As abhorrent as I have always viewed slavery, this book actually made me feel it.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
Like most of Americans in the 1970s, I was riveted to the mini-series “Roots.” Also probably like most Americans, I had never read the book even though “Roots” by Alex Haley had won the Pulitzer Prize. That changed last night.
I finished “Roots,” all 688 pages in my hardcover version, though some editions go over 899. I was blown away. Comparing my memories of the mini-series (of which, frankly, there have never been any better unless it was arguably “The Thornbirds” or “Winds of War”), the filmed version (which had 37 Emmy Award nominations – winning nine – among others) does little justice to the novel itself. Translated: the book is better. That should tell you how good the book is.
Getting the controversy aside: There were charges and settlements of plagiarism along with accusations of sloppy and untraceable research against Haley following publication. I’m including this not as a muckraker, but – if I don’t – someone will post this background in the comments section for me as if the rest of us didn’t know and the questionable accusations unto themselves could be accepted as fact. Long story short, it may have been a research assistant’s error without proper attribution (who knows). Such things have happened with no knowledge of the writer. This matter was settled out of court, which means someone made a deal and we’re not really sure what that deal was. I take plagiarism and false claims seriously – as do most – which is why most people now consider this book to be a book of fiction versus a biography or nonfiction. I think it an unfortunate black eye.
After reading “Roots,” there were sections I would like to have had more of. I would like to have known what happened to certain characters (black and white) after the narrative moved beyond them. As I read (and this was before I knew of the legal controversies), I wondered that if this information was taken from census polls and public records, why didn’t Haley include what happened to certain individuals after the narrative left them? For the whites, those records would continue to show where they had lived. For the blacks, it would continue to show who owned them or where they were after their freedom. I would have even been happy with the “oh, by the ways” at the end of the book in a wrap-up section if Haley felt that including what happened to these characters in the narrative was disruptive. Didn’t Haley want to know what eventually happened to Kunta Kinte? Last I read of him, he was running after a wagon. What happened to these individuals up to their deaths would be just as easy to discover as what was included about them in their lives. After noting the controversy, it made me wonder – as did others – about the validity of the research. That being the case, we have to look at this (unfortunately like many biographies of today) as a work of fiction.
Let’s make this Elephant-in-the-Living-Room other point over genealogy, as well, and the reason that most of us who aren’t members of the Whatever Whatevers of Some Revolution find those people who view ancestry research as a given fact rather amusing: Not every child is who their mothers say their fathers are. I personally take birth certificates with a grain of salt. Give me blood tests and now DNA, of which you saw little in the 1800 and 1700’s. Nothing to do with genealogy could be anything more than speculative to begin with. ‘Nough said.
So, looking at “Roots” by Alex Haley as a work of fiction…
This book was incredible. It completely opened my eyes on these savage blacks that Europeans rescued from the forests of Africa to bring out of the jungles and try to civilize (isn’t that the misconception). Frankly, I knew of slaves, but never really thought about slaves. Or examined slavery in my own heart or compared it to something in my own experience. I imagine most don’t, including those who say they really do. There is nothing in my life to compare it to. What this book showed me and made me empathize with was a proud and religious people who were taken (as was custom in that part of the world, not just by Europeans, but by other black African tribes and nations, as well) from their homes and families and transported cold-heartedly (in the case of European history) to an unknown world where their pasts, traditions, and sense of who they were was completely denied and suppressed. It showed me a representative story of representative characters who sought nothing more than to just have the choice to walk across a street if they wanted to without having to have a written pass from the massa in order to do it. It showed me the dignity of a previously proud and moral character forced to live in squalor and filth because those who owned him (not putting it in italics because at the time they did own him, just as they might have owned a horse or chicken) viewed him as something less than human. I read “Roots.” I was engrossed in “Roots.” I went to sleep thinking about “Roots.” It is easy to say one is against slavery – which I and most are – but it is another to feel the vileness of it, the indignity of it, the shame of it. I lost sleep over it. Frankly, the treatment of these people made me sick.
To my knowledge, none of my ancestors owned slaves. As far as I know, we were the po’ white crackers the slaves made fun of in the book. But it made me wonder. What is back there in my past? Though I know the skeptic in me will always view my family tree as a work of fiction, it might be worth the contemplation. As abhorrent as I have always viewed slavery, this book actually made me feel it. What else is back there that may shake me to the core?
Until next time, read like someone is burning the books!
– Clay Stafford is a husband, father, author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), business owner (www.AmericanBlackguard.com), and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com) with over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). Publishers Weekly has named Stafford one of the top 10 Nashville literary leaders playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” not only in middle-Tennessee, but also extending “beyond the city limits and into the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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