Roots: The Saga of an American Family Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Roots Analysis - Essay

Alex Haley

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Roots Analysis

Roots is much more than a book, even a very successful one. (It sold 1.5 million copies in the first year alone.) The appearance of Roots created a major sociological and cultural phenomenon. It captured the public imagination as few other works by American authors in the twentieth century have. In January, 1977, a seven-part serialization of Roots appeared on national television. Even though the dramatization was one of the earlier examples of the miniseries genre, ten years later several episodes of Roots remained among the ten highest rated offerings in the history of television. Any assessment of the impact and nature of this work must account for this unusual fact: In its first several years of publication far more people “watched” Roots than read it.

The central scholarly question about Roots is a simple one: Is the work history or fiction? Was the genealogical reconstruction sound? Was it possible to glean such enormous detail about the life of Kunta Kinte, an eighteenth century character with nothing extraordinary in his background, from a contemporary griot?

Haley characterized Roots as a work of “faction,” implicitly somewhere between “fact” and “fiction.” The numerous literary citations given to the work, including the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, acknowledged that Roots belonged in a special category. To Haley, “faction” was a genre in which documented historical facts were held together by a fictionlike narrative informed by generic works on the periods or topics in question. The genealogy in Roots, Haley claimed, rested on documents and sound scholarship; the kinship links were real and not imagined. Most of the details of Kunta Kinte’s life came from Haley’s knowledge of what the youth of an eighteenth century Muslim male in the Gambia region must have been like.

Roots has been severely criticized in terms of both of the major elements of “faction.” Although Haley had done some interviewing in the course of his free-lance career, he had no formal training in genealogical research. Scholars who attempted to verify his findings turned up innumerable discrepancies in data and method. Specialists in African oral history discovered that Haley’s main informant in fact was not an officially recognized griot but only a local—and not particularly respected—storyteller, aware well in advance of the sort of information Haley sought.

In the opinion of historians, Haley’s efforts to date the Kunta Kinte story through his informant’s obtuse references to the appearance of English soldiers in the area are unconvincing. Virtually every genealogist who examined Haley’s African material concluded not only that Haley failed to establish a credible link between the Kunta Kinte story of the Gambia and that of his grandmother but also that the evidence, properly handled, weighed heavily against such a link. Several doubt that Kunta Kinte ever existed, either in Gambia or in North America.

The extent of Haley’s mismanagement of genealogical material is all the more apparent in that he bungled the relationships even among the owners of the slave Toby, whom Haley believed to be Kunta Kinte under a name given by his masters. Kunta Kinte mysteriously disappears from Roots after Kizzy is sold, according to Haley, to a new owner in another state. Yet genealogists who examined relevant title deeds more carefully than Haley later showed that the two white families involved in this slave sale were next-door neighbors.

Roots, in short, does not begin to meet the rigorous standards of modern genealogical research. The evidence strongly suggests that the links Haley established among himself, his family, Kunta Kinte, and the Gambia region are invalid.

The historical research which informs Haley’s “faction” also bears little resemblance to scholarship. As Haley informs his readers in the final chapters of Roots, he gathered material indiscriminately from books, conversations, personal experience, and a variety of media. Roots contains no bibliographical citations; several other authors subsequently filed lawsuits alleging that Haley had taken material from their works on Africa. (The courts dismissed all but one of these suits.)

The fictional portions of Roots reflect a popular stereotype of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade more than they do recent historical research. Many of the more lurid passages in Roots are derived from generalized and impressionistic sources written earlier than, or without reference to, systematic and exhaustive historical research in African history begun in the 1960’s. Widely accepted stereotypes about slavery and the slave trade need to be qualified in terms of time period, geographic locality, and local conditions; some do not stand up at all to careful scrutiny.

One historian, for example, took issue with the kidnapping of Kunta Kinte, pointing out that slave traders in Gambia in the eighteenth century seldom, if ever, resorted to raiding. At that time the region was under the sway of the Mandinka state of Niumi, a well-organized and sophisticated entity quite capable of retaliating against any European who brought such chaos to the country. Roots, it would appear, is something other than simply bad genealogy. It is also bad history.

How, then, does one account for the phenomenal success of Roots? Why did this work touch the hearts of so many Americans? Why did thousands of black Americans actually create a tourist boom in Gambia as they sought to walk where Haley had walked? Part of the answer must lie in the timing of the book’s appearance. It coincided with celebration of the bicentennial of American independence, a time of heightened public awareness of every aspect of the national heritage.

Many analysts have suggested an even deeper meaning to Roots. The United States is an entire nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Long before Haley published Roots, popular interest in genealogy had been on the rise. Roots expressed a widespread yearning among Americans for the security of a knowable past as distinct from the systematic doubt of professional historical research. If it confirmed myths, it did so because myths are important.

Prior to the appearance of Roots few black Americans had entertained the thought that tracing their families back to specific localities in Africa was feasible or even possible. Roots suggested that the sense of heritage and ethnic continuity so important to other immigrant communities in the United States might also be articulated by black Americans, that they also might understand themselves, as other groups do, as part of, yet apart from, the United States.

Perhaps the most important reason for the success of Roots was simply that Haley believed, and his readers believed. Alex Haley brought his own passion to this work. His readers thrilled because Haley’s own heart raced when he found documentary evidence of his ancestors. Roots will continue to be a cherished work and an important event, not because of its veracity or lack of it, but because when he heard of Kunta Kinte from the lips of the Gambian, its author broke into tears.