Is "Roots" a true interpretation of slavery?

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bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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There is one particular aspect that is probably exaggerated greatly in Roots. Since the slave was a valuable piece of property (as sad as this sounds), it was probably not realistic that a slave's master would deliberately brutalize something so valuable. Punishments were common for slaves who misbehaved or tried to escape, but some portions of the novel (and especially the TV mini-series) showed slaves being abused and even killed for no good reason. Devaluing one's property is not a wise financial move in any time period, and I'm sure that most slave owners would not have beaten and tortured their slaves just for personal gratification. Hard-working field hands usually sold for between $800-$2000--a huge amount of money for the 19th century. To purposely injure or harm a slave who would then be unable to fulfill his function on the plantation would be like destroying a house or car out of frustration or anger because something in it malfunctioned. Aside from this point, I found Roots to be wholly believable for the most part, and it was certainly a revolutionary piece of literature when it was first released.

(Interestingly, I have stayed several times in a Caryville, Tennessee hotel which displays many of Alex Haley's former personal items and property. My wife and I love staying overnight there, since it functions as both a great stopover as well as giving the hotel a museum-like quality.)

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

A search of Google and of Google Books turns up many sites and/or publications that refer to hisorical inaccuracies in Roots. At the same time, most of these sources discuss the value of Haley's work and the enormous popularity of the book and the television mini-series. Here are some sites worth consulting:

http://tinyurl.com/639g8ej
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http://tinyurl.com/6a2bqz2
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http://tinyurl.com/6y79e9t
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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I agree with what other posters have said, but I wonder what you mean by true interoperation. If you are talking about historical accuracy, a fictional book is always going to have some some license. That's what makes it fiction. I also agree that it is one side of a complicated story. There are so many facets to slavery. Even a monumental work like this one cannot accurately represent all of them.
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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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As stated above, I think Roots preserves something of the barbarity of slavery in its theme; however its historical value is problematic. Shortly after it was published, there was some argument that much of the material had been plagiarized. As pointed out above, the brutality depicted in the miniseries was probably the exception rather than the rule. There were instances of extreme brutality; but it was not for fun or to kill time. Most cruel masters were cruel to others as well, including their families; and many were alcoholic.

In the opening of the miniseries, Haley describes a frightened young man who sees white men and is actually trapped by them and carried away. European slavers did not dirty their hands by trapping slaves; most slaves were purchased from other African tribes who captured them in raids.

So, although the overall theme of Roots is representative of the barbarity of slavery, parts of it are overstated if not outright erroneous. One should read it with the proverbial grain of salt.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Actually,  think the brutality of slavery, not just in the physical sense, but in the social sense as well, is many times minimized in historical presentations.  Hollywood certainly has a checkered past when it comes to presenting historical fact or even accurate depictions, but as this genre of films goes, Roots is pretty good.  I do agree with post #4 in that a minority of slaveowners were actual sadists, but the physical violence (not the least of which was sexual abuse) against slaves, in my opinion, does not receive enough emphasis in cinema or literature, and even in historical texts.

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stolperia | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I think post #2 stated it well - Roots presented one set of experiences, but not the only one. Circumstances varied depending upon any number of variables - the number of slaves owned in a particular plantation, the specific work assigned to a particular slave, the attitude of the slave owner toward the investment made in the slaves, etc.

Haley's intent in the writing of Roots was partly the tracing of his family's experience and heritage and partly forcing an examination, in graphic detail, of the brutality that at times was a part of the institution of slavery. The extremes portrayed in his book and in the mini-series were not always present in the story of every slave, but they were a part of the overall picture and must be acknowledged.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As #2 wisely observes, the answer to this question relates to the use of sources and the way in which secondary sources present us with a slightly more detached view of the central character than the use of primary sources would have given us. In addition, with a phenomenon such as slavery which has impacted so many people over large periods of history and a wide geographical area, can we ever approach a "true" presentation of slavery? All we can perhaps ever hope for is a general presentation of the main aspects of this horrific phenomenon, as no one account can ever present us with an all-encompassing presentation of slavery.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

It is certainly a true interpretation of slavery, but it is not the only true interpretation of slavery.  A slave experience like that of Kunta Kinte and his family was not unknown, but neither was it necessarily typical.  For example, slavery was not always as brutal as Kunta's experiences would suggest.

Although Kunta Kinte's experiences were not shared by all slaves, the book is a good overall representation of the complicated ways in which the lives of the slaves interacted with those of their owners.  It is also important to note that the book's representation of slavery was fairly revolutionary at the time that it was written.  The book debunked the idea of slaves who loved their masters and were content.  This vision of slavery was still widely believed 35 years ago and this book was important in presenting a more accurate interpretation of slavery to the average American.

herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

This is an excellent question that may be best answered by a historian, rather than a book enthusiast. The reason for this is that Alex Haley, the author of the novel Roots performed his research from secondary, and not primary, sources. What this means is that the information acquired on the life of Kunta Kinte was not obtained from a journal, or from a first-hand report on him. It was all based on the information that Haley acquired from historical documents.

However, this in no way takes away the importance of the historical representation of slavery that Haley depicts in his novel. It is an accepted and verified historical fact that slavery is one of the most inhumane movements every practiced by the human race. It is true that the physical and psychological abuse to which slave were exposed represents the most vile and cruel aspect of the human capacity for evil. That, is unavoidable. Roots, as a work of literature, is very neccesary. It at least provides an image into a past that should never be forgotten and never be repeated.

donnavz1's profile pic

donnavz1 | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

There is one particular aspect that is probably exaggerated greatly in Roots. Since the slave was a valuable piece of property (as sad as this sounds), it was probably not realistic that a slave's master would deliberately brutalize something so valuable. Punishments were common for slaves who misbehaved or tried to escape, but some portions of the novel (and especially the TV mini-series) showed slaves being abused and even killed for no good reason. Devaluing one's property is not a wise financial move in any time period, and I'm sure that most slave owners would not have beaten and tortured their slaves just for personal gratification. Hard-working field hands usually sold for between $800-$2000--a huge amount of money for the 19th century. To purposely injure or harm a slave who would then be unable to fulfill his function on the plantation would be like destroying a house or car out of frustration or anger because something in it malfunctioned. Aside from this point, I found Roots to be wholly believable for the most part, and it was certainly a revolutionary piece of literature when it was first released.

(Interestingly, I have stayed several times in a Caryville, Tennessee hotel which displays many of Alex Haley's former personal items and property. My wife and I love staying overnight there, since it functions as both a great stopover as well as giving the hotel a museum-like quality.)

 

 

Flesh heals. In fact, the level of the brutality and the idea that fresh heals, was written into our laws at the time: we permitted owners to abuse slaves at will, "up to taking life," but, if a slave died of an injury, then that was not considered murder.

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