Monday, April 14, 2014

Roots, by Alex Haley

***Spoiler Alert!  I tried writing this review without one, but I couldn’t do it.  Besides, you had 30 years to read this book.***

Let me start this post by saying the following: I am not a racist.  I know this is the basic statement of racists everywhere, but in my case, it’s the absolute truth.  What I can be, however, is culturally insensitive.  Being white, and fairly affluent, I have never experienced discrimination based on race, so I can’t really sympathize with those who have, though I can empathize.  So, I’m always looking for opportunities to learn about other races and cultures which have been discriminated against, in order to be less culturally insensitive.  So I’m not a racist – I’m can just be woefully ignorant at times.  But, in order to broaden my horizons, I read, which is what led me to my latest read, Roots, by Alex Haley.

I think Roots is one of those cultural touchstones we in North America all know about for one of two reasons: 1- you’ve read the book, or 2- you saw the mini-series staring the dude from Reading Rainbow.  In my case, I first learnt about Roots from the mini-series; though I’m to young to have seen it the first time it was on, I did catch it during an airing on the 20th anniversary.  My next exposure to the story was at my local Chapters, which featured a collection of books about African-American experiences, which included the 30th anniversary edition of Roots, so I picked up a copy of my own.

Roots, as the subtitle states, is the story of an American family.  The story begins in Gambia, West Africa, with the birth of Kunta Kinte.  The story follows his journey from birth to manhood, when he is captured by slavers, and sent to the Amercias for sale; from there, the reader learns about Kunta’s life as a plantation- and house-slave, the life of his daughter and grandson, and the lives of further descendants.  All told, Roots spans from the 1750s to the 1960s.

This is a hard book to read.  While I might be cultural insensitive at times, as a historian of the British Empire, I’m not ignorant to the experiences and suffering of those who were captured in Africa and forced to suffer the indignities of slavery in the colonies.  But reading Haley’s accounts of the ocean-crossing, the whippings, the rapes, and the total disregard for the humanity of the African and African-American populations is heart-rending.  Equally upsetting is the casual racism that is depicted; from the way the slaves view themselves to the way their owners treat them, it’s upsetting to see just how little an entire race of people were seen as being worth.

What I loved about this book was Haley’s way of creating believable and engaging characters.  Though the white characters are hard to sympathize with when viewed through today’s social and cultural morals, the historian in me can empathize with them; however, that doesn’t make it easy to like them.  But in this book, the white characters provide background noise – they are not the purpose of Haley’s story, merely the catalyst for the plot’s forward movement.  

Where Haley’s characters shine is with the Kunta family.  The first half of the book follows the life of Kunta Kinte, but then (and here’s the spoiler), his daughter is sold and the narrative moves with her to another plantation.  From that point, we never hear about Kunta’s life again; after investing 500 pages into this character, it was a bit of a let-down (from a narrative perspective) to loose anymore contact with Kunta; then you realize that this was the reality that most slaves lived with – they could be bought and sold, and split up from family members at the whim of their owners, and they may never know what happened to the loved-ones they left behind.  In that, Haley does a remarkable job in conveying to the reader the horror of the family dynamics among the slave populations (that is, living in constant fear of loosing their family members), even though it puts a hitch in the narrative of the story.  But, I’m complaining about near perfection here; I’m complaining about not getting more of a compellingly-written set of characters.  I’ll get over it.

While the characters and the plot are amazing, I did have a hard time reading this book with regards to the language and patois that Haley used.  With an obvious ear for language, Haley wrote using the accent and cadence of the American South; in many cases, I had to go back and re-read a sentence to make sure that I understood what was being said, and what thought was being conveyed.  I don’t know if this would be a problem for those used to hearing a southern twang, but I found it hard to acclimatize to every time I picked the book up.  And, it has to be said; the frequent and casual use of the n-word was really cringe inducing.  I know it was part of the dialect, but I guess I can’t move beyond the social condition that’s taught me it’s the vilest and most foul of words…

The other thing worth mentioning in Haley’s inspiration for this work.  It is, in fact, his own family history.  Beginning with oral histories he heard as a child from the elders in his family, Haley heard about his African roots (see what he did there?) from his earliest days.  It was not until he was looking for his next writing project that he decided to see what he could learn about his African ancestor; that quest for knowledge let him back to Kunta Kinte’s village, where the local record keepers (of an oral tradition), were able to tell him about his family’s history.  Backed up by archival research, Haley was able to paint the broad strokes of his family’s history of almost 200 years.  As a historian myself, it was amazing to read Haley’s account of his inspiration, trial and tribulation, and the final outcomes.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It is a major part of our Western culture’s zeitgeist, and provides the reader with a humanized account of slavery and race relation in America from the 1760s to the 1960s.  I wanted to read this book during Black History Month in February, but didn’t have a chance then, but I am glad that I got around to it shortly thereafter; what I learnt most from my reading of Roots is that the African American experience is an American history unto itself that, while it can’t be removed from the white American experiences, is rich and compelling, and in many ways isolated from the history that surrounds it, as no one but those who experienced it (or continue to live with its effects) can truly understand the human toll of it.

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