Alex Haley Analysis

Discussion Topics

James Baldwin wrote in The New York Times that Roots would make a difference only if it “turns the anger at yesterday’s slavery into anger at today’s ghetto.” Do you agree that having effect on today’s social problems is the book’s most important purpose?

Assimilation is an important theme in Roots. Giving specific examples of behavior and language, compare and contrast Kunte Kinte’s and Chicken George’s attitudes toward assimilation.

Alex Haley did historical research for twelve years before writing Roots. With the information he gathered, he could have written a history book, but instead he wrote a work of fiction. Why do you think he made this choice?

Before the Civil Rights era, slaves were often depicted in literature as childlike and happy with their lot. How does Roots shatter this myth? Why do you think this myth persisted as long as it did? What kind of reception do you think Roots would have received if it had been published before the Civil Rights era? Do you think it would have been an influential book? Why or why not?

One of Haley’s aims in writing Roots was to dispel the popular notion that African American family life did not exist. How does he do this? Is he successful? Are there differences in Roots between African American slave families and African American families after slavery ended?


Blayney, Michael Steward. “Roots and the Noble Savage.” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Winter, 1986): 1-17. Provides a correlation between the popularity of the novel and the American fascination with the romantic ideal of the noble savage. Sees Kunta Kinte as a character in that tradition.

Courlander, Harold. “Kunta Kinte’s Struggle to Be African.” Phylon 47 (December, 1986): 294-302. Discusses Haley’s characterization of Kunta Kinte as a primitive being. Asserts that Roots should be viewed as a work of fiction, not as pure history.

Demarest, David P., Jr. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Beyond Didacticism.” College Language Association Journal 16 (1972). Comments on Haley’s contribution to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Gerber, David. “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of Popular Phenomenon.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5 (Fall, 1977): 87-111. Analyzes the popular cultural phenomenon generated by the novel and miniseries. Analyzes Haley’s treatment of historical material in general and of slavery in particular.

Haley, Alex. Interview by Jeffrey Elliot. Negro History Bulletin 41, no. 1 (January/February, 1978): 782-785. Haley presents most of the facts of his life. He discusses the...

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