, heard from his grandmother during his childhood in Tennessee. These stories concerned the life of Kunta Kinte, an African born in the Gambia River region of West Africa. The stories relate that Kunta Kinte, when only a young man, fell victim to a slave-raiding party. Placed aboard a ship bound for Annapolis, Maryland, he entered a life of permanent servitude. According to the genealogies included in his grandmother’s stories, Haley, a Coast Guard veteran and free-lance writer, was a direct descendant of Kunta Kinte.
Among the information passed on by Haley’s grandmother was a smattering of terms from an unknown African language. Upon discovering that many of the characters in his grandmother’s stories in fact were listed in census records in the United States National Archives, Haley became interested in discovering the birthplace of his ancestor. Questioning every colleague and resident African in the United States he could find, Haley eventually found his way to Jan Vansina, a noted African historian at the University of Wisconsin and an authority on oral tradition. Vansina tentatively identified the language of Haley’s terms as Mandinka, which is spoken in Gambia and Senegal.
Haley’s quest now took on the character of an obsession. He flew to Gambia and combed its villages in search of people who might know of the Kunta Kinte story. At...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 856 words.)
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 plantation 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...
(The entire section is 353 words.)
During Haley's twelve-year search for his roots, he assembled a considerable amount of genealogical and historical facts about Africa, the South, and the Haley family. From his ancestral remembrances, Haley had specific names and dates as starting points. He studied maritime documents, missionary records, court records, census listings; and talked to many individuals: oral historians and old Griots and elderly relatives. Based on this material, Haley could have chosen to write a social document — a doctoral dissertation or a scholarly article — but the audience for a straightforward prose effort would have been quite limited and the impact minimal. Instead, Haley chose to tell the black experience from earliest times of what a people is "through an individual or family with whom a reader can identify in personal terms." What Haley did was to start with the facts and then make up the dialogue, emotions, and thoughts of the characters. The basic incidents in the novel are factually true. For example, the harrowing account of Kinte's journey in the hold of a slave ship is the type of experience endured by all kidnapped Africans sold to slavery. But Haley relived and heightened the incidents imaginatively to give dramatic impact. In short, he narrated and dramatized his material, and as a result reached a larger audience because people are more likely to be moved by what they see (drama) than by what they are told (essay). Haley blended fact and fiction, and...
(The entire section is 281 words.)
Haley's Roots attempts to dispel two widespread and false notions about blacks: that there is no black history and that there is no black family life. In Roots, Haley traces his black heritage for seven generations to the 1750s in Africa. He thus dramatically shows the reader that there is indeed a black history: "Any individual's past," Haley says, "is the essence of the millions." To justify that there is such a history, however, is secondary to Haley's other goal: to show that there is black family life, and that family life has always been a fundamental concern of blacks.
In the "unspoiled" village of Kinte's birthplace, Juffure, society is tightly structured. The family is the basic unit of that society and engenders pride. There is normal developmental progression. Kinte's first name, Kunta, bestowed on him by his parents, links him with a previous generation, his grandfather. The institution of slavery, however, breaks up family structure, abolishes family pride, and fractures family life. Slaves are considered property to be bought and sold. They are handed names that do not reflect their lineage or context. The opportunity for normal societal growth does not exist. Matilda's expression of family unity — "We is family and we is gonna stay family" — reflects an attitude that one would probably find in eighteenth-century Juffure. Roots is a family story, although couched in the fight for freedom. Kunta Kinte and his...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
Compare and 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...
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Topics for Further Study
- Create 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?
(The entire section is 119 words.)
Over a hundred years earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) dramatized the plight of the black slave and reached the hearts and conscience of millions. There are also narratives and autobiographies of slaves and ex-slaves that relate the black experience.
It has been charged and rebutted that Haley borrowed from Harold Courtlander's The African and Margaret Walker Alexander's Jubilee, novels about slave origins.
(The entire section is 64 words.)
A Different Kind of Christmas (1988) is a fictional historical novel, whereas Haley's Roots is a nonfictional historical account of his family for several generations. The impact of Roots was based on the detailed verification of a black family's genealogy. A Different Kind of Christmas explores the developing conscience and inherent goodness of individual whites.
A Different Kind of Christmas is about the escape in the 1850s of a dozen slaves from a North Carolina plantation at Christinas. As a result the escapees gain a valuable Christmas gift — freedom. In his one-hundred-page narrative, Haley contrasts two ways of life in mid-nineteenth century America: the closed society of plantation life in North Carolina, where the prosperity and well-being of white plantation owners exist at the expense of slaves; and the open society found in Philadelphia, where blacks are politically free and entitled to own their own businesses. As in Roots, Haley reiterates the injustice of slavery and also dispels myths about blacks. Even if slaves in some households in the South were well-treated, they were always considered only property, to be bought and sold like any commodity.
Haley gives credit to the work of Quakers, who as early as 1688 in Pennsylvania declared slavery unacceptable and protested "against the traffic of bodies of men and the treatment of men as cattle." Because of their hatred of slavery, many Quakers...
(The entire section is 731 words.)
A twelve-hour, eight segment, television version of Roots was aired on ABC Television January 23, 1977, about four months after publication of the book. Some segments were directed by David Greene, who had directed the recently aired and highly successful miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man. Produced by David Wolper Pictures and budgeted at the then phenomenal amount of six million dollars, an estimated audience of 90,000,000 saw the last episode. Filmed in Georgia and Hollywood — an African village was reconstructed in Georgia — the film script was written from Haley's manuscript as he was finishing it for his publication deadline of October l, 1976. The television version was sold to libraries as an educational film. LeVar Burton, a nineteen-year-old unknown, starred as the young Kunta Kinte, and was supported by Cicely Tyson, Edward Asner, Moses Gunn, Lome Green, Ben Vereen, O. J. Simpson, Maya Angelou, and others.
The television version was nominated for an unprecedented thirty-seven Emmy awards and was chosen outstanding Dramatic Series of the 1976-1977 season. There was concern expressed, however, that the television version was too melodramatic and that there was a tendency to stereotype whites.
Two years later a sequel of fourteen hours based on the books Roots and The Search for Roots with a $16,000,000 budget followed: Roots, the Next Generations. James Earl Jones starred as Haley and Marlon Brando...
(The entire section is 239 words.)
- 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.
(The entire section is 118 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 69 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
For Further Study
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...
(The entire section is 258 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Blayney, Michael Steward. “Roots and the Noble Savage.” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Winter, 1986): 1-17. Provides a correlation between the popularity of the novel and the American fascination with the romantic ideal of the noble savage. Sees Kunta Kinte as a character in that tradition. In addition, shows how Haley inverts the notion of the American Eden: Africa, not America, represents the Edenic paradise in the novel.
Courlander, Harold. “Kunta Kinte’s Struggle to Be African.” Phylon 47 (December, 1986): 294-302. Discusses Haley’s characterization of Kunta Kinte as a primitive being. Perceives some of the questions first raised about Roots as a result of its ambiguous generic underpinnings. Asserts that Roots should be viewed as a work of fiction, not as pure history.
Gerber, David. “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of Popular Phenomenon.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5 (Fall, 1977): 87-111. A review essay that analyzes the popular cultural phenomenon generated by the novel and the subsequent airing of the television miniseries. Analyzes Haley’s treatment of historical material in general and his treatment of slavery in particular.
Huntzicker, William E. “Alex Haley’s Roots: The Fiction of Fact.” In Memory and Myth: The Civil...
(The entire section is 466 words.)