I finally read Roots ! I’ve been meaning to for … oh, 37, 38 years. I do get to things, eventually.
Loved the book. Since the TV show – the 1970, original TV show – paid short shrift to Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa, I was surprised by and entirely sucked into the long chronology of how Kinte grew up, year by year or rain by rain. As he matured into such a fine young man, I kept hoping, ridiculously, that the story would change; that he would not be chained and captured. It was so unfair! Like watching La Boheme and praying that this time, the lovers don’t part. Not in spring, not ever.
Also really interesting to me, since I had my hands on the Official 30th Anniversary Edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winner, was the extra material. A talk by Haley to other Readers Digest authors about how he wrote. I loved it.
Haley had joined the Coast Guard as a young man and spent 20 years on ships. After switching to the life of a freelancer, he still loved to be on ships, and he used to book himself onto the kind of freighters that take only a dozen passengers, along with their shipping containers, on long journeys. Passengers that would be no trouble, and who kept to themselves. Haley wrote all of Kinte’s life while on one of those ships, with his notes spread out around his bunk. He wrote at night and no one disturbed him. No one cared what the crazy American was doing.
The reason I have intended to read Roots for so long? It changed the way everyone thought: not just about race, but about ancestors and taking pride in the past. The airing of the TV miniseries Roots pretty much created the whole genealogical industry, if it can be called that. Before Roots, most families neither thought of cared about “their roots.” Suddenly, and I remember this clearly, everyone wanted to trace their family tree. Magazines and clubs and eventually whole companies (not to mention the Mormon Church) coalesced to service them.
In some instances, Roots forced people to take a hard and honest look at their past. Teachers in all sorts of schools began addressing the truth about slavery and a lot of myths were debunked publicly. Before Roots, we had Gone With the Wind. That was the narrative. After Roots, textbooks carried pictures of men with horribly scarred backs, and drawings of how captives were chained to planks on slave ships. Those pictures had existed but no one wanted to display or talk about them before.
I guess it was the cruelty of slavery that was brought into the light because of Roots. Anyone over 60 remembers being taught in school that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights,” not slavery, and that owners usually treated their slaves well, if only because those slaves were an economic investment. They ate decently and doctors were called in when they were sick. How nice. That’s all we learned.
No one was taught about the sugar plantations were men and women were simply worked to death in a few short years, or the horrors of the Atlantic crossing that killed so many before they got to North America. No one talked about the very obvious fact that by the time photography came along, most American slaves looked a lot lighter than Africans. No one talked about those horrible scarred backs.
And how about African culture? Haley spent a good chunk of Roots bringing Kunta Kinte to manhood in Juffure, a Moslem town with strict social rules about how people behaved. As you read, you think well of him and his family, even while bristling at the sexism engrained in the society. These were people who strove to instill values, learning, and pride in their children.( And honestly, in 1750, were there any societies anywhere that weren’t sexist?)
Before that book, any idea of civilization in Africa was dominated by National Geographic pictures, the kind that featured naked tribal folks dancing and displaying ropes of beads. Old cartoons (meaning, cartoons produced through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s) taught everyone that Africans were silly savages or headhunters, and no one bothered to change that impression.
By the way, those old cartoons portrayed not just Africans, but American blacks as minstrel show characters and other stereotypes. The most racially offensive cartoons disappeared in 1968 (here’s an article about that), but again, those of us over 60 can remember some pretty vile and derogatory images.
The miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots got the whole country talking about race. White people suddenly saw black people as having a cultural past and present, and black people saw the reality of slavery in a way that personalized their own history. The evils of slavery and racism were unavoidable; and the public discussion pushed everyone into the arena. You could keep your mouth shut, but you could not avoid hearing about it.
This was huge! Roots dominated conversations at work, school, and home – for months. And when the discussions tapered off, we had changed. We thought about things differently.
How many books have that sort of influence?
I am aware that the historical truth of the novel has been questioned, most ungraciously. And that there were accusations of plagiarism over part of it, and a large settlement paid. But to me, that does not take away from its impact or Haley’s accomplishment. Roots caught fire in this country. It changed American thought. Dang, what writer could wish for more?