Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many of such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Summary of Roots

The first 200 pages describe Kunta Kinte’s life in a village in The Gambia in the mid-eighteenth century. There are occasional mentions of the white people who loom inevitably in Kunta Kinte’s future, though it would be a stretch to call these passages “foreshadowing”.

After Kunta is enslaved, the author switches from “let me show you the detailed results of my research about life in Africa” to “let’s pretend we know zero details about life in America”. We are meant to see life in America as strange, in contrast to how we are meant to see life in Africa as normal.

Kunta proudly confides his history and a handful of words in his native language to his daughter Kizzy. However, on page 546, Kizzy is sold away, and the story follows her and her descendants. The story and words he repeated to her are faithfully repeated to the members of every generation.

Kizzy has a son. Kizzy’s son becomes such an expert on fighting roosters that he acquires the name “Chicken George”. Chicken George gets married and has eight children. He is sent away to England for several years. Upon his return, he finds that his family members have died or been sold to another plantation owner. He steals the promised manumission paper from his tired old owner’s strongbox, and reunites with them, but then has to leave the state.

Chicken George’s son Tom, a successful blacksmith, marries and starts a family. The family shelters and then works with a poor white couple. After the end of the Civil War, Chicken George leads his extended family to a newly founded town. Tom’s daughter Cynthia marries a successful black entrepreneur and has a daughter named Bertha. Bertha’s first child is Alex Haley.

Haley traced his ancestry using the oral history passed on to him. His research led him back to Kunta Kinte’s village, where he heard a local historian recite a long series of orally transmitted events that included the disappearance of Kunta Kinte from the village. When the soot-black Africans learned that the exotic brown American shared an ancestor with them, they welcomed him as one of their own.

What Stood Out in Roots

The book teaches that slavery is wrong, but it does so not by saying “slavery is wrong”, by demonizing slave traders and slave owners, or by glorifying slaves and those who helped them achieve freedom. The book primarily teaches that slavery is wrong simply by relating the lives of enslaved black people so that readers can relate to them as human individuals—as fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, grandparents, and grandchildren.

“He couldn’t believe that such incredible wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great may more parties, to realize that they didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mothers’ milk made possible the life of privilege they led.” (383)

There is a strong underlying sense of pride. The purpose of the book is to establish the identities of the members of a particular family of enslaved people and recognise them as humans with personally important pasts; doing so allows other descendants of slaves, whether their pasts are traceable or not, to feel a similar sense of pride and recognition.

“The only thing in which he felt he could take some small pride was that in twenty rains he had never touched the meat of the swine. Kunta searched his mind; there must have been something else of his original self that he could find someplace. And there was: He had kept his dignity.” (393)

Roots: Literary Hoax?

Haley was charged in a lawsuit with plagiarizing passages from Harold Courlander’s novel The African. Haley settled out of court.

In the book itself, Haley says that of necessity he invented parts of the story but that the work is based on documented facts. Others’ research calls those facts into question.

Do we believe the author when he says his quest to find his ancestral village was crowned with astonishing success, or do we believe that he constructed a captivating personal legend using whatever tools he had to hand?

The positive effects of the book and the television series cannot be denied, but to me the evidence suggests that the work that became such a sensation is just that: a sensation—one that was based (at best) on sloppy research or (at worst) on an elaborate lie.

Historical Epics to Read Instead of Roots

Generally speaking, “fiction plus research” is still “fiction”.

Below is a short list of long historical novels that I enjoyed more than Roots.

  • The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye (India)
  • Shogun and other Asian Saga novels by James Clavell (Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran)
  • The First Man in Rome and other Masters of Rome novels by Colleen McCullough (Europe and the Mediterranean)
  • Hawaii by James Michener (Hawaii)
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet (England)

When and Why I Read Roots

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book club for June 2017.

Genre: fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished:  07-Jun-17 to 16-Jun-17
Length: 899 pages
ISBN: 9780306824852
Originally published in: 1974
Amazon link: Roots