(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Critics have had a difficult time categorizing Roots. Although based on genealogical and historical research, it is not a book of history, because most of its details and dialogue are invented. However, unlike most historical fiction, Roots is much more than a fictional story placed against a real historical background, with perhaps a few famous historical figures making cameo appearances. Alex Haley chose to call the book “faction,” a mix of fact and fiction. Roots also is highly unusual in its voice: The story is told in the third person almost until the end, when Haley relates his own birth and switches to first person for the remainder of the book. “Cynthia pulled back the blanket’s top fold—revealing a round brown face. . . . The baby boy, six weeks old, was me.” Although changing voice in this way is not common, it works in Roots. The third-person narration throughout most of the book allows the story to follow characters easily from one generation to the next, but the first-person narration at the end brings a much more personal feel to the entire book, giving it the intimacy of an autobiography rather than a novel.

Because of the difficulty in categorizing Roots, critics have sometimes found it challenging to evaluate the book. Some have criticized it for historical inaccuracies—for instance, it is unlikely that the Gambian village Juffure was as peaceful and egalitarian in the eighteenth century as Haley describes it, and it is doubtful that Kunta Kinte’s plantation in northern Virginia produced cotton in the late 1700’s. Although these factual errors bother some critics, others overlook them and evaluate the book more on its literary merits than its historical correctness.

Roots has several literary merits. One is the skill with which Haley portrays the reality of slavery and the slave trade and shatters the myth of the happy-go-lucky slave who loves his master and has no desire to be freed. Although Haley is not the first writer who attempted to portray slavery realistically, he is the first who reached a mass market of Americans of all colors and ethnicities. This feat is partly the result of perfect timing. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had made some progress in changing mainstream attitudes toward African Americans, so Roots was able to find a wide audience that simply might not have been ready to hear the book’s message twenty years earlier. However, the book’s success also is a result of its compelling story line and characters. Haley’s skillful writing easily draws readers in, helping them identify with and care about the characters’ triumphs and sorrows.

Another strength of Roots is its resonance with African Americans whose family histories were lost or obscured by the era of slavery. Many African Americans responded to the book on a very personal level, feeling that it had given them a deeper sense of their own identity. In this sense, Roots changed American culture. Before its publication, the concept of “African American history” had little meaning. However, Haley demonstrated that it was possible to do serious historical research into African Americans’ roots, and after the book’s publication, African American history became a legitimate endeavor, a hobby or research topic that any person could pursue. Indeed, the study of African American history in schools and colleges became commonplace only after the publication of Roots.

Roots’s commercial success stems from its universal appeal. Although it is unique in telling the story of African Americans, on a broader level, it tells a story with which all Americans can identify. Except for American Indians, all Americans’ ancestors originally came from another continent and settled in a new land. Like Haley’s family, many American families tell stories about their forebears—where they came from, when they arrived in...

(The entire section is 1629 words.)