Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family has been both lauded for giving African American people a sense of identity and condemned for amateurish style and sloppy scholarship. It deserves both the praise and the criticism. Haley called it a “novelized amalgam” of factual history and of fiction.
Spawning perhaps the most important television miniseries of the late twentieth century, Roots reminded black Americans of the value of their African heritage and the strength of their ancestors, who endured the grueling journey from Africa and the agony of slavery. The book prompted many African Americans to search for their own heritage. In short, it promoted black pride. The book and miniseries also made white Americans more aware of their ancestors’ culpability for the plight of their black compatriots. In the light of history, especially when based on fact and presented so vividly, black anger made more sense.
Critics have pointed out that almost all of the black characters are strong and noble, and almost all of the white characters are weak, evil, foolish, or all three. For example, Kunta Kinte’s father, Omoro, is brave, handsome, respectable, and perfect as a role model for his four healthy sons, while the slave traders and owners (who include most white characters in the book) beat, shackle, rape, and mutilate people.
Roots is also criticized for its adolescent style. Haley includes some references to sex, including masturbation, to aim for mature audiences, but the work is generally most appropriate for high school readers. The style is often amateurish, and the book lacks the subtlety and complexity of character to make it great literature. For example, in chapter 67, after a fight with Bell, Kunta Kinte has the following reverie: It pained him to think how grievously he had underestimated her and the other blacks. Though they never showed it except to those they loved, and sometimes not even then, he realized at last that they felt—and hated—no less than he the oppressiveness under which they all lived. He wished he could find a way to tell her how sorry he was, how he felt her pain, how grateful he was to feel her love, how strong he felt the bond between them growing deep within himself.
Historical references are often clumsy, and Haley has been roundly criticized for sloppy scholarship, such as having Kunta Kinte working in huge cotton fields in Virginia, where almost no cotton was grown; having Mandinka people kiss children, a use of the mouth they would have considered dirty; and having Chicken George not know he was free after going to England and being in New York.
The book also becomes much less interesting near the end, when Haley briefly chronicles his last few ancestors. His final chapter, which describes his research, would be more appropriate as an introduction or an epilogue. Roots is not a particularly well-written book. It has not received much scholarly or critical attention. It is, however, an extremely important work in American culture for its attention to slavery and African heritage.