Monday, July 27, 2020

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family 
Alex Haley
Published 1974
American Novel

I was so excited to find this book at a used bookstore last year and could not wait to read it. Imagine how jealous my other unread books that have been on my shelves for years were when I moved Roots up to the front of the line! 

I had no idea what to expect because I did not do any peeking or prior reading, and I have never watched the miniseries, either of them. The only insight I had was that it was about American slavery. 

So I began reading the beginning of June. 

This book is close to 900 pages, and I anticipated that it would take me three months. However, it was quite engaging, and I managed to finish in six weeks. To be fair, I am reading several books at once, and I do not dedicate all of my time to one book. However, most of the time it was Roots that I wanted to return. (No wonder it is a Pulitzer Prize winner.)

The story began in Africa with the main character at his birth - a boy named Kunta Kinte. I followed him and his family through their tribal traditions from the time Kunta was a baby until he became a man. He was seventeen-years old. 

Soon after, he was captured and taken to America on a slave ship, where readers endure the seemingly endless, dreadful, and horrendous voyage. Haley did not sterilize the unimaginable event. 

When the ship finally arrived in Colonial America, Kunta was purchased and taken away to his new [home]. He attempted to escape four times, and on the fourth attempt, he lost part of his foot after he was recaptured. He was rendered useless but was purchased by the brother of his first master, and it was at this second estate where he began his family saga in America. 

As decades passed, Kunta learned English, became his master's designated driver, married, and had a child - a girl named Kizzy. He loved his daughter and began telling her the names of things in his native African language. He told her the story about his grandfather, grandmother, his parents, and their traditions. He desired for her to know her family origins; he did not want to forget his roots. 

Kizzy grew up, and when she was a teenager, she fell in love. Unfortunately, she became tangled in a plot to help her lover escape, and they were exposed. For that she was sold, never to see her parents again. 

Her new master raped her, and she became pregnant. He named their son George. George's father never treated him special, just because he was his son, but George learned the profitable trade of cock fighting and became valuable to his father. They traveled extensively trying to make money on the sport, while practicing other immoral activities. 

Kizzy wanted to keep the story of her father alive, and she told George about his African grandfather, all the names that he taught her in his African tongue, and about the place in Africa where he came from. 

Eventually, George grew up and wanted to settle down. He married a good woman, Matilda, and they had so many children, I lost count. After the birth of each child, they, too, were told the story about their African great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte. 

It was George's desire to save up enough money to purchase his family's freedom, and his father told him if they won big enough through cock fighting then he would free them all. But of course, they lost, and they lost everything. George had to go to England to work off the debt, and then he could get his freedom when he returned.


Meanwhile, woven throughout the family story was American history, from Colonial times to the Civil War and beyond. The author dropped names like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Toussaint, President Jackson, and Nat Turner, and events like the Boston Massacre, the Bill of Rights, the Alamo, and even the history of Haiti, as well as technological advances. It was interesting and put the timeline of the story into perspective. The house slaves heard everything the whites talked about in front of them, and since the whites thought the slaves were ignorant, they never considered that they were picking up on current events. 

While George was in England, his son Tom became the family leader in his father's absence. It was pre-Civil War, and the slaves often heard about rebellions, uprisings, and freedom up North. Tom decided he wanted the family to plan an escape, but they worried that they would be split up if they were caught. 

Unexpectedly, due to poor financial management, they were going to be sold, but thanks to their master's wife, most of the slaves were able to stay together, especially Matilda and her children. Thankfully, they were sold to a kind couple. Soon Tom found a wife, Irene, a half-Indian, half-black slave, and they had a son, Uriah. 

After several years, George returned from England to learn that his family had been sold to a new master. By then, his mother, Kizzy, had died. But before he sought out his wife and children, he had to get his papers from his old master, which he had promised to give to George once he returned. Those papers meant freedom. 

George got his freedom, and he found his family, but it was awkward being free and on the plantation. His new grandson, Uriah, asked him what being free was, and he replied, 
Free mean ain't nobody own you no mo'.
That conversation led to the story of the African great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte.

After the Civil War, the slaves were free to leave or stay; and since George had staked out land in Tennessee beforehand, they decided to leave and put down roots in a new state where they would build their homes, businesses, and even a church.

Time passed, and Tom and Irene's daughter, Cynthia, married a man named William. They had a daughter named Bertha, and the tradition of telling the story about the African continued, just as it had been done with Cynthia, and Tom, and his father and grandmother before him.

Haley in Juffure
(source)

Possible spoiler ahead...

Following WWI, Bertha married a man named Simon, and they travelled east to attend college together. He would study for his master's degree in agriculture, and Bertha would study music. Nine months later, without a word to her parents, Simon and Bertha made a surprise visit to their home in Tennessee, with a bundle. And in it was a baby boy, six-week old Alex Haley.

That was the big surprise for me, and I loved it. In the proceeding final chapters, Haley narrated his life growing up and hearing the story about the African. He heard it all, over and over again, and it left a great impression on him. The seed was planted.

End spoiler

In his adult years, Haley decided to investigate and research, read and discover the truth. It took him ten years to write his story, and how he did it was a story in itself. I won't tell you here, in case you want to read it for yourself. I, for sure, am quite impressed.

Haley said that the Western culture is "so conditioned to the 'crutch of print' that few among us comprehend what a trained memory is capable of." I love books and reading, but he is right. Word of mouth is the way we used to give and receive information and knowledge and stories; but not anymore. We rely heavily on recording it or writing it down, though it is not such a bad activity; however, we have lost the art of memorization and reciting from memory.

This is a great story, a true story about a family, a story about a journey to find the origins of a family because these stories help us to know who we are, in part. It is also a necessary heartbreaking story about history. And though this history be painful to read and demonstrates injustice, it is essential to preserving the truth.

Haley's last words of his story are this:
I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners. 
A final note, if you choose to read Roots, be forewarned that you will be reading the n-word a lot! And there are cultural and religious differences regarding how women are treated, especially since Kunta was Muslim, and that's just the way it was in his time and place and tradition.

P.S. It was easy reading, but definitely epic.

Alex Haley (1921 - 1992)

4 comments:

  1. This sounds amazing. I saw you were reading this earlier this year & bought myself a copy, so now I own it. :-) I haven't read it yet however. I REALLY recommend the 2016 miniseries, which is streaming on HULU (I think. I either streamed it there or on Netflix.) :-)

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    1. It was. It is quite a commitment to get through, but it's worth it. I'm excited to hear that you got a copy for yourself. Yay!

      When I began my reading, I had not watched either miniseries. About 3/4 of the way through, I decided to watch the 2016 version, in parts, and thus far I have watched 1 & 2. I was disappointed bc it does not follow the book, but I may return to see the last three parts. I read that the earlier miniseries follows the book better, but I have a hard time watching stuff from the 70s and 80s. It's so cheesy.

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    2. Oh, I've watched the earlier version! It's extremely good. I wasn't aware of a variance from the book in the 2016 version because I haven't read it yet. I'd recommend you try the older mini-series. I don't remember finding it cheesy, but it's been a while. I watched it through with my mother a while back. x

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    3. OK, I'll give it a try. I think I'll see if my library has it and I'll order it.

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