Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Roots by Alex Haley Book Review

Roots by Alex Haley

The underreported history of African-Americans comes to life in the classic story Roots by Alex Haley, a Pulitzer Prize Winner in 1977. Haley wrote that "preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners," meaning white people, thus the dearth of information about slave history. Haley pieced his own genealogy together through family lore, maritime and linguistic research and a poignant visit to Africa. His ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was kidnapped from Juffure, a village in Africa near the Gambia River, and shipped to Maryland to be sold as a slave. It is the story of hope, familial bonds and survival over the cruelty of mankind.

Roots by Alex Haley

Man's inhumanity to his fellow man is an overarching theme contrasted with the amazing resilience of the human spirit in Roots. The chain of misery begins with a king in Africa who sold his own people to slave traders. The slaves are then dehumanized and treated like livestock, detached from their families so they lose their sense of identity. Kinte determines that his only daughter will know who she is and where her roots lie, hence the name of the book and reason for his descendants' success. The family remains intact through the generations.

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Kinte must have been incredibly strong physically to survive being kidnapped, shipped like a commodity, sold and beaten. He endures the eighty-seven day ocean voyage under horrific conditions that kill off forty-two others and later, the amputation of his foot after an attempted escape. Hope is demonstrated by Kinte when he escapes from his master four times, looking for liberty and the way home to Africa. His progeny also survive inhumane treatment, broken promises, lies and unjust laws. Kinte's daughter Kizzy survives being ripped away from her parents and repeatedly raped by her new master. Chicken George and his children survive by obeying their masters, learning trades and always looking out for each other. Chicken George also hopes for freedom and finally obtains it from his master after five years of bonded service in England. He returns and leads his emancipated family to a new home in Tennessee after the Civil War.

The hypocrisy of America's culture is glaring, with "niggers" treated unequally in the land where "all men are created equal." Laws are passed that mete out severe punishments to blacks and coloreds while whites committing the same crimes receive no consequences. Fiddler tells Kinte that he thinks the purpose of Virginia's House of Burgess is to "pass more laws 'gainst niggers." White Christians attend church but ignore the clear teachings of the New Testament regarding the worth of human beings. Owners regard their slaves as animals yet they mate with the females. A child like Chicken George, sired by his master, is still a slave and the kinship unacknowledged.

Despite the atrocities in the biography, Haley manages to include some humor. In Africa, the men of Juffure speak "the language of men," which is a secret code of altered Mandinkan words. They couldn't prevent their women from gossiping and interfering in their affairs, so they devised a way to speak around them. Also, when Kinte gets a good look at white women, particularly an ugly one with "straw hair," he understands why white men go for black women. Slaves in the New World were all ears to their masters' conversations, though they acted like they didn't listen in. They feigned stupidity when it was convenient and pretended to be afraid when the Northern army was coming to liberate them. The humor helps to balance the seriousness of Haley's subject.

The United States was a land of colonies before 1776, with good and evil people planting their stakes during its formative years, and it is tragic that slavery was allowed to take root. John Adams in particular wanted to outlaw slavery in the Constitution of the new republic, but he was outvoted, postponing an inevitable crisis for 100 years when the issue was settled through a bloody Civil War. Then it took another century for the Civil Rights Amendment. Roots is a 900-page tome about the dark side of American history, shown through seven generations of one black family, and can help people understand why some African Americans bear a grudge toward the white man, though the injustice was so long ago. The book was translated into thirty-seven languages and made into a cinematic mini-series, and its status as an American classic is well deserved.


Alex Haley, Roots (NY, NY: Vanguard Books, 2004).

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