Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976)

by Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the stories of six generations of Alex Haley’s ancestors starting in the mid-1700s with a 17-year-old African captured into slavery, was a sensation. It spent 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1977. It was adapted that year into an eight-part ABC miniseries that was the most-watched series in television history.

Giving almost 200 pages to the rich culture and customs of the Mandinka people in Gambia from which Kunte Kinte sprang, Haley debunked the notion that Africa is the uncivilized “Dark Continent.” Later scholarship found discrepancies in Haley’s research, but the exact identity of his African ancestor is not as important as Haley’s locating his roots in a particular civilization in which he gained pride. Inaccurate details of his African-American forebears’ lives do not invalidate his portrayal of life in slavery: toil from dawn to dusk, demeaning submission to the “massa,” beatings and torture, and perpetual fear of loved ones being sold away, never to be seen again.

While Haley did not downplay slavery’s horrors, Roots is ultimately hopeful. His ancestors were not mere survivors of oppression. Brave Kunta Kinte, his foot chopped off after four attempts to escape, made sure that daughter Kizzy knew about her proud African lineage and would pass stories and words down to succeeding generations. The special skills of cockfighting expert George and blacksmith Tom elevated their standing on the plantation. Their dreams, ambition, and tenacity were fulfilled in the freed generations, which included the owner of a lumber business, a college professor, and journalist Haley.

Is Roots as important today as it was in the 1970s, when few works of art had examined slavery through the lens of victims? Does its message still inspire when polls find that Americans think that the state of race relations is plunging? A&E and the History Channel thought so in 2017. They aired a four-part update with slicker production values to appeal to modern audiences, especially younger people. Like the earlier series, reviews were good. 

Forty years ago Roots had the country talking about slavery. The conversation continues. As the seminal element in US history, slavery will always be a relevant topic.



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