(Representations of Race in American Literature)

The Work

Roots: The Saga of an American Family, published by Alex Haley in 1976, is one of the most widely read works ever written by an African American. A fictionalized version of actual events, Roots details the history of seven generations of an African American family in the United States. Haley began the story by detailing the life of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was sold into slavery and taken to the United States. Haley introduced readers to U.S. history as experienced by African Americans. His work was so compelling that Haley received a Pulitzer Prize for Roots. Network television serialized the saga in 1977, and it received tremendous attention and large viewerships. More than 130 million viewers reportedly tuned in to watch the incredible tale, which featured some of the most popular actors of the 1970’s. Historians praised the television series, which is now available on video in most school libraries and video stores, for its accurate depictions of U.S. history and eye for detail. Many people argue that both the book and the television miniseries had a significant impact on race relations because it introduced many Americans to the severity of the African American experience.


Arnez, Nancy L. “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of Roots.” The Journal of Negro Education 46 (Summer, 1977): 367-372. Sees the book as a gift to African Americans, restoring their heritage. Believes that it and the television miniseries of the same name have helped white Americans to understand the horrors of slavery.

Baldwin, James. “How One Black Man Came to Be an American.” New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1976, 1-2. This important African American writer compliments Haley’s re-creation of Kinte’s Africa. Emphasizes the impact of generations on following ones and history’s effects on individuals.

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. In addition, shows how Haley inverts the notion of the American Eden: Africa, not America, represents the Edenic paradise in the novel.

Cooke, Michael G. “Roots as Placebo.” Yale Review 67 (Autumn, 1977): 144-146. Criticizes Haley’s writing as adolescent, neither subtle nor complex. Asserts that its magic comes from sentimentality, from promising more than it delivers, and from a placebo effect: It pretends to deal with U.S. disease and a strong cure, but is too mild to heal.

Courlander, Harold. “Kunta Kinte’s Struggle to Be African.” Phylon: The Atlanta University of Race and Culture 47 (December, 1986): 294-302. Questions Haley’s scholarship. Asserts that Kinte, although unbelievable, is “an unreconstructed African.”

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. A review essay that analyzes the popular cultural phenomenon generated by the novel and the subsequent airing of the television miniseries. Analyzes Haley’s treatment of historical material in general and his treatment of slavery in particular.

Marsh, Carol P. “The Plastic Arts Motif in Roots.” College Language Association Journal 26 (March, 1983): 325–333. Discusses how the characters master the plastic arts of carving, weaving, and forging, all of which enable the Kinte clan to become successful within the context of the Protestant work ethic.

Miller, R. Baxter. “Kneeling at the Fireplace: Black Vulcan—Roots and the Double Artificer.” MELUS 9 (Spring, 1982): 73–84. Analyzes Haley’s attempt to celebrate the artisan within the novel. The use of the figures of painters, blacksmiths, and fireworkers subtly alludes to the Hephaestus/Vulcan story of ancient mythology.

Othow, Helen Chavis. “Roots and the Heroic Search for Identity.” College Language Association Journal 26 (March, 1983): 311–324. Offers a discussion of the organic unity of the novel. Cites as problematic the shifting of protagonists, abrupt endings of generational episodes, and authorial intrusion. The work is viewed as an epic in a tradition found in Greek classical literature.

Pinsker, Sanford. “Magic Realism, Historical Truth, and the Quest for a Liberating Identity: Reflections on Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” In Black American Prose Theory, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Vol. 1 in Studies in Black American Literature. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1984. Examines the role of the storyteller in conjunction with African American identity in Roots and in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977).

Stein, Howard F. “In Search of Roots: An Epic of Origins and Destiny.” Journal of Popular Culture XI (Summer, 1977): 11-17. Asserts that discussing Roots would help race relations in the United States; therefore, it is not just about the past but also for the future. Says that Kunta Kinte learned “other ways of fighting slavery than fleeing it,” but also thinks that Haley stereotyped black people as strong and white people as evil.