Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley

Nine stars

Alex Haley’s novel is more than just a piece of award-winning literature, but a glimpse into the soul of America’s lifeblood, even though it touches on areas that many would likely wish to see forgotten. In the opening portion of the novel, Haley introduces the reader to the small villages of Gambia, where one Kunta Kinte is born and raised. Kunta explores a life of simplicity but also relative complexity, as he grows up learning the ways of his people, always warned about the dangers of the white man lurking in the shadows. As he develops a better understanding of his culture and the plight of becoming a man, Kunta fosters a strong sense of self. While foraging in the forest one day, he is captured and dragged aboard a slave ship, destined for the American colonies. It is here that Haley takes the story in its heart-wrenching direction, complete with the horrors of slavery and their treatment. As Kunta acclimates himself to life as a slave (as best as one can), he learns that his horrors are only beginning. After trying to escape, he is punished severely and sent to live on another plantation, where he is able to develop more of a sense of self, while still refusing to adopt the ‘American’ slave mentality. Slowly, he is acclimated into the lifestyle of a slave and is able to advance on the plantation, to the point of marrying and having a child of his own. Young Kizzy learns of her African ancestry from her father, though does not have the same passion, even with his blood coursing through her veins. As Kizzy grows, she learns to love the African side of her heritage, though is also prone to living the life in America. A gamble of her own sees her punished and shipped to a new plantation, where she is never to see her father again. That is soon the least of her worries, as more horrors befall Kizzy and she soon has a son, young George, the third Kinte generation living in slavery. Raising her son as best she can while dealing with a less than pleasant slave owner, Kizzy tries to instil some of the same values she learned from Kunta. As he grows, George, too, develops his place on the plantation and becomes a valuable asset to his master. It is this relationship and the historical background told through the narrative that forges some of the most curious aspects of Haley’s story, not to be lost in the transition from Kunta to Kizzy and now to George and the family he raises. The subsequent four generations spin their stories in the latter portion of the book, with each collection of slaves (and eventually freed blacks) holding onto the oral history Kunta Kinte brought with him. Published at a time when America had to come to terms with its past to look ahead into the future, Haley strikes a necessary nerve as he explores a history only mentioned in passing on pages of school history books. A must-read for all readers, no matter their personal interests.

The book’s release coincided with America’s bicentennial, though Haley refuses to admit there is anything intentional there. The story, no matter when it was told, shaped America and the way slavery was seen, through the eyes of those who lived in chains. While the book served as the foundation to the topic in the late 1970s, it was the creation into a television phenomena that saw many more people learn truths they never wanted to discover. Haley paints a dour view of the slave trade and lifestyle, but does so with supported truths and a vivid narrative that tells a more complete story than many history texts might. Beginning well before any delivery to the shores of America, Haley facilitates a bond with Kunta Kinte before pushing the narrative into the darker and more sinister aspects of race relations and the acceptance of the slave trade and use of slaves on plantations across the colonial region. Using historical happenings as a backdrop, the reader can see the progression of the trade and how there was surely a clash between belief systems of the slaves themselves. Kunta’s strong Islamic beliefs do not coincide with the colonialisation of many slaves on the plantations, from their speech to their Christian beliefs and even onto their acceptance of the double standard as it relates to treatment by young whites. While Haley does touch on many of these areas, he does not downplay anything nor does he try to offer a one-sided approach that tries to paint blacks as solely victims. Spanning seven generations, the latter chapters pull Haley into the story’s narrative, forcing the reader to realise that this is not solely a piece of fiction. Kunta Kinte was, presumably, the four-time great-grandfather of the author and the stories spun within this book are oral recountings of lives lived. Complete with language and phraseology of the times, the story comes to life on so many levels, leaving the reader onto to choose which character they will affix themselves to through the journey. This is a seminal piece of literature that should not be left to gather dust on the shelf. That it took me so long to find and read it is shameful on my part.

Kudos, Mr. Haley for opening my eyes to something about which I always knew happened, but chose not to explore. You have captivated me (and the world) with this novel and surely helped shape many acquire a better understanding of slavery in the United States.