Roots by Alex Haley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“I just felt like I was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw…”
On some levels, this is an absolutely astonishing work. Tracing the author’s roots back through the generations and arriving wondrously in a remote village in Gambia, Africa in the mid-eighteenth century, it picks up the story from there till the time Alex Haley was born. A descendent of the brutal practices of slavery enforced upon numerous captives from the Dark Continent, he presents this as a biography of his family tree.
The initial portions of the book are perhaps the most fascinating. We are provided an intense, in-depth view of life in a remote African village called Juffure, through the protagonist called Kunta Kinte. Kunta Kinte grows up as any God fearing member of his clan does, following its age old practices of hunting, farming and self-sufficient living, offset by the seasonal hardships and simple joys of this life. His life from his birth and growing up years to his ‘manhood training’ is evoked in brilliant detail and transports us effortlessly to a world we could never have otherwise re-imagined. There are grittily recounted sections detailing such things as his first walking journey as a child (an honor and a rare privilege for a child) with his father to the new village founded by his uncles, and the manhood training underwent by all boys of a particular ‘rain’ (the term used to specify age). Goat herding and school activities are also described in detail here. All up till the inevitable ambush and kidnap of Kunta by slave traders.
After this the book becomes a grim and brutal study of the way captured slaves were treated before being offloaded onto various plantations in the United States. The ship journey, in particular, assaults our senses with the filth, stench and loss of dignity which the captives are forced to endure and the heartbreak of having their whole life till then taken away from them in a heartbeat.
Once at the plantation, Kunta tries to escape multiple times, the final time being found by slave catchers and having a horrible injury inflicted upon him. Post this incident, he is moved to the plantation of a doctor, who heals him as much as he can before setting him onto gardening duties. Though he becomes milder in his resistance over the years, Kunta never loses his anger against the white man or his memories and fondness for a homeland he knows he will probably never see again. Eventually forced to resign himself to life on the plantation, he decides to get married to the cook and a daughter is born, Kizzy. To her he recounts his tales and words from Africa and a family tradition is born, which will be passed down through the ages. When tragedy again strikes, it is to Kizzy’s point of view that the story shifts. A large part of the book after that is devoted to her son George and his shenanigans as a trusted cock fighter for his master. I was not too enamored by the detailed descriptions of the cock fighting scene at the time, but again this did provide a vivid description of a time long gone. Eventually, the book condenses towards the end and culminates in the last few chapters being narrated by the author himself as he details his emotional journey to find details about the lives of his ancestors.
One of the striking things about the narrative, and which I initially took a little time to get used to, is the sudden shifting of the point of view. After a point, we are suddenly left with a new protagonist and the earlier characters who were integral to the plot up till then suddenly leave unceremoniously from the pages. However, in retrospect, this was probably a grim reality for a lot of the slaves back then – in an instant, through some perceived crime or plain whim of their master, entire families can be sold away from each other and would never see each other again. The book does an altogether fantastic job of depicting the sheer criminality and unfairness of slavery which snatched so many people away from all that they had known till then and left them at the mercy of their masters/overseers.
However, and this was probably why I couldn’t give it a perfect rating, I realized after reading it that there had been controversies galore after it was published. A lot of doubts and research has been raised in light of Haley’s claim that the whole thing is true, some pretty compelling. There was also a plagiarism case which was settled out of court in the years after publication. Haley’s journey into the village where Kunta is from in particular raises questions of authenticity as does the admission that certain passages were lifted from an earlier book, ‘The African’. In fact, there was a chance that the book and author would have been more accepted as a true great if it had been presented as literary fiction.
But, all things considered, this is still a gripping and unflinching look at the brutalities of a time and place and a reminder on why we should never forget our shared histories. For this reason itself, this is a must read for everyone.