Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Roots was Haley’s second book; he served as collaborator on The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Roots appeared in condensed form in Reader’s Digest in 1975. The first work by an African American based on genealogical research, Roots was lauded, even before its publication as a full-length novel, as certain to become an American classic. The novel was both a financial and a critical success, receiving a special Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1977 and spawning the most popular television miniseries up to that time.
More important, the publication of Roots signaled a resurgence of the reading public’s interest in the African American oral tradition. Although the bulk of the book is a novelized account of the saga of Haley’s maternal family, the detailed explanation of his research methods and encounters at the end chronicles not only the American perpetuation of the oral tradition by an African American family but also the larger role the griots (African oral historians) played in this amalgam of fact and fiction. The griots are able to retell centuries of village and clan histories. They are living libraries of African history and lore. The griot’s history accurately corroborates the story of Kunta Kinte painstakingly handed down through seven generations in the United States.
Another important component of the novel is the vivid description of the early life of Kunta Kinte, based on extensive library and archival research. The novel almost singlehandedly dispelled the American notion of African life as depicted in Tarzan films and inferred by perusal of National Geographic. Haley himself admitted to having held these same popular erroneous conceptions of Africa.
It is the author’s desire that Roots as the “story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.” In essence, by recapturing his family’s history through blending historical fact and fiction, Haley has, on a greater scale, retold the legacy of all Americans of African origin and recovered their cultural heritage, one that had been stripped away under slavery.