Wednesday, July 9, 2008


ROOTS by Alex Haley was read for the In Their Shoes Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

From the book flap:

"Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kente."

So begins ROOTS, one of the most important and influential books of our time. When originally published thirty years ago, it galvanized the nation and created an extraordinary political, racial, social, and cultural dialogue that had not been seen in this country since the pulication of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.

ROOTS has lost none of its emotional power and drama, and its message for today's and future generations is even more vital and relevant than it was thirty years ago.

When he was a boy in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley's grandmother used to tell him stories about their family - stories that went back to her grandparents, and their grandparents, down through the generations all the way to a man she called "the African." She said he had lived across the ocean near what he called the "Kamby Bolongy" and had been out in the forest one day chopping wood to make a drum when he was set upon by four men, beaten, chained and dragged aboard a slave ship bound for Colonial America.

Still vividly remembering the stories after he grew up and became a writer, Haley began to search for documentation that might authenticate the narrative. It took ten years and a half a million miles of travel across continents to find it, but finally, in an astonishing feat of genealogical detective work, he discovered not only the name of "the African" - Kunta Kinte - but the precise location of Juffure, the very village in The Gambia, West Africa, from which he was abducted in 1767 at the age of sixteen and taken on the Lord Ligonier to Maryland and sold to a Virginia planter.

Haley has talked in Juffure with his own African sixth cousins. On September 29, 1967, he stood on the dock in Annapolis where is great-great-great-great-grandfather was taken ashore on September 29, 1767. Now he has written the monumental two-century drama of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him - slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, lumber mill workers and Pullman porters, lawyers and architects - and one author.

I had seen the TV mini-series of ROOTS a long time ago. So when looking for a book for the In Their Shoes Challenge, this one jumped out at me. I enjoyed the mini-series and wanted to learn more about this family.

One thing I did learn that was unexpected was the fact that Alex Haley had been sued for plagiarism by Harold Courlander who wrote the book THE AFRICAN. Mr. Haley settled out of court and admitted that some parts of the book were taken from THE AFRICAN. This fact led me to question the book as a whole - was it to be considered fact or fiction? Mr. Haley answered that question:

"To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within ROOTS is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give ROOTS flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

Since I wasn't around when most of the story occurred, by far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what any researching let me to plausibly feel took place."

So - a mixture of fact and fiction. Still a terrific book. Reading this, I could picture scenes from the mini-series. I could see LaVar Burton as the young Kunta Kinte in chains on the slave ship. John Amos as the older Kunte - now named Toby - and Madge Sinclair as Bell jumping the broom. Leslie Uggams as their daughter Kizzy, and Ben Vereen as the wonderful Chicken George.

My one complaint with this book was the fact that as the story moved from generation to generation, lives were just dropped. The story of Toby and Bell abruptly ended when the focus turned to Kizzy as she was sold to a new owner. Perhaps Mr. Haley couldn't find any documentation of what happened to them after that time, but it was a let-down after following Kunta Kinte for 546 pages. I was hoping to find out what life was like for them without their daughter.

I'm going to either rent or buy this mini-series on DVD along with the sequel "Roots: The Next Generation" which was based on the follow-up book by Mr. Haley.

1 comment:

Heather J. said...

My mom always tells me that this was a fascinating miniseries, but I've never seen it. Nor have I read the book, but it is on my TBR list. I'd never heard of the plagiarism charge - thanks for sharing that.

I made a new category on my blog to cover books like this - Creative Non-fiction. I had a hard time categorizing these kinds of books, and the definition I found online makes sense.

Thanks for reminding me about this book. :)