I was shocked to see that this book had only been reviewed one time for Cannonball Read. My cultural frame of reference for this show is that it came out before my time, was one of the biggest shows in the history of television. The show premiered in January of 1977 and Part I garnered a 40.5 share. The show was aired over the course of a single week because CBS was afraid it was going to be a bust, and preferred one bad week over 8 consecutive lackluster nights over two months. By the end of the week, the final part saw a 51.5 rating for 71% of American television viewers. All eight parts to the miniseries rank among the top 100 television broadcasts of all time. Ironically, the previous November, Gone with the Wind premiered on broadcast television (after previously airing on HBO) and set the record for percentage of American television viewers to watch a movie (65%). It’s kind of delicious that that number was beaten by Roots just two months later.
And I remember watching Eddie Griffin talk about the show on a stand-up special in the ’90s. So, there’s that.
This book won a special Pulitzer Prize (with no award being given in 1977), and was phenomenally successful. It debuted at number 5 on the New York Times bestseller list before spending 18 consecutive weeks at number 1, and spent forty-six weeks on the list while selling over 15 million hardcover copies. With the success of both the book and TV mini-series, Roots sparked genealogical interest for tens of millions of Americans. I knew of this book – but I don’t really recall anyone talking about reading it. I don’t know anyone who’s read it, and I’ve never been recommended the book. As previously stated, in over 30,000 archived reviews in the CBR database, there is exactly one review (which isn’t crazy, we generally read newer books).
Roots as about 350,000 reviews on Goodreads. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) has over 365,000 reviews on Goodreads and The Shining has over 1.2 million. On Amazon, the book has 1,750 reviews and the paperback is ranked 73,287 in the books category. ‘Salem’s Lot has over 8,100 reviews and is ranked 2,598. The Shining has almost 19,000 reviews and is ranked 313. You notice the same trend with other books, like Interview with the Vampire (hard to believe that was published in 1976) and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. One would think Roots wasn’t an absolute cultural phenomenon in the late-1970s.
So what happened?
Well, for starters, this book was sold in the non-fiction section and billed as being the result of heavy research both in the United States and in Africa. Alex Haley himself claimed to have traced his lineage back to an African-born slave named Kunta Kinte who was born in the village of Jufureh, Gambia. Haley visited this village while researching his family history, and found a griot (a west African historian and storyteller) who confirmed the Kunta Kinte story to Haley – but this man wasn’t actually a griot, and was instead telling Haley what he wanted to hear. Must of the lineal claims made in this book are not corroborated by Haley’s research, despite his claims.
Haley claims that his research is well-founded, but it is obviously not. To give one example, the village of Jufureh, in which the novel starts, was only two miles away from a major outpost for the Royal Africa Company. Despite this, Haley depicts the villagers as only vaguely hearing rumors of white people. To give another example, the slave Toby wasn’t an African slave brought to the colonies in 1767. He was already a slave in 1762 on the Waller plantation. There is no documented connection to an African named Kunta Kinte. I could go on, but this isn’t really the point of this review.
On top of it coming out that his research was less than ideal, and the claims in the book are (at best) highly suspect, Alex Haley was unsuccessfully sued by Margaret Walker for alleged plagiarism of her 1966 novel Jubilee (which fictionalizes the life of Walker’s great-grandmother). He was also sued by novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Harold Courlander for plagiarism of his 1967 novel The African. That case had substantially more evidence, and Haley settled the case for $650,000. Apparently, Haley’s manuscript had photocopied pages of The African stapled to it, and he had been given the book by a friend in 1970, even though Haley claimed to have never heard of The African before being sued.
These controversial discoveries came out shortly after the book and mini-series’s monumental success, and it lessened the ardor of the public for the work. I think it’s fallen more into cultural memory than it has been preserved and continually renewed in the way that, say, Schindler’s List, has because of the damage to its credibility.
Which is a terrible shame, because this was an impactful and powerful book.
Roots begins with the birth of Kunta Kinte in Africa, in the Mandinka village of Jufureh. Of all the characters in the book, Kunta is perhaps the most compelling, and lengthy – taking up roughly a third of the novel. We get so much time to really get inside his head, and he has such a dramatic character arc. It’s really difficult for anyone else’s story to follow his. From the 17 years in Africa, learning to be a Mandinka man, to be captured and brought across the Atlantic under the most harrowing of circumstances before being sold in an alien land to unfamiliar people to realizing that he’s never going to be free and must spend the rest of his life a slave in a land where he doesn’t understand the language…..He’s a compelling character, and Haley does a great job telling his story.
Unfortunately, Haley isn’t quite as successful with the rest of the book. Kunta’s daughter, Kizzy, is the next person we meet, and we don’t get nearly as much time with her as we did with her father. In fact, she seems to be more of a bridge to her son: Chicken George. After Kunta, he’s probably the main character. We see his growth from a boy absolutely adored by the slaves of the Lea plantation, through his adolescence and discovery of chicken fighting, into adulthood and prominent position on the plantation. In terms of the amount of time covered, we actually get more of his life than we do Kunta Kinte – who is never heard from again after Kizzy leaves the Waller plantation.
We do get some time with Tom Murray, George’s son – but he’s a relatively thin character. Tom is a successful blacksmith and patriarch of the family through the Civil War. The two generations after him (his daughter Cynthia and granddaughter Bertha are barely sketched out characters who occupy but a couple chapters at the end of the book. I can’t actually tell you anything about them, even though I finished the book today.
On the one hand, I can understand why he spent so much time with the characters he knew the least: he had the freedom to write whatever he wanted, not being constrained by the knowledge of who these people actually were. Or, indeed, whether these characters were actually people that had existed. It’s hard to make your mother, for instance, a central character in your book without just writing a biography. Roots isn’t a time capsule for each individual in his family line. I think the point of this story is tell a hypothetical origin for his family in America. And as a work of fiction, it’s a very good read.
If there’s anything I wished I had seen here, it would’ve been an acknowledgement of the unreliability of oral tradition. Haley depicts his characters as passing down the story of Kunta Kinte unchanged through the generations. While I can understand why he did that – and he may even believe that what he was saying was correct – anyone who knows the game of telephone understands how difficult tit is to get pass down information for hundreds of years without making alterations.
I think he didn’t do that because, to him, these are the stories of his lineage, and they are sacrosanct. But he took a few stories handed down through the generations and expanded them into a multi-generation story spanning 700+ pages. There’s a great deal in this book (disregarding the questions about the characters historical validity) that is pure fiction.
The sad thing is – further research done after Haley’s death has discovered information that possibly validates some of this oral tradition – while also showing how oral traditions can be unreliable. Dr. William Waller (Kunta Kinte’s supposed owner) was the son of Colonel William Waller, who had a slave named “Hopping George”. It’s not hard to imagine a connection between a slave with that name and the hobbled Kunta Kinte presented here. He also owned a slave named Isabel (Kunta’s wife’s name is Bell).
Far be it from me to second guess an author (I do it all the time, don’t let me fool you), but I think this book could’ve been enriched with that added layer of uncertainty that oral tradition brings. Even something as simple as the story of Kunta Kinte slowly changing as it’s passed down from one generation to the next.
Ultimately, however, that isn’t what Haley’s goal with Roots. He was trying to tell his family’s story down the patrilineal line to his African roots. And I can’t begrudge him that (even if the historicity of the antebellum period of this book is highly suspect).