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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629

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...

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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 United States, what they did for a living, how they met their mates. Moreover, most Americans can sympathize with what many believe to be the worst horror of slavery—not the beatings or the lack of freedom but the forced separation of families. For these reasons, Roots found a receptive audience not only among African Americans, but also among Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Roots

First published: 1976

Type of work: Novel

Based on genealogical and historical research, Roots tells the story of seven generations of an African American family, starting with a teenage boy captured into slavery in West Africa in 1767 and ending with the author’s own immediate family in the twentieth century.

Roots opens with the birth of Kunta Kinte in 1750 in the small Gambian village of Juffure in West Africa. The firstborn child of Omoro and Binta Kunte, young Kunta is raised in the same way as all male Muslim children in his Mandinka tribe. In his lessons, he is taught to read and write in Arabic, to say his prayers, and to do arithmetic. From his father and older boys, he learns to hunt. He helps look after his younger brother, who idolizes him. When he reaches adolescence, he and the other boys his age are taken away for four months of “manhood training,” including grueling physical training and the ritual of circumcision. When they return to the village, there is much rejoicing, for now they are all men.

From listening to snatches of frightening stories told by his elders, Kunta learns to stay away from the toubob—the white men—who hunt for young people like himself and take them away in a big canoe. One day, however, when he is out searching for wood to make a drum for his younger brother, Kunta is captured. He endures the horrors of the “middle passage”—the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on a crowded, stinking, disease-ridden slave ship, an experience shared by perhaps twenty million Africans over the almost four hundred years of the slave trade.

Arriving at a plantation in Virginia, Kunta is shocked to find that the other black people there are not Africans—they speak English, practice Christianity, and seem to accept the fact that they are slaves. Kunta vows never to assimilate. He insists that his name is Kunta Kinte, not Toby, the name chosen for him by the plantation owner, and he refuses to eat pork or join in the strange Christian rituals that the other slaves seem to enjoy. He tries to run away several times and receives successively more brutal beatings each time he is caught. The last time, he is punished by having part of one foot amputated; afterwards, he is physically unable to run away again.

After the amputation, Kunta is sent to another plantation, where he is nursed back to health by Bell, a slave woman of about his own age. He learns to speak English and gradually finds that he is forgetting his native language. However, in most other ways, he continues to refuse to assimilate. At the age of thirty-nine, when he has been a slave for more than twenty years, Kunta marries Bell but still finds it difficult to accept the African American marriage ritual of “jumping the broom,” finding it far too frivolous a ceremony for such an important event. He also tries to resist having their daughter, Kizzy, baptized as a Christian, but Bell insists.

Kunta names his daughter “Kizzy” because it is a Mandinka word that means “you stay put.” He explains to Bell that this will protect her from being sold away from them. However, when Kizzy is sixteen, she forges a traveling pass for a boy who is trying to run away, and when he is caught, she is punished by being sold to another plantation. There, the owner rapes her and she becomes pregnant. Her son, George, enjoys the owner’s favor, but even though George receives better treatment than many slaves, the owner does not treat him like a son. George is skilled at training cocks for cockfighting and comes to be known as Chicken George.

A colorful character, Chicken George enjoys liquor, traveling, and the company of women, but he settles down long enough to marry a young slave woman named Mathilda and produce many children. Kizzy, Chicken George, Mathilda, and the children continue to live together for many years until the plantation owner falls into financial difficulty. To pay off his debts, he sends Chicken George to England to work for five years as a cock trainer for an Englishman, promising to grant him his freedom when he returns. While Chicken George is away, the owner sells Mathilda and the children, but not Kizzy, to a plantation in North Carolina.

After Chicken George returns from England, he is a free man, and freedom comes soon afterward for all the slaves with the end of the Civil War. One of Chicken George’s sons, Tom, is a skilled blacksmith, and he moves the family to western Tennessee, where he sets up a mobile blacksmithing business. The family settles here in the town that is later named Henning, Tennessee. It is here that Tom’s daughter Cynthia grows up, marries, and gives birth to Bertha, who is to become the mother of Alex Haley.

At this point, Roots changes to the first-person voice, and Haley describes his childhood and the stories he hears from his older relatives about “the African,” Kunta Kinte, who came to America on a ship that landed in Annapolis and refused to be called Toby. Starting from just a few facts, Haley begins his research into the family’s roots, which ultimately takes him to Gambia and the griot who provides Haley’s “peak experience”—hearing the African side of his family’s heritage told to him in Kunta Kinte’s native village, surrounded by distant relatives who then embrace him as their own.

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