Alex Haley 1921–
Black American journalist, essayist, and historical novelist. Haley is best known for Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a "literary-television" sociological phenomenon which vaulted him into celebrity status during the late 1970s. It is a fictionalized account of seven generations of his own family based on twelve years of research in Africa, Europe, and America. The story of slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants has become almost legendary, and has spawned an intense interest in genealogy and a pride in black ancestry. By personalizing the Afro-American experience, Haley has universalized it. He first became known for his thoughtful collaboration on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a powerful portrait of this controversial leader and his espousal of and final disenchantment with the Black Muslim movement. Haley has been given the credit for gaining the confidence of Malcolm X and for giving the book its final shape. He first decided to research his own story after retiring from the Coast Guard as chief journalist and spending several years as interviewer and magazine writer. The book Roots was well-received by critics and was awarded special citations from the National Book Awards Committee and the Pulitzer Prize Committee, but it was not until its adaptation was televised that its full influence was realized. Haley did not have the final approval of the script for Roots and he feels that it did not accurately represent his viewpoint. However, he served as consultant for the second television series, Roots: The Next Generations. This is a continuation of the saga of his family as they became caught up in the black struggle for equality following the Civil War and deals particularly with his own efforts to retrace his lineage. Haley has been criticized for his idealization of history, for his stilted and artificial dialogue, for reverse racism, and for factual errors. He was recently charged with plagiarism but settled out of court. Haley calls his story "faction," neither fact nor fiction, and it is this dual nature which saves it from being a romantic melodrama or a scholarly treatise and seems to give it its power. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
[Malcolm X was a latter-day example of] the man who "makes it," the man who, from humble origins and with meager education, converts, by will, intelligence, and sterling character, his liabilities into assets. (p. 161)
Malcolm X fulfills, it would seem, all the requirements—success against odds, the role of prophet, and martyrdom—for inclusion in the American pantheon. (p. 162)
[The Autobiography of Malcolm X] is "told" to Alex Haley…. From 1963 up to the assassination, Haley saw Malcolm for almost daily sessions when Malcolm was in New York, and sometimes accompanied him on his trips. Haley's account of this period, of how he slowly gained Malcolm's confidence and how Malcolm himself discovered the need to tell his story, is extremely interesting and, though presented as an Epilogue, is an integral part of the book; but the main narrative has the advantage of Malcolm's tone, his characteristic movement of mind, and his wit for Haley has succeeded admirably in capturing these qualities…. (pp. 163-64)
[The story of Malcolm X] shows the reader the world in which that truth can operate; that is, it shows the kind of alienation to which this truth is applicable. It shows, also, the human quality of the operation, a man in the process of trying to understand his plight, and to find salvation, by that truth. (p. 167)
[Malcolm X] was the black man who looked the white man in the eye and...
(This entire section contains 396 words.)
forgave nothing…. To put it another way, Malcolm X let the white man see what, from a certain perspective, he, his history, and his culture looked like. It was possible to say that that perspective was not the only one, that it did not give the whole truth about the white man, his history, and his culture, but it was not possible to say that the perspective did not carrya truth, a truth that was not less, but more, true for being seen from [his] angle…. (p. 169)
As one reads the Autobiography, one feels that, whatever the historical importance of Malcolm Little, his story has permanence, that it has something of tragic intensity and meaning. One feels that it is an American story bound to be remembered, to lurk in the background of popular consciousness…. (p. 171)
Robert Penn Warren, "Malcolm X: Mission and Meaning," in The Yale Review (© 1965 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1966, pp. 161-71.
Clearly [Malcolm X] had charisma, but powering that charisma was his capacity to understand and articulate his own American experience and so link it with that of other blacks that he was indeed a spokesman…. The nature of his own experience and its series of "conversions" … is distilled with candor and cutting clarity in [The Autobiography of Malcom X] (with writer Alex Haley serving as an admirably unobtrusive and astute organizer of the material)….
The autobiography is revelatory not only of Malcolm but also of diverse black members of this "pluralistic" society whom hardly any whites have yet begun to know—their values, their affirmations, their evasions, their ways of wit, rage and sorrow. Malcolm himself, as was clear to those who knew him, emerges as a man of warmth as well as fury, of wry perception, and most importantly, as a man with the ability to change and grow. He was, as the book demonstrates, at the beginning of a new stage of understanding himself and the society when he was killed. (p. 511)
Nat Hentoff, "The Odyssey of a Black Man," in Commonweal (copyright © 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 28, 1966, pp. 511-12.
The modest hero of [The Autobiography of Malcom X] is really Alex Haley, who provides, in his introduction, a frank and just appreciation of Malcolm X, and whose task it was, at snatched moments over two hectic years, first to win Malcolm's confidence and then persuade him to tell his story fully. The result is beyond praise, for one must instantly feel that though this is, technically, a 'ghosted' book, it is Malcolm's thought and voice we are hearing all the time….
Malcolm foresaw his martyrdom and he knew his heroic mould. And it is impossible to read this book without becoming convinced that Malcolm was a hero….
The cause of the break with the Muslims isn't satisfactorily explained even in this frank book, and one suspects that Malcolm, in talking to Haley, still had reticences….
I suspect many English readers will dismiss Malcolm as a fanatic who preached the sword and perished by it. But any such reader can have no comprehension whatever of the virulent despair and aggression of the American Negro….
What Malcolm achieved was to give coherence to the feelings of millions. Until and unless absolute economic and social equality are won by Negroes, these feelings will remain and grow. Internationally, they are allied to all those of non-white peoples throughout the world. If anyone doubts this, and doubts the anger of it, Malcolm's biography will be a corrective. (p. 668)
Colin MacInnes, in The Spectator (© 1966 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 27, 1966.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X testifies to the black experience in America. More precisely, it testifies to the personal cost of the black experience in America. The first chapter records the death of Malcolm's father, the victim apparently of whites who resented his propagandizing for Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement; in the "Epilogue," Alex Haley describes the assassination of Malcolm X…. The lives of father and son alike were fundamentally shaped to their violent ends by the fact that they were born black in America and tried to combat the inferiority to which their color condemned them.
And yet, at the same time that the Autobiography unforgettably tells those of us who do not know it about the black experience, and helps to explain it to those who know it and have yet to understand it—at the same time, the Autobiography is in many ways a traditionally American work. The evidence of the book itself insists on both its differences from and its similarities to the general American experience. At a time when one hears so often simply that Black is Different …, it seems to me useful to note some of the ways in which Malcolm X's story … reflects American culture. Despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin could not have bought a bottle of Red Devil lye, and would have had no need or wish to, his Autobiography and The Autobiography of Malcolm X resemble each other in the conceptions of the self they convey, in the categories by which they apprehend men and events, in the standards by which they judge them, and in the ways, looking backward as autobiographers do, they pattern or structure the raw materials of their own lives. Roughly, what Benjamin Franklin wanted and got for himself and his fellow citizens, Malcolm X also wanted for himself and his people—until in the last year of his life he changed his mind. To put this in a practical academic way, The Autobiography of Malcolm X belongs not only in an Afro-American course but in a course in American literature or American autobiography. Both Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X testify to certain strengths and certain weaknesses in our national ethos, strengths and weaknesses that have characterized us very nearly from, if not from, the beginning. (pp. 131-32)
Both books tell, despite the episodic unfolding to which their genre and the particularly versatile achievements of their respective authors dispose them, stories of men who move from inexperience to sophistication, from ignorance to enlightenment, from obscurity to worldly prominence. Both books offer spectacular contrasts between then and now…. (p. 133)
In the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X … two sets of values compete, and two conceptions of the self; side by side with the would-be lawyer, hustler and black nationalist, another self, or another dimension of the self, struggles toward expression. (p. 142)
While The Autobiography of Malcolm X is in many striking ways analogous to Franklin's Autobiography, our prototypical American story of secular success, it may also be compared to our, still earlier, Puritan examinations into the nature of the inner life, examinations which include, indeed stress, the life of the heart. Hustler, Trapped, Caught, Satan, Saved, Savior, Minister Malcolm X. The paradigmatic curve suggested here is that of the sinner repentant, touched by grace, submissive to God, and saved, like Thomas Shepard, like Cotton Mather, like Jonathan Edwards and like John Bunyan before them, and Saint Augustine before him. (p. 145)
Recording the experiences of Muzdalifa and Mecca, The Autobiography of Malcolm X does separate itself from Franklin's Autobiography; here the late account finds no equivalent, whether straight or ironic, in the earlier one. At Muzdalifa and Mecca, an impulse sent from heart to mind from private self to public, effected a personal integration. The power to feel intensely, the power to feel connection with other human beings, the power to express that feeling, all were freed from the limits previously set on them by black/white divisions and hostilities. The emotional dimension of the self joined the rational dimension and gave it cause to reconceive the nature of the individual and of his relationship to the world. In the reconception, every man is subject rather than object, to be cherished rather than managed or manipulated, and true brotherhood excludes no one. (pp. 147-48)
The similarity between the autobiographies of Franklin and Malcolm X points finally,… to common areas of experience and suggests that, black and white, we share a common problem: to render human or humane the ideas by which we have traditionally shaped ourselves and our programs or institutions. (p. 148)
Carol Ohmann, "'The Autobiography of Malcolm X': A Revolutionary Use of the Franklin Tradition," in American Quarterly (copyright © 1970 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), Spring, 1970, pp. 130-49.
[No one can listen to the voice transcribed in The Autobiography of Malcolm X] or the printed versions of his public speeches, without forming the sense of an extraordinary human being: fiercely intelligent, shrewdly and humanely responsive to the life around him despite every reason in the world to have gone blind with suspicion and hate, a rarely gifted leader and inspirer of other men. The form of autobiographical narration adds something further; he comes through to us as the forceful agent of a life-history that was heroic in the event and has the shape of the heroic in the telling, a protagonist who (in Francis R. Hart's fine description) has himself created and now recreates "human value and vitality in each new world or underworld he has entered."
The power of Malcolm's book is that it speaks directly out of the totality of that life-history and the ingratiating openness of his own mind and recollection to it. It seems to me a book that … does not require any softening or suspension of critical judgment. In the first place it is written, or spoken, in a quick, pungent, concrete style, again the plain style of popular idiom, improved and made efficient by the same sort of natural sharpness and concentration of attention that gives life and color to the best of Mark Twain's recollective writing, or Franklin's, or [John] Bunyan's. In the run of the narrative the liveliness of observation and recollection, the "histrionic exuberance" (Professor Hart again), are continuously persuasive—and incidentally confirm as elements of a true style Alex Haley's assurance that the book is indeed Malcolm's own and not a clever piece of mimicry or pastiche. The casually vivid rendering of other persons is worth remarking, a test some quite competent novelists would have trouble passing…. [All] these figures are precisely defined, according to their place in the story. The grasp of the narrative extends in fact to whole sociologies of behavior. The Harlem chapters in general, with their explanation of hustling in all its major forms—numbers, drugs, prostitution, protection, petty in-ghetto thievery—offer one of the best accounts in our literature of the cultural underside of the American business system, and of the bitter psychology that binds its victims to it…. Most generally it is [the] blending of his own life-story with the full collective history of his milieu and the laws of behavior controlling it that gives Malcolm's testimony its strength and large authority—and sets it apart, I think, from the many more or less skillfully designed essays in autobiography we have had recently from writers like Frank Conroy, Claude Brown, Norman Podhoretz, Willie Morris, Paul Cowan, David McReynolds, to mention only a few; sets it apart also from the great run of novels about contemporary city life.
But it is Malcolm himself, and his own active consciousness of the myth of his life's progress, that most fills and quickens the book, making it something more than simply a valuable document. His past life is vividly present to him as he speaks; he gives it the form, in recollection, of a dramatic adventure in which he himself is felt as the precipitating agent and moving force. It is not unreasonable that he should see himself as someone who has a special power to make things happen, to work changes on the world around him (and to change within himself); and thus finally as one whose rise to authority is in some sense in the natural order of things, the working out of some deep structure of fortune. (pp. 317-18)
The force of this continuously active process of self-conception and self-projection is fundamental to the book's power of truth. It gives vitality and momentum to the early parts of the story…. Most decisively, this force of self-conception is what brings alive the drama of his conversion, and his re-emergence within the Nation of Islam as a leader and teacher of his people. For Malcolm's autobiography is consciously shaped as the story of an "education," and in so describing it I am not merely making the appropriate allusion to Henry Adams or the Bildungsroman tradition; "education" is Malcolm's own word for what is taking place.
Above all, the book is the story of a conversion and its consequences. (p. 318)
And always there is Malcolm's own fascination with what has happened to him, and what objectively it means. As if establishing a leitmotif, the climaxes of his story repeatedly focus on this extraordinary power to change and be changed that he has grown conscious of within himself and that presents itself to him as the distinctive rule of his life…. He has a driving need to understand everything that happens to him or around him and to gain a measure of intelligent control over it; it is a passion with him to get his own purchase on reality.
It thus makes narrative sense, of a kind only the best of novelists are in command of, that he should discover his calling in life as a teacher and converter. (pp. 318-19)
[The] last academic point I want to make about the literary character of Malcolm's book is that … as a political statement, its form is recognizably "classic." The model it quite naturally conforms to is that of the Political Testament, the work in which some ruler or statesman sets down for the particular benefit of his people a summary of his own experience and wisdom and indicates the principles which are to guide those who succeed him…. My argument is not that Malcolm was in any way guided by this grand precedent, merely that in serving all his book's purposes he substantially recreated it—which is of course what the work of literature we call "classic" does within the occasion it answers to. (p. 321)
Warner Berthoff, in New Literary History (copyright © 1971 by New Literary History, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia), Winter, 1971.
[The] distinctive feature of the Autobiography is its naturalistic use of time, the willingness to let the past stand as it was, in its own season, even when later developments, of intellect or intuition or event, give it a different quality…. The atmosphere in which the Autobiography operates is remarkably practical and quick-moving; its genius springs from being so and at the same time remarkably responsive to crystallizations of meaning…. (pp. 274-75)
Michael G. Cooke, in Romanticism: Vistas, Instances, Continuities, edited by David Thorburn and Geoffrey Hartman (copyright © 1973 by Cornell University; used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1973.
As the reconstruction of a genealogy, Haley's [Roots] is a tour de force…. [It] reminds us how even in appallingly adverse circumstances blacks often maintained, through oral traditions, a full account of their lineage and a proper sense of their individual identities. Skillfully, Haley checked his oral history against surviving written documents, and the family tree that he has outlined seems not just plausible but authentic. It is easy to accept Haley's statement: "To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents." (p. 70)
Readers should not expect to find in these pages an accurate history of Haley's family, any more than they would look for a factually complete account of the Civil War in Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body. In a work of this sort it is enough to have a high level of historical plausibility coupled with enough literary skill to make the characters credible.
By this standard, parts of Roots come off very well. Since I am not an Africanist, I cannot judge the historical accuracy of Haley's reconstruction of Kunta Kinte's boyhood in an 18th-century Mandinka village. Perhaps for this reason I found this section of Roots both imaginative and persuasive. My colleagues who do know African history warn that Haley tends to romanticize the beauties and comforts of primitive society…. Haley's account of the Middle Passage—the dreaded voyage from Africa to America—is … a convincing recreation of that horror….
Once Haley gets Kunta to America, however, the historical plausibility of his story begins to deteriorate. On page after page there are factual errors as well as distortions. No one of these in itself is weighty, but cumulatively they create disbelief. (p. 72)
The most serious historical blunder in Roots concerns Kunta's grandson George—called "Chicken George" because of his skill in training gamecocks. In the 1850's when George's master loses a disastrous wager on his birds, he pays his debt by giving his slave to a visiting Englishman, who takes him to Britain for five years to train fighting cocks there. Despite Lord Mansfield's 1772 ruling in the Sommersett case, announcing that once a slave set foot on British soil he became free, Haley has George remain a slave to the British lord. Sent back to America in 1860, George continues a slave, even though he stops off in New York, where the personal liberty laws would certainly have guaranteed his freedom, and he returns docilely to the South to entreat his master for liberty.
The point should be obvious: whatever Mr. Haley may know about Africa, he simply has not done enough reading about the South, about slavery, about American agriculture—to say nothing about general American history—to give his novel a convincing background.
Nor has Haley mastered the literary technique of historical fiction. Perhaps it does not make much difference that his characters are one-dimensional and wooden, for psychological subtlety can be as distracting in a historical novel as in a detective story. But it is awkward that the only way Haley can devise to introduce chronology is to have house slaves rush down to the quarters announcing the latest big-house gossip…. It is awkward, too, that Haley has written most of Roots in heavy dialect….
Indeed, Haley's fictional technique closely resembles that of [Joel Chandler] Harris and other … late 19th-century Southern historical romancers … and Roots should be read as a continuation of this hoary tradition—but with the racial signs reversed….
Just as traditional Southern white historical novelists wrote of "darkeys" instead of Negroes, so Haley can hardly bring himself to speak of whites but refers to them throughout as "toubob"—presumably a word of African origin. And finally, just as in the conventional Southern historical romance of the 1880's, Haley's family emerges from its trials unscathed, or rather ennobled, and at the end its members live happily and prosperously ever afterward.
Since we are all used to making allowances for the white racism that permeates so many 19th-century historical novels, there is no special reason why we should not be equally resigned to the black racism in Haley's story. The problem, however, is that Haley's racism leads to an unfortunate distortion of his family's history. Admitting embarrassment that he himself is of mixed blood and feeling humiliated in the presence of truly black Africans, Haley is uncomfortable in dealing with the history of his family during the past hundred years, because that history is one of people with mixed blood who accepted, emulated, and excelled in the white American world…. Only in the sketchiest outline does he tell us of the migration of that family as a unit to Tennessee, of their creation of a vigorous and prosperous new black community, of their economic success…. This is the real story of Haley's family, a typically American success story. That story of triumph over adversity would have been far more inspiring, as well as far more historically accurate, than any romanticized account of African ancestors. (pp. 73-4)
David Herbert Donald (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, December, 1976.
A narrative history of the family from the birth of Kunta Kinte to the maturity of Haley himself, Roots is a hybrid work. It links the detective skills of a superior investigative reporter to the powers of a would-be fiction writer, and the product is a work of extremely uneven texture but unquestionable final success. (p. 23)
Haley's search for his ancestors is not conducted to discover unvarnished truth but rather, from one perspective, to justify the history of blacks in America—as if that history needed justification. There is a dominant angle of vision in Roots; almost the entire story is seen from the vantage point of a belief in the necessity of social and political justice, which is the principal romantic illusion to inform the text. From an artistic and intellectual point of view there is what may be for some readers a fateful shift of emphasis from the pathos and ingenuity of the author's search for his family toward the elevation of its members to mythical level as accurate representatives of the black race in America, with Kunta Kinte as the archetypal African warrior prince. Side by side in the book, then, exist these twin desires for the illumination of truth and the cultural propaganda. What furthur complicates this odd combination is the absence of radical political belief on the author's part; Haley's values, except concerning the worth of black people, are those of the masses of Americans, to whom the book is in fact dedicated.
In one sense Haley's ancestral family bears its mythic burden well; with the exception of Kunta Kinte, after all, the members are really ordinary. But it is on Kinte that the book is based. Though Haley's account of his hero's African childhood sometimes reads like a dramatization of a master's thesis on childhood and youth among the Mandinko people in the mid-18th century, more often it is suffused in the light of Haley's reverence for the Africa of his ancestors and his loving account of their society. His recreation of Kinte's middle-passage journey in the hold of a slave ship is harrowing, the major place in the book where facts are incontrovertibly alchemized into vivid narrative; and his presentation of Kinte's unfolding consciousness of the strange new white world of America is brilliant, yielding startling insights into the psychological process of American slavery, and into aspects of American culture then and now. Kunta Kinte's rage for freedom—one foot is cut off after his fourth attempt to escape—impressed on succeeding generations a respect, however muted, for the integrity of their origins and their dignity as well.
On the other hand, the middle of the book is dominated by the flamboyant figure of Kinte's grandson, Chicken George, reared by his white father—and owner—to be an expert trainer of gamecocks. Haley's accounts of cock-fighting in the South in the 19th century are lively (though there are too many of them), but Chicken George himself is about as interesting as a plucked bird. Survival and endurance replace defiance as the central concern of Kunta Kinte's clan, and it is at this point that its members become History. Haley's integration of personages and events from the American past into his narrative is the stuff of pageants or some other moribund medium, such as television, and fails to conceal the fact that uncovering the truth about the past does not necessarily make it interesting.
The solemnity of the basic theme of Roots also cannot obscure the fact that the Afro-American novel is too accomplished in its basic skills for Roots to pass as a well wrought novel or romance. Technically, the work is so innocent of fictive ingenuity that it seldom surpasses the standards of the most popular of historical romances. Haley's ability to write dialogue and dialect is competent at best, and stilted and artificial far too often. Nor is the work helped much by the strange and fitful dramatic strokes its author casts into the void (Kinte, for example, does not sleep with a woman until he marries at the age of 39 …). Similarly, sociological and historical scholarship on both West Africa and the American slave centuries is too developed for Haley's un-coverings to be met as revelations. Undoubtedly the book will make history and sociology more familiar to its readers, but that role in itself can hardly be the reason for the possibly long-lasting consequence of this narrative.
One pushes through Roots, sometimes swiftly, sometimes laboriously, as often captivated as irritated by the limitations of its concern with form. But there is no denying the extraordinary force of individual passages and episodes or—more importantly—the exhilaration with which one bursts forth, as from the underbrush of dried fact and tangled genealogical vines, into the present time and the living presence of the author. For one dazzling moment, from which it seems impossible to recover, the past becomes the present, and the present becomes the past, and there is a sense of circularity, of completeness, of integration of sensibility within the black American experience that is unparalleled, to my knowledge, in either fiction or scholarship concerning Afro-America.
The primary effect of Roots is not, however, partisan, if only because the implied relationship between the sense of political identity imposed by racism on the American black and the sense of genetic identity with Africa is minimal in its intellectual dignity. Roots is the record of the voluntary location of an individual in the context of the past. Haley may have intended to make the justification of Afro-America the locus of his effort; he has succeeded, in spite of his intentions and his personal reticence, in making himself, as an individual, vital to the book's meanings. The peculiar essence of Roots is that the author, prostrating himself before the past, is himself called upon to justify his existence before the power of history and the court of the past…. And it is this test of the individual life before the sacrifices and disasters of a common ancestry that Haley passes most movingly. In the display of intelligence, industry and humanity out of which the substance of the book evolves—its limitations as fiction are really insignificant in comparison—one finds preserved not pride of family or race or a smattering of heirloomed words but those qualities of spirit that, as Kunta Kinte knew in preferring mutilation to servility, make freedom not a privilege but a necessity. When Haley stands at the end of Roots before his African country-cousins and feels himself "impure" because of their richly black skin, there is behind the tedious racial romanticism the felt truth of a confrontation between the individual and his—and in this case—personified past. Haley has nothing to be ashamed of, at least not in this book; Kunta Kinte would have respected him. (pp. 24-5)
Arnold Rampersad, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 The New Republic, Inc.), December 4, 1976.
After a decade of research in Africa, Europe and the United States [Alex Haley] was able to piece together his family tree. [Roots], although represented as nonfiction, is a monumental novel, a Forsyte Saga of a part-African, part-Irish, part-Cherokee family….
Written mostly in slave dialect, it is crammed with raw violence and makes valid demands on the tearducts of the dourest reader. (p. 23)
The American passages—by far the best and most convincing—are on a par with Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, fully worthy of the praise lavished by reviewers. Yet for all Haley's undeniable achievement and painstaking research, implying a claim to authenticity, the key historical portions are marred by serious factual errors.
A major one occurs in the book's main episode—the story of Kinte's capture. Like characters from Tarzan, white seamen armed with slaves stalk through the long grass, ready to pounce on isolated tribesmen. Allowing outsiders to participate in slavehunting was as unthinkable in 18th-century West Africa as permitting them to harvest their own peppers or shoot ivory. Slaves were the region's most lucrative export, and the middlemen—the African beach traders who reaped the greatest profit in this commerce—bought from African captors and sold to the ships.
Haley's fictionalized ancestor angrily also thinks of his captors as "traitors." Such an idea never could have occurred to Kinte. The people of his village, Juffure, did not see all "Africans" as brothers. Indeed, they had no concept of "Africa" (Haley's characters use the term). Nor did the question of treason arise, since slaveraiders only captured foreigners, not members of their own clans. (pp. 23-4)
Haley's people speak of "The Gambia," the name given to the Kamby River colony created more than a century later, and "Senegal," the French name for the Sunuga River that first became the title of an imperial claim at the Berlin Conference of 1884.
There is talk, too, of "Senegalese" and of "Northern Guinea." Elders mention Benin (1,200 miles away), pygmies and Batutsi (who live as far from Juffure as New York is from San Francisco), and Zimbabwe (a vanished kingdom still further south).
The Juffure of the 1750s is portrayed almost as it appears today. For instance, the village's main crop is rice, which was not introduced until this century and only became Gambia's staple diet after World War II. Kinte is weaned at 13 months—conceivable now, when every Mauritanian storekeeper in Gambia sells powdered milk and formula, but unthinkable in traditional West Africa before the age of three or later. Adults in the village know their ages—an unlikely situation even today.
Kinte's mother, Binta, fears her husband, Omoro, will take a second wife. Today, when large families are often uneconomical, Binta might well protest. She might even object for feminist reasons. In 1760—and as recently as 1960—the new mate would mean Binta's promotion to senior wife, to less work and more respect. In Roots, the women of Juffure kiss children; in traditional Africa it would be revolting to use the mouth for anything but eating, drinking and talking.
There are other minor incongruities….
Historians will not quarrel with Haley's graphic description of the foul conditions aboard a slave ship. But much of the gratuitous cruelty in Roots, directed against a cargo whose value depended on its condition, belies the logic of commerce and the ample memoirs of the trade.
The book's central flaw is that while it portrays in almost anthropological detail Kinte's Mandinko … childhood, and the cultural clash of his initiation into the life of a slave, the wholly American author's persona rather than that of the fictionalized character emerges from the printed page. Only when Juffure has become a distant childhood memory, and Kinte is acculturated into slave America, does the character become arrestingly true.
Kinte's immediate, hysterically sustained reaction to the tragedy of capture is the hindsight rage of today's American. Most slaves went to their fates with resignation, and not surprisingly; Fear, not anger, is the first reaction.
Although resentment at the human instruments of his bondage would be natural enough for Kinte, an illiterate Muslim steeped in animism, the predominant concern would be Why? What Islamic taboo had been broken, what ancestor left unappeased, for his unavoidable sanction to have been imposed? When Kinte cries out on the slave ship that he will never again fail to face Mecca five times a day, Haley comes closest to letting his creation be Mandingo, not American.
The writer admirably describes the gruff discipline and reassuring certainties of life in a traditional West African village. He conveys the local color well and with intelligent sympathy. But despite three or four extended visits to Juffure and other parts of Africa, Haley is necessarily still an outsider….
An African analysis of an American novel, particularly one as good as Roots, is perhaps in some ways superfluous. Certainly it should not detract from the author's amazing work in tracing his family tree to a remote hamlet thousands of miles away. But what Haley shows is that—although less has changed in Juffure over 200 years than in Tennessee, where Allah ordained Kinte's tree should sprout—the roots alone can be uncovered; the seed cannot be recaptured. (p. 24)
Russell Warren Howe, "An Elusive Past," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 3, 1977, pp. 23-4.
[Roots] symbolizes the connection of black Americans—and, by association, all Americans—to Africa itself. Roots is part of the growing body of literature helping to rediscover the heritage of black Americans which has been outlawed, ignored, or forgotten over the generations. (p. xliii)
As literature the work has faults, but none which over-shadow the rightness of its general conception or the triumph of Haley's imagination.
The first half of the book focuses on the life of the African Kunta Kinte and is clearly its most successful part. The dignity of Kunta's family and the soundness of the village culture are thoroughly convincing…. Statistics and drawings of slave ships in no way prepare one for the overpowering vividness of the voyage episodes. Equally moving are Kunta's struggles to escape and to salvage his manhood during the first agonizing years of slavery when he cannot communicate even with his fellow slaves. The book's largest virtues are the genuine and convincing heroism of Kunta and the sustained empathy through which Haley is able to convey the curse of slavery.
His portrayal of whites demonstrates equal control in the middle portions of the book…. Haley gives us believable representative masters without descending to stereotype. There are moments in the lives of later generations, Chicken George and Tom Murray principally, when Haley is equally successful; but melodrama and other flaws begin to strain at the narrative….
Haley's inspiration also seems to wane for the female generations…. Kizzy is surprisingly underplayed compared to the thorough treatment we have become accustomed to with Kunta himself…. [She] figures significantly only as a vessel—first for Kunta's determination to perpetuate his African heritage and later for Tom Lea's sexual attacks. (p. xliv)
Tom Murray's daughter Cynthia is also too quickly eclipsed by her husband, Will Palmer. Palmer is unquestionably an inspiring figure, but, having pursued the descent of one family for over five hundred pages, the reader feels gulled to find the operative grandparent overshadowed. Indeed, by the time we reach Haley's own mother, Bertha, the quality of family saga is dissipated to mundane family chronicle. Perhaps Haley's imagination is cramped toward the end of the book, ironically, by too much familiarity with his subject to allow a conclusion consistent with the bulk of the book.
Whatever the cause, the turn to personal history and the account of his investigation is a jarring disappointment at the end of the book. The method is apparent throughout, and the significance of the story for Haley and the reader lies in its basis in fact, but the distance in time and the purity of touch in the earlier portions of the book are ultimately more satisfying. One supposes that even Haley senses this as he accelerates the passage of time through the last three generations. Perhaps it is too much to attempt to breathe life into more than two or three generations in a single volume.
Whatever its flaws in symmetry and consistency of tone, they do not outweigh the power of the early narrative or the significance of the project as a whole. Haley has made an important contribution to our mutual history through an informed imagination. (pp. xliv, xlvi)
Dale Norton, "A Usable Past," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Spring, 1977, pp. xliii-xlvi.
For long we have been fighting the fiction that we maintained nothing of what we brought over from Africa, that we created nothing of cultural value in the South; fighting the belief that because we were not accorded life by the image-makers, that we, in fact, did not exist. We have been fighting to establish that the lives of our fore-parents stood for something other than what was portrayed in the U.S. media.
Roots, because it is based on the result of painstaking scholarship and is therefore accurate in most of its details, will give Afro-Americans, especially the young, a second starting point from which to look at their past. (p. 50)
Haley wants the story of the Kinte family to be seen as "The Saga of an American Family." Will Afro-Americans reading the book think of themselves as more American or less?…
Tom the Blacksmith, a Kinte descendant, and his family are shown in 1860 to exemplify the virtues of family loyalty, thrift, hard work, ingenuity, perseverance, and spirituality…. My fear is that what Haley may have unwittingly done is to lay the Kinte family open to that other charge against us: Oh, but you're different! Did he write too well?…
Haley has brought together an incredibly large body of information, has woven it into story, incident and detail, the result of which is overwhelming. Haley's skill as a writer of adventure stories shows in the live way incidents are portrayed, from cockfighting to the Middle Passage….
Roots will not only help translate Afro-American experience, it will also make possible a more intelligent viewing and reading about Afro-American experience. (p. 51)
Adam David Miller, in The Black Scholar (copyright 1977 by The Black Scholar), April, 1977.
In terms of political impact, the three most important literary milestones may well turn out to be, first, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852; second, the collective Black creative eruption of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; and now, thirdly, Alex Haley's work of "fact-ion," Roots….
[Whether] this particular work itself continues to be read or not, its impact at the point of its birth has been sufficiently extensive to make it a major sociological event in modern American history. (p. 6)
Part of the impact of Roots is due to the fact that very few Black Americans can trace their origins back to Africa in any personalized or family sense. Because of the nature of the slave-system which prevailed in the United States, Blacks were forced to forget their past. Collective amnesia was imposed on the Black population. Both the book and the television series bring out sharply this strategy of enforced amnesia. Kunta Kinte's vain struggle to retain his African name, and the brutal way in which he was compelled to accept a new identity, dramatized this process. (p. 7)
Following the showing of the television series of Roots, many White Americans wondered if it was wise to resurrect the past….
[Collective] amnesia was not only imposed on Blacks; it was also imposed on White Americans by their own guilt complexes…. White America longed for at least fitful forgetfulness to drown the cries of anguish of a man in the process of having his foot cut off.
That is why Kunta Kinte's amputated foot had such powerful symbolic meaning—in some ways more powerful than the alternative fate of castration as punishment for attempting to escape…. Had Kunta lost his testicles he would have had no procreational future; but by losing his foot he was now brutally cut off from his historical past. [He could not return physically to Africa.] (p. 8)
The symbolism is heightened by the circumcision episode earlier in the saga…. The comparative symbolism of bloodletting in the two events captured a range of emotive responses: from the promise of puberty to the despair of immobility, from the valor of initiation to the anguish of final submission.
The theme of escape acquired two contradictory meanings in Roots. One is psychological escapism—a retreat from harsh realities through make-believe. The lives of Chicken George and his father were particularly illustrative of this trend. (pp. 8-9)
[They indulged in the cheap escapism of cockfighting]—making weaker beings fight unto death without any risk to the cheering human sadists.
And between Chicken George and his father, the father was the greater escapist…. [Like] so many other American slave owners, he sought to escape the reality of his own child by maintaining George's status as a saleable commodity. Ultimately George's father was a moral coward—he was himself chicken.
The other sense of "escape" in Roots is the ambition to escape bondage. Kunta Kinte's attempts to run away were the most explicit aspects of this motif. But there was also the related theme of silent protest through the oral tradition; a constant reminder from generation to generation of a prior existence before slavery….
These twin themes of escape in Roots are quite fundamental both to American history as a whole and to America as a human dream. (p. 9)
Ali A. Mazrui, "The End of America's Amnesia," in Africa Report (published by permission of Transaction, Inc.; copyright © 1977 by The African-American Institute, Inc.), Vol. 22, No. 3, May-June, 1977, pp. 6-11.
In presenting [the story of Roots] as a novel, Haley has maximized its popular appeal and captured the spirit of its oral tradition. In fact Roots may be regarded as the first serious challenge to existing popular mythology on the black man's past—that blacks are without a past, without a culture of their own and therefore, an inferior and unworthy people. If Haley had chosen to provide a factual report of his family's history, it might have had no greater impact than as a quaint and incidental reference in the historiography of American slavery. Instead, with characters drawn from real people, woven into a drama of major events and day-to-day activities, conversations and interrelationships, Roots lays hold of our imagination and begins to restructure popular belief about the black experience. (p. 211)
Haley is at his best when recreating Kunta's boyhood in the Gambia…. This part of the story is a disciplined account that engages us in the rhythm of Africa…. But Haley's narrative becomes difficult in recounting the African-American experience. The development of a distinctive African-American culture is a complex chapter in our history. It does not lend itself to the clarity and simplicity which characterize Haley's portrayal of boyhood in eighteenth century West Africa. How, for example, should the slave's accommodation and resistance to the slave master, his culture and his oppression be treated?
Haley acknowledges African survivals among the slaves: gestures, facial expressions, cries of exclamation and "these blacks' great love of singing and dancing." These traits, however, are interpreted as incidental and unconscious. What the author apparently considers as weightier matters of culture seem to survive only among the Kintes. For example, the slave community which Haley describes appears not to be composed of families. In sharp contrast to the Kinte family unit, the other slaves in Roots appear as a collection of unattached individuals. The implication is that most slaves lived outside the bonds of kinship and marriage. At issue is not literary style or emphasis, but rather the interpretation of the African-American experience. While the Kinte family is among an elite in its oral tradition, it is not unique in its family structure and function.
Recent scholarship on the slave family would have informed Haley's work.
[Nevertheless, our] debt is to Haley for introducing this story to the public and for engaging the nation in pursuit of its past. (p. 212)
Carole Meritt, "Looking at Afro-American Roots," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1977, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXXVIII, Second Quarter (June, 1977), pp. 211-12.
Roots, meaning the beginning, captures the essence of an African people. It is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinter-pretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity. It sutures the wounds that European and American historical scalpers presented to Blacks as the truth about their heritage in an effort to enslave their minds as well as their bodies…. [This] psychological warfare was the most grevious of all crimes wrought upon a people. Haley, with his seminal work, Roots, has helped mightily to destroy the chilling terror of ignorance of who we are as a people. He has given our proud heritage back to us. He has given us back our ancestors and our land. He has made us less fearful of white reprisals for we have seen them displayed in all of their ugliness, both in the book and on the screen, reaching the masses of Black people as well as the scholars. He has done this not once but twice—first with The Autobiography of Malcolm X …, and now with Roots, an epic work of classical dimensions. (p. 367)
[The cultural history of African people] is vividly told. It is electrifying in its imagery. The descriptions are rooted in historical truth culled from meticulous research…. (p. 368)
Significantly, the story is viewed primarily through the eyes of Kunta Kinte, one of Haley's ancestors. In this way, Haley enables the reader to experience what the rains, hunger, depopulation, love, learning and responsibility meant to the Mandinkas…. Each of us becomes Kunta Kinte as he pursues a lifetime in the pages of this work. (pp. 368-69)
[Roots] is full of drama, neither all fact nor all fiction. With a little bit of both, Haley has woven together a tale which will be long remembered and which this reviewer believes will have a serious, sustained impact on Civil Rights in this century and the next. (p. 369)
The book Roots is a gift of grace to the American people. The television version, despite its flaws, is a milestone in race relations. It provided 130 million out of 200 million Americans a more-or-less realistic view of the most heinious cultural institution in American life—slavery, which was evil crystallized; evil encapsulated. The airing of "Roots" spelled out in concrete ways a spirit of black pride and black identity for Black Americans; and for white Americans, a clearer understanding of what slavery did to this country and a whole nation of people. (p. 371)
Nancy L. Arnez, "From His Story to Our Story: A Review of 'Roots'," in The Journal of Negro Education, 46 (Summer, 1977,) pp. 367-71.
For all its moving, tender, and grisly historic vividness, Roots remains what psychologists call an "ambiguous stimulus," one which is selectively restructured by the observer who is participant. This is not to despair in solipsism, but to emphasize the omnipresence of subjectivity in the never-detached observer; and to stress equally that that subjectivity can be a tool either for un-self-conscious indulgence, or for disciplined engagement. (p. 12)
For me, what is refreshing about Haley's Roots is that reality is not … cavalierly held in contempt. While there is much absolutistic either-or in the tale, Haley's world of human bondage does more than outrageously simplify into good guys and bad guys. I would go further: his is an American epic that Black and White men and women of good will might read and watch and discuss together. For while Haley does lamentably indulge in stereotyping, which I shall consider later, the over-all effect of Roots is, for me, a transcendent one, not a one-sided victory. In a sense, Roots taps the core of the American experience with its focus on the journey from whence we come, where we are now, where we aspire to, and the ever-new and constantly renewing pioneer settling of a new-found-land in freedom. "We" becomes everyone, not a single race. Haley is not fixated on the past: the past is simply, and starkly, and dramatically, the Proud Beginning. Haley does not rest complacently with an origin myth: for roots is process, not place. Roots lie not only in the past—but in the present and future as well.
Those who view Haley's message as exclusively a look backward have missed the dramatic unfolding toward the future. A sinking and spreading of roots takes place throughout the odyssey. (pp. 11-12)
The American dream became a new image of rootedness. The American cultural value on "Don't give up hope," that "If I can't attain it, I will help my children to get it," these values, in Haley's script, become transformed into Afro-American values, making for convergence, congruence, synthesis in cultural aspirations. (p. 13)
The new rootedness is not without anguish and sacrifice and risk. Kunta Kinte must choose among divided loyalties: his choice reveals what sort of man he is, his values, his priorities. He must decide between acting upon his vow to be a free man at any cost, and remaining with his new family…. Ultimately, it required greater courage for Kunta Kinte to choose to remain behind, to establish new roots, than it would have been to make a daring escape. To the maturing Kunta Kinte, the freedom of dogged ideological adherence to the individualism of the past became less attractive than commitment to those who were by love and promise of the future committed to him. He found new reward in meeting the new demands and opportunities of family life. There were other ways of fighting slavery than fleeing it.
Kunta Kinte chooses the limits and different freedoms of responsibility, mutuality, and devotion. Like his future descendant Alex Haley, he is more self-disciplined than self-indulgent. Selfhood is deepened, not suffocated, in relation and commitment—all the more dramatically poignant when the imminence of the master's whim renders impermanent any human relationship. (pp. 13-14)
Haley does frequently indulge himself oversimplifying and overdrawing racial differences to the point of caricature. This results in a reversal of White stereotypes, popular and sociological, and obscures much of the interpersonal complexity and internal anguish in those both Black and White caught together in the "American Dilemma." Thus Africans and Afro-Americans are portrayed as strong, courageous, loving, alive, patient, compassionate, determined, proud, moral, having integrity, knowing who they are, resorting to deception and obsequious cunning only out of the necessity of survival. Whites, excepting Old George, are cruel, inhuman, immoral, pretentiously mannered, innured to human suffering, calloused in their emotions, obsessed with property and propriety and order. Freedom in Africa is contrasted with Slavery in America, as though African slavery not only did not antedate White slavers but did not exist. Neither Kunta Kinte, nor Chicken George, nor others in the later succession of Black males, were weak, passive, docile, fatalistic, resigned. For survival they may have feigned what submission the credulous master and mistress needed for their own dehumanizing entertainment. But everything was a finely rehearsed outward act…. Defiance was the underlying flame that made brokenness and despair impossible. Rootedness endured….
If in some ways, Haley simplifies history, in other ways, his dramatic autobiographic odyssey of personal lineage is congruent with the findings of current historians of the antebellum South. (p. 14)
With insight and grace, Haley is able to articulate contradictions and ambivalences that less self-aware writers would make a matter of either-or. With empathic historical relativism, he successfully (for me) tries to imagine himself and his audience back in the eras he depicts…. There is no denying the human holocaust of American slavery. Yet even in the constraints of such degradation, there was some mutuality, some warmth, some caring, some commitment, some sense of reciprocal obligation. All was not feigned. Haley conveys much of this, even as he exaggerates the virtues and frailties and failings of his characters.
I find and identify with in Roots a struggle and process that is incomplete, one which I suspect cannot be finalized without foreclosing or violating the life-long development of identity. Here is where Roots parts company with most personal histories, self-disclosures, and autobiographic-ethnic confessionals of the contemporary genre. For if I hear Haley correctly, Roots does not denote exclusively African origins. Kunta Kinte is not his protagonist, but a vehicle for the dramatic unfolding which is the true protagonist, one of a search for wholeness. I do not find in Haley's agonized itinerary a tale of primeval innocence, despite frequent lapse in characterization. I do not hear an apologia for ethno-racial separatism, since Haley's and Roots' odyssey is inextricably Black and White. I do not find Black pride purchased exclusively at the expense of White shame and guilt. Haley is not altogether clear here, but the direction of his resolution is what compels my identification. He is, after all, the biographer of Malcolm X who just before his assassination, transcended the hate-ridden phase of "White Devils" hortatory rhetoric in his pilgrimage to Mecca, discovering that all men could be brothers irrespective of race. Roots serves as a reminder that not only is Black history bound up with White, but that White history is inseparable from Black. In a word, Haley's integrity and authenticity outweigh his sins of omission and commission. He has held a mirror before us, one in which we have chosen to peer attentively. Haley has chosen not the deceptive luxury of cozening himself and us into a fixation on the past, but has with sensitivity and self-discipline documented and embellished a continuum of culture and history that is common to the American experience.
Roots concludes with homage to the past and hope for the future, a future founded on a fresh start—something peculiarly American. (pp. 15-16)
[This] fairy tale in historical form is designed to make a point. And the degree to which it has touched us, made us more whole, is the extent to which Haley's odyssey is ours also, his hope, ours. In the end, there remains the unanswered question: Quo vadimus? Is it still possible to overcome together? (p. 16)
Howard F. Stein, "In Search of 'Roots': An Epic of Origins and Destiny (copyright © 1978 by Ray B. Browne), in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer, 1977, pp. 11-17.
Perhaps it is time … to take a close, steady look at the phenomenon that is Roots: what lies at the bottom of its pandemic appeal, what magic does it proffer, and to whom? Three sorts of magic, subtly blended to serve as all things to most people, can be directly identified.
To begin with, the magic of the placebo. Roots purports to deal with diseases in the American body politic and the harsh medicine necessary for a cure. But it proves unspeakably mild and conciliatory in fact…. Haley has the accent of an adolescent catechist, and the imagination of an adolescent materialist. The vividness of physical slavery virtually exhausts his powers of response…. One thinks of André Schwarz-Bart and A Woman Named Solitude and wishes that Haley had half so well perceived the physique of slavery as a perverse sacrament, an outward sign of inward disgrace, imposed degradation.
The essence of the placebo approach is expressed in the shift from cultural-moral issues to esthetic effects as the novel wears on. The marriage of Tom and Irene … is "a lovely, moving occasion" with a "lavish reception dinner" replete with "beaming white families"; and suddenly slavery has evolved into a source of charming occasions and charming sentiments…. Roots combines a sense that grave problems are under discussion with a basically picturesque and comforting spirit. It is a sort of movie-setting mountain, large and weighty to the credulous eye, and perfect for a time that wants to take up serious cultural-moral questions without difficulty and without discipline.
Then there is the magic of approximation. Haley continually fails to come to grips with a number of thorny issues…. But he seems to raise the issues; of time and the power of chance; of memory and the difference between a communal-African and an institutional-American organization of society; of cultural cross-comparison, and the nostalgic cachet of racial recall; of the paradoxicality of black American experience, which produces both dross and gold out of one pot, one personality; and so on. In raising such issues, Roots promises a far broader, more candid and more complex engagement than it sustains. It touches rather than taking on its issues. (pp. 145-46)
Finally one may recognize the magic of sentimentality, of emotion released from the demands of its object and expressed in the loose idiom of incredulity. Sentimentality largely prevents Roots from breaking into the revolutionary dimension toward which it gestures, and further prevents it from getting into the complex psycho-ecology of a family tree in an alien, indeed hostile soil…. It is odd that in his personal life Haley should make such claims for the transformative-redemptive value of the [oral] tradition, and yet in his fiction do so little to substantiate those claims.
In fact, there is a fourth, covert magic about Roots, the magic of what may best be called the misplaced genre. The work only just fails to find itself as sado-masochistic pornography …; or as a metaphysical detective story …; or as a victim's history of the United States; or again as a variant of the tale of the self-made man. Roots ends up as a smorgasbord when it might have been a mosaic. It is a feast for the transient rather than the sedulous reader. Its very form, marked by short chapters and short paragraphs, is calculated for ease. When it strives to be authentic it manages to be inadvertently comic, as in calling male genitals "foto" or the slave-minded white man "toubob." Because it does not dig in or rear up when serious matters are afoot, it seems easy to get through. But one wonders whether it will not prove also unduly easy to put down. (p. 146)
Michael G. Cooke, "'Roots' as Placebo," in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1977, pp. 144-46.
This saga of one man's twelve-year search for his ancestral origin [Roots] owes its success chiefly to white American guilt and Afro-American consciousness…. The Newsweek critique that Roots 'will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves' is one certainly not to be applied to black Africans, who will question the sanity of any man who feels that his ancestral origins are of such significance as to warrant a twelve-year and half-a-million mile search. The inevitable reaction of any such African (I am one) to the resulting book would be … so what?…
This book is sad in a way—from the view that it meant so much to Mr. Haley to embark on this search to find an identity for himself. For this reason only am I happy that he was rewarded with the acclaim and commercial success that the book fetched him. Apart from that, his book is a great disappointment. Through six generations of slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, architects and lawyers, lumber mill workers and Pullman porters—and one author, this is a tiresomely long and tediously detailed saga of one Kunta Kinte…. As a dramatic novel describing the anguish and sheer hell of slavery, Roots must rank as the worst slave-novel I have read (my bookshelves boast scores of them). It is written in a patronising manner that makes the reader feel like a nursery-school child being told a fairy-tale by a sweet-smiling female teacher. During the sixteen years of Kunta Kinte's rosy upbringing in the Gambia (made exaggeratedly rosy to emphasise the enormity of his kidnapping into slavery, no doubt), we see happy Kunta indulge in all the rigorous activities to shape him into manhood, except sexual communication. This essential aspect of nature seems to be totally absent from this lad's life, and the only hint that he is ever aware that such a natural phenomenon exists at all is when he has his first baby as a slave.
The book is rendered tedious after the second chapter by Haley's obsession with antiquated expressions and the weather … 'The names, which were great and many, went back more than two hundred rains'….
Haley, we are told, taught himself to write, becoming a magazine writer and interviewer, and ghosting Malcolm X's autobiography. He should now endeavour to teach himself sentence-control. To say that most of his sentences are mouthfuls would be an understatement….
The question that remains is, of course, how valid are the findings of his search? How reliable was the 'griot' in Juffure who supplied Haley with the information that left him in no doubt that he had at long last found his family tree? … Haley expresses deep gratitude to the griots of Africa….
However, anyone who read [Mark Ottaway's brilliant] expose in the Sunday Times regarding the integrity of the late griot who gave Haley the meat-centre of his various informations, would have been tempted to conclude, as I concluded, that Haley had been taken for a shameful ride. That particular griot, Ottaway alleged, was something of a villain, a master of exaggeration and concoction, who knew in advance what Haley wanted to hear….
On the basis of this, I am inclined to think that Roots is a work of pure fiction, albeit unintentional on Haley's part. Nevertheless Haley must be admired for his great efforts and originality. His sincerity is unquestionable.
Dillibe Onyeama, "Wrong Roots," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Dillibe Onyeama 1978; reprinted with permission), June, 1978, p. 23.
"Roots," which, on television at least, started out as an entertainment and evolved into a sociological phenomenon, has finally turned into a self-contained environment…. "Roots" emerged from the TV screen like a massive tapestry, every square inch imprinted with artifacts of slavery and the period which it ominously dominated. The show's impact on whites as well as blacks is still being studied, but there is almost total agreement that, despite its obvious flaws, "Roots" was proof of the positive impact which a TV series can have on our society….
While ["Roots: The Next Generations"] may lack some of the emotional impact of discovery and recognition of the original mini-series, [it] is superior to "Roots" in just about every other way. It is a tribute to taste, talent, creativity, and commitment….
Deprived of the emotional issue of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation, the new series touches on just about every black-white, black-black, people-people issue of the past 125 years. And it manages to handle most of them with restraint and subtlety, seldom downgrading the complexities, usually upgrading the emotionalism only as much as necessary for dramatic impact….
The emphasis is not so much on the fight for freedom as it is on the struggle for equality. There is no sign of any queasiness as Kunta Kinte's descendants struggle toward their ultimate goal—assimilation into the American middle class.
Although many whites as well as blacks have been involved in the production of "Roots: The Next Generations," the mini-series looks at the world through the eyes of moderate black America. The perspective is black. And to those eyes, black is not only beautiful—it is upwardly mobile….
Throughout all seven episodes, whenever a baby is born, he is held up to the sky and the moon as was Kunta Kinte. The elders retell a few simple facts about the African origins of the family, deeply rooted in nourishing black African soil. It is an inspiring family chronicle—the family of man, that is.
Certainly there are lapses—every now and then one can spot a kind of yearning for mass-media oversimplification and garishness—which will have you wincing…. (p. 23)
"Roots," "Holocaust," and now "Roots: The Next Generations" have all been stupendous projects, conceived with monumental objectives—that is, to illuminate important human events of our time. And as in the case of the mammoth heads of Mt. Rushmore, any close inspection of such a gargantuan creative project reveals flaws, distortion, cracks. But one doesn't examine Mt. Rushmore with a magnifying glass—one looks, one experiences, one marvels.
"Roots I" and now "Roots II" have managed to reflect accurately a long-neglected segment of our humanity, place it once and for all in rational perspective, allow it to take its rightful place in our consciousness. And most important—they have done what only television can do: Make it an integral part of the environment.
Arthur Unger, "'Roots' Is Back, in Many Ways a Better Series," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 16, 1979, p. 19.
Will Alex Haley's ancestors reconquer American television? After seeing three of [the 14 hours of Roots: The Next Generations], I'd have to give a provisional no. With all its whippings and thrashings and swoony palpitations, [Roots I] had a pulpy-moralistic excitement reminiscent of that other world-shaking race melodrama, Uncle Tom's Cabin…. [Roots II is] an expensive show-and-tell lecture about Black History and Black Pride, forlornly parading forth good intentions….
[As] drama, it's pulverisingly dull. Unlike the first series, the white characters here aren't all foaming-at-the-mouth racists, but you find yourself wishing that somebody would work up a frothy high….
[The later] episodes of Roots: The Next Generations … celebrate Alex Haley as the great soul-embattled moral explorer of our time…. [Despite] dents in Haley's scholarly reputation, he's still a heroic figure for millions of Americans—millions who will loyally handcuff themselves to the TV for all 14 ponderous hours of Roots II.
James Wolcott, "'Roots II': Provocative (Zzzzzzzzzz)," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), February 19, 1979, p. 54.
In its seventh and final installment, "Roots: The Next Generations" changes shape. Set in the 1960's, it presents an Alex Haley who is a more complex and sharp-edged character than many of his now-famous forebears. And it places him in highly charged situations in which the battle lines aren't clearly drawn. If the earlier episodes, however sweeping, had a tendency to be black and white in outlook as well as subject matter, the conclusion of the series is something else again. This last part of "Roots" is easily strong enough to be watched without reference to the rest of the series….
[The confrontation between American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell and Haley] shows each man masking bitterness and rage with an air of exaggerated calm—Mr. Rockwell pretends to unflappable reasonableness, and Mr. Haley counters by being businesslike. The program is at its best when it sets up such intense, furious parallels and then refuses to resolve the situation. The interview scene ends with Mr. Rockwell's becoming so amused by his memories of absurdly childish Nazi anthems that he simply trails off in the middle of the encounter.
Right to the end, "Roots" persists in caricaturing whites who are either too unctuous or too evil. A cocktail party scene, which says as much about the younger Mr. Haley and his ambitions as it does about the era, is slightly marred by its exaggeration of the white hostess's gaucherie.
Later in the program, though, the nature of relations between blacks and whites in the 60's is illustrated with much more delicacy, as Mr. Haley tracks down people from widely varying backgrounds in the course of his hunt for his African relatives, an undertaking that takes an obvious toll on his private affairs before it culminates in a wonderful, stirring moment of triumph.
Janet Maslin, "TV: End of 'Roots II' Delineates 60's," in The New York Times (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 25, 1979, p. 46.
Ever since Alex Haley's best-selling documentary novel (or "faction," as he described it) "Roots" first appeared, in 1974, and then reappeared, on television, in 1977, still as "Roots" (or "Roots I"),… and then reappeared again a few weeks ago, as "Roots: The Next Generations" (or "Roots II") … the story of Mr. Haley's efforts to retrace his lineage to its African beginnings has been talked about in terms of power. To "Roots" in its various forms, though perhaps especially to its television dramatizations, have been attributed the power to uplift the pride of American blacks, the power to raise the racial consciousness of American whites, the power to affect the emotions of all races through its powerful narrative, and the power to teach.
There is obviously no denying the power of a popular story that persistently attracts such huge audiences, although, considering the several weaknesses, dramatic and otherwise, of "Roots II," it is worth speculating about where the real power of the over-all drama resides. For example, it surely does not lie in an enormous respect for historical accuracy, since, despite Haley's much-touted labors of research, the dimensions of the several plagiarism lawsuits brought against him, and of one settlement, indicate that there was at times some more than modest confusion in his mind as to his sources; also, a 1977 challenge by a reporter of the London Sunday Times to the plausibility of Haley's griot-obtained information about his remote African ancestor Kunta Kinte has cast at least a little doubt on the factual, or detective-story, basis of his adventure. Nor has "Roots II" treated its parent, the original "Roots," with all-embracing fidelity, being content, perhaps, to subject the sacred text to the same poetic process that the author sometimes employed upon his earlier research. (p. 115)
[Chief among the problems concerning "Roots II"], I suppose, is the extraordinarily lopsided nature of Haley's story—a lopsidedness that existed in Haley's book and has only been magnified in both television versions—wherein the black characters are almost uniformly depicted in terms of dignity and moral courage, while the white characters, with but few exceptions, are generally portrayed as loutish and mean-spirited when poor, or weak and corrupt, though superficially genteel, when rich. Thus, in the town of Henning, Tennessee, where most of the first half of "Roots II" takes place … one gets not so much a sense of real drama or interplay between the blacks and the whites—of the two peoples' being really involved with one another—as a sort of old-fashioned, static morality play, reminiscent in part of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and also, in some ways, of those movies about life in the trenches in the First World War, where Allied soldiers are shown in one set of trenches and the Germans are shown in another set of trenches, and the point of the drama seems to be to wait for some captain's whistle to periodically signal an offensive. In "Roots I," the propaganda element was rarely absent, although, perhaps because of the more substantial texture of the story, the racial messages seemed less obtrusive. In "Roots II," there are extended periods when propaganda seems to have been substituted for story—as in the Henning episodes, in which the drama seems to come to life only at those carefully structured intervals when the coarse and violent whites are sent off to brutalize the stoic and philosophic blacks.
The men in "Roots II" are for the most part close to racial caricature; the women are not much better. Black women in "Roots II" tend to be wise, sexual, philosophic, and invariably in touch with basic human emotions; white women are usually superficial and unsexual—or, if sexual, slightly whorish. But there are a couple of exceptions to the general rule of caricature—or, at least, there are attempts at exceptions…. Jim [son of the town aristocrat] is clearly intended as a sort of bridge between the races, or trenches, for he marries a black girl (naturally, a college-educated black girl of great sensitivity and good looks) and goes to live on the black side of town. But there is something off-key about the role. On the surface, Jim … seems to be a decent sort of white American boy, at least by "Roots II" standards, being relatively non-alcoholic, non-corrupt, and non-loutish, but he is also a kind of freak: poetic, sensitive, literary—almost, to use an archaic word, something of a sissy. Thus, while striking a blow for brotherhood in the "plot," the underlying quality of Jim's role suggests, first, that the only way for a white man to escape the inherent wickedness of his nature is by surrendering a large part of his masculinity, and, second, that the surest way to achieve goodness is for him to marry a black girl. "Roots II" also suggests a couple of other options open to a white man wishing to achieve some measure of salvation—or, at least, dignity—in Henning, Tennessee, in the late nineteenth century. One of these is to be a sound, progressive, forward-thinking, liberal-minded small businessman. Not just an ordinary businessman, mind you, for, although business is clearly an occupation that attracts a better sort of person than the white trash who commonly engage in rural activities in the South, it nonetheless often brings out the devil in the white soul by driving such a person to drink on the job and become shiftless; as in the case of poor, weak Mr. Campbell…. Another option for a white man aspiring to decency is to be Jewish. According to "Roots II," there has rarely been as deep and affecting a fondness between two peoples as that which existed in Henning, Tennessee, in the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties between black Americans and Jewish Americans. In fact, except for the forward-looking banker who sets Mr. Palmer up in the lumber business, just about the only decent adult white man anywhere near Henning is a cultivated gentleman called Mr. Goldstein, who runs a small drygoods store in town. (pp. 115-17)
Even when one wants to like "Roots II," it seems to require some effort to peer through the curious racial propaganda, and something of a further effort to care very deeply—beyond the purely reflexive response of not wanting to see helpless people beaten up onscreen—about characters, white or black, whose personalities contain so few ambiguities and no surprises and who are mainly sent off, like freight cars, on their tracks of nobility (for the blacks) and meanness (for the whites) while we wait for them to collide.
There is also another fairly important weakness in the story. For, though the two "Roots" dramatizations have been described or appraised in epic terms, in "Roots II" (which is supposedly based on the last section of Haley's book together with "one thousand pages of notes" that he provided for the project) the television writers seem to have reduced the potentially epic dimensions of the story of Haley's ancestors in this country since the Civil War to a generation-by-generation series of boy-meets-girl encounters. Obviously, there's a place for romance and sexual relationships in a long family narrative, but in much of "Roots II" the problems of young love seem to be the real focus of the drama—and in some cases the only focus. At the center of the stage, girl flirts with boy, or boy flirts with girl; girl runs after boy, or boy runs after girl. Around these perpetually romancing kinfolk stand, on one side, the older generation of black men and women, persistently displaying wisdom and dignity, and, on another side, the hostile white people, brandishing clubs and displaying a general air of menace. And behind them, hazily sketched on a backdrop, or sometimes only hinted at, are the larger events of the times that Haley and his ancestors lived through. It seems a strangely condescending view of black history, or of the part played in it by Haley's ancestors—as if the major moments worth rendering were youthfully romantic ones. (pp. 117-18)
[On] the surface, the power of the "Roots" stories remains something of a mystery or a paradox. Their audience-drawing power is evident…. But the nature of this power is not so clear. For example, the dramas are alleged to be uplifting to blacks, and so they are, but they are also in many instances subtly and not so subtly condescending toward them. Or they are supposed to be instructive to whites, but in fact the instruction is often inept, implausible, and inaccurate. More important for a popular melodrama, the "Roots" episodes, while they are described as a richly dramatic narrative releasing powerful emotions, are for the most part strangely static, with characters not so much acting out tragic patterns as merely being set in their ways, often imprisoned in stereotype, and with the supposed dramatic focus being directed unusually often to the relatively soft and formulaic problems of young love. So where does this power of "Roots" come from?
It comes, I suspect, from a most familiar source: from fantasy—or, to be a bit more specific, from family fantasies, those "remembrances" of a golden past or golden youth that most of us have dreamed for ourselves at some point or other, and that we apparently still dream at moments when we feel too naked or alone in the world to deal with cold reality. In "Roots I," this element of fantasy was less noticeable, for the first television series was based fairly specifically on events in Haley's book …; yet, even beneath Haley's stolid, journalist's prose and his gruesome scenes of slave whippings, the softer, golden colors of his dreaming could be glimpsed. (pp. 118-19)
If Haley's private fantasies were subterranean in "Roots I," glowing from underneath the dark tales of slavery, in "Roots II" they seem to be much closer to the surface. There is one scene in particular, it seems to me, that expresses the underlying fantasy of the whole narrative…. What one saw in the scene was this: Haley has recently arrived in Gambia, on the coast of western Africa, in order to seek out traces of his ancestors. Earlier, he has met with some Gambians, who have directed him inland and upriver. Now Haley, holding notebook and pencil, has reached his apparent destination. The sun is shining. There are sand and palm trees. (Arcadia returning!) And a crowd of friendly, smiling Africans approaches across the sand. Haley stands watching them, and then, with mounting excitement, begins to cry, "I've found you! I've found you! Kunta Kinte, I've found you!" On the television screen, it is a triumphant moment….
Certainly it is not a fantasy unique to Haley; probably most people have indulged in it at one time or another, and that, I suspect, accounts for its power. Call it the fantasy or dream of Going Home. (p. 120)
[In] print and on television, and especially in the more recent television version, "Roots II," Haley's work seems to be only incidentally a drama of the progress and the tribulations of black people in America. This is the overlay of the story: the plot; the journalistic message that people tell themselves they are responding to. The deeper energy of the story, and its real strength in terms of audience appeal, proceeds from Haley's own fantasies about Going Home, and above all from his apparent willingness to leave the fantasies intact and unchallenged in much the same way that his audience does. One could almost say that the power of "Roots" lies in its weakness, albeit a most human weakness, for nearly all of us seem prey to fears that our ancestors were not—at least, at some point in the remote and golden past—mighty warriors, noble, sexual, and brave; and, worse, that if one of our kinfolk should now come before us, having travelled from a distant century or a far-off county, he would only let us down and make us look bad. "Kunta Kinte, at last I've found you, and I sure hope you make me look good!" Of course, if Haley had bitten the bullet and broken through the dream he was so movingly trapped in, he would have had to write a different, braver, and almost certainly much less popular book; but then he might have given his people, and also other peoples, a truer Kunta Kinte, clothed, however dangerously, in his real humanity, and who knows but that in the long run this might have turned out to be the greater gift? (pp. 124-25)
Michael J. Arlen, "The Prisoner of the Golden Dream," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 26, 1979. pp. 115-20; 123-25.