Since this year marks the 40th anniversary of a watershed moment in American literature—the publication of Alex Haley’s “Roots”—and as I have always had an affinity for historical fiction, I decided this year was as good as any to finally tackle this notable novel.
The story, which spans over a century and is based on Haley’s own family history, follows several generations beginning with the 1750 birth of Kunta Kinte in The Gambia, Africa, and includes his only daughter Kizzy—who did the unthinkable for a slave by learning to write, and paid dearly for it—and her son Chicken George, so nicknamed because of his prowess in training and fighting gamecocks.
As a teen, Kunta is captured by slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic in chains to be sold to a Virginia plantation owner. As I took the journey with the hero and all his descendants, I soon realized why this landmark book—one which took its author over a decade to write—has made such an indelible impression on the American cultural psyche.
What Haley does with this work better than anybody has ever done is make us feel the stifling hand of slavery like no other book has done before or since, and it stands as one of the most visceral narratives ever written. This work has no equal when it comes to depicting the graphic cruelty in the treatment of slaves as Haley pulls no punches in his nightmarish descriptions.
Kunta Kinte is waylaid by white slave traders in Africa, netted like a wild animal, beaten into submission and forced into chains. Then he is branded with a white-hot iron before ultimately being forced to share a narrow wooden plank with another chained captive lying next to him aboard a ship making a four-month sojourn over the Atlantic.
Bound on his plank, he is forced to lie in his own vomit, feces, urine, blood and pus that oozes from his sores caused by the chains. Taken to the open deck above intermittently, he is forced along with all the other captives to jump up and down in their chains so their muscles won’t atrophy, and their wounds are washed with the ocean’s salt water, which stings like acid on their open sores.
All I recall from my history classes in school was that these slaves were brought over on ships. Regarding how they were transported to this foreign world, my history book didn’t go into much detail beyond that. I do recall seeing a rudimentary illustration of captive Africans lying end to end and side by side in tight quarters in the cargo area of the ship—but I didn’t feel their fever of incessant pain and I certainly didn’t hear the sobbing from the human beings who had been snatched from their homes, separated from their parents, torn from their husbands, wives and children, praying and pleading and the cursing into the fetid darkness of a ship’s insufferably hot cargo hold. It is a hellish voyage come to life and one not soon forgotten.
Not only is the physical treatment of slaves hard-hitting, but so is the narrative’s unremitting look at the psychological yoke under which so many slaves toiled, as they were often denied even some of the most basic human needs.
When the fiercely independent and proud Kunta Kinte reluctantly begins to comingle with the other slaves on the plantation, Haley underscores the pride he feels in being a true black African, and not some diluted version that populates in this new world. When he is dismissed by one of his lighter-colored fellow slaves, Kunte Kinte “wanted to shout at him, ‘At least I’m black, not brown like you!’” Soon after this, when Kunte Kinte sensed the lonely brown slave only wanted to speak to and connect with a companion who’ll listen, it made him—to whom English was a decipherable tongue at this point—”want to both laugh and cry that someone was actually talking to him as one human being to another.”
In time Kunta fathers Kizzy, a girl who by the time is a teen is sold to another plantation owner—one who pays nonconsensual carnal visits to her cabin during the night. Just as disturbing as the gruesome journey aboard the slave ship is, these powerfully written passages reveal the horrendous nightmare and reality of master-slave rape. In doing what little she can to console Kizzy, an older fellow slave woman tells her, “Honey, you jes well’s realize you’s a nigger woman. De kind of white man massa is, you either gives in, or he gwine make you wish you had, one way or ‘nother.”
Throughout the narrative Haley weaves in actual historical events, such as the failed 1805 slave uprising led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston, S.C. When Kizzy’s master confronts his slaves soon after the news of the failed rebellion reaches him, he furiously waves a shotgun at them and yells, “Proves you never can trust none of you niggers!”
When the master is out of earshot, Mingo—an old slave who had worked for years side-by-side with the master in raising and training fighting cocks, and who had become to his master an advisor and almost a friend—spits out bitterly, “Work a thousan’ years for a white man you still any nigger!” A single powerful sentiment boiled down to a dozen words, which some might say, sadly, still carries weight today.
Amid the passages of an ever-present oppression, misery and maltreatment of an entire people, there is one particular description that exhibits the singular spirit and fundamental and God-given right of liberty. When Chicken George imitates a challenging cock’s crow while inspecting the birds on the rangewalk, he instantly hears an answering crow that seems to shatter the midday afternoon and George soon beholds the iridescent plumage of the of the gamecock itself in all its magnificence: “Every ounce, every inch of him symbolized its boldness, spirit, and freedom so dramatically that Chicken George left vowing this bird must never be caught and trained and trimmed. It must remain there with its hens among the pines—untouched and free!”
As it was published in the wake of the civil rights era, “Roots” helped empower millions of young African Americans to take a renewed and overt pride in their heritage and urged them to discover their bloodlines. Also spurring this interest was the massively successful miniseries that followed in January 1977, which had millions of Americans—white and black—tuning in to watch in record-breaking numbers. The book is just as relevant today as it was during the nation’s bicentennial when it was published, and it will still be relevant a century from now.
This is one novel that should be required reading in school, as young people now more than ever need to not only connect to the past but relate to our country’s ancestors—those who helped build the nation, paying for it with their sweat and their blood. And they need to relate to these ancestors not in the way that history books too often depict them—as statistics or stark figures in illustrations—but as human beings.