Roots: The Saga of an American Family Alex Haley
(Full name Alexander Murray Palmer Haley) American novelist and biographer.
The following entry presents criticism on Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976).
Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) is an historical novel that purports to trace the African American ancestry of its author, Alex Haley, back to a tiny village in Gambia, West Africa. Within two years of its publication, more than eight million copies of the book had been printed in twenty-six languages, and Roots had won 271 awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1976, the volume also inspired a generation of ancestor-seeking Americans and led to one of the most ambitious and most-watched television productions ever undertaken.
Roots author Alex Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, the eldest of three sons. His father was a college professor; his mother a schoolteacher. Haley grew up in the small town of Henning, Tennessee, where his early memories reportedly included stories from elderly relatives about an African ancestor who refused to respond to the slave name “Toby.” The tales of his childhood eventually inspired the search for his past that led to the writing of Roots. Although Haley's reputation in the literary world rests primarily upon this much-acclaimed historical novel, he is also remembered for writing Malcolm X's “as told to” autobiography in 1965. Haley wrote many articles for popular magazines, appeared on countless television shows, and lectured throughout the country until his death in 1992.
Plot and Major Characters
Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinkan from the small village of Juffure, Gambia, in West Africa, and his American descendants. Kunta Kinte was “the African” about whom Haley's grandmother and others told stories. Roots imaginatively recreates the life of Haley's ancestor in Africa, his capture into slavery in 1676, and his experiences as a slave in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Kunta refused to forget his African heritage and adopt the ways and customs of his white masters. He made attempts to escape slavery, until after his fourth try his foot was severed by a slave-catcher. He later married Bell, the slave cook in the big house on the plantation, and they had a daughter named Kizzy. Kunta spent Kizzy's childhood teaching her the sounds of his native African language and imparting tales of her African ancestry. At the age of fifteen, Kizzy was sold to a master whose rape of his new young slave resulted in the birth of the third generation, George, who in turn learned of his African heritage through the stories of his mother. This was the most famous of Haley's ancestors, after Kunta Kinte. George, known as “Chicken George” for his success as a gamecock trainer, fathered eight children with Mathilda. His fourth son, Tom, was the father of Haley's maternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was taken to Henning, Tennessee, on a wagon train of freed slaves. In Henning, Cynthia met and married Will Palmer and had a daughter named Bertha, who married Simon Haley: these were Haley's parents.
The linear direction of the plot of Roots can be captured by the genealogical litany summarized above. The saga, however, incorporates the violence and degradation experienced by slaves at every turn in the story, from the inhumane capture of young men and women on the shores of West Africa and the unspeakable horrors of the subsequent Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, to the beatings, rapes, mutilations, and brutal living and working conditions to which slaves were routinely subjected, when they were not being bought and sold in marketplaces. Each generation from Kunta Kinte on preserves memories of the ancestral past while achieving incremental and achingly slow progress toward the day when they would be slaves no more.
Roots riveted public attention on one of the most painful chapters of American history, and yet it was read—and in its television version, watched—by millions of Americans, black and white. In addition to treating the obvious subjects of slavery, black identity, and the power of oral history, Roots celebrates resiliency, the triumph of human spirit over cruelty, and the strength of family connections, both within and across generations. Families work together to protect their members. Children are taught that principles are worthy of risk. Ancestral memories are preserved and passed on through the telling of stories to one's children, and humankind's universal search for its identity is given a personal face. These themes cross racial and ethnic boundaries and help account for the book's immense popularity. At the time of its publication, Roots was called “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League. The creative revelation of one family's story opened doors that had long been locked, in individual families and in American culture as a whole.
Although critics generally lauded Roots, they seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. While the narrative is based on factual events, the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Haley himself described the book as “faction,” a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics concurred and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. Newsweek applauded Haley's decision to fictionalize: “Instead of writing a scholarly monograph of little social impact, Haley has written a blockbuster in the best sense—a book that is bold in concept and ardent in execution, one that will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves.” Some black leaders viewed Roots “as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma,” according to Time.
Not all the attention accorded Roots was positive, however. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, alleged separately that Haley plagiarized their work in Roots. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander ＄500,000. The same year other accusations arose, alleging that Haley had altered data to fit his objectives, fabricating ancestors and changing timelines or geographic details to make the story into the one he wanted to tell. These charges were never proven or resolved, but Haley's supporters maintain that the author never claimed Roots was a factual document, calling it instead a work of “faction,” fiction based on the facts of his ancestry, as he discovered them. Despite these controversies, the public image of Roots doesn't seem to have suffered. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their curriculum.