I have never given much thought to my lineage — where I come from, who my forefathers were. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I have seen enough arrogant people thriving simply on the greatness of their ancestors rather than striving to make something of their own.
Reading Roots by Alex Haley made me rethink my idea of lineage. I realised that knowing about one’s ancestors can and should be a source of pride and inspiration rather than arrogance. Each time we block it off we cut our children off from a bit of history. That said, I do realise why it is way more important for African Americans to go looking for their roots, removed as they are from the home of their ancestors, made to believe they were worth nothing. It was perhaps this sense of pride in their heritage that helped them keep their spirits up and gave them the courage to keep going against all odds.
Roots is author Alex Haley’s six-generational family tale
The book begins in the African bush with the birth of Kunta Kinte son of Omoro and Binta of the Mandinka tribe somewhere in The Gambia. At 17, he is abducted and after months of hardships finds himself sold off to a master in America. He makes repeated attempts to escape but is caught each time and brought back. On his fourth attempt, part of his foot it chopped off. His master’s brother, a doctor and a kinder man buys him off, treats his foot and employs him.
He has a daughter Kizzy who is sold off for helping her beau escape. Raped by her new master, Kizzy gives birth to a son, George.
George has a knack for raising and training chickens for cock fights and wins the respect of his master. He has six sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Tom, distinguishes himself as a blacksmith and has a daughter Cynthia, who has a daughter Bertha. Alex Haley is Bertha’s son.
Okay, I realise this sounds like a not-too-interesting family tree story, which it absolutely is not. Each generation (except perhaps the last two) had its highs and lows.
Alex Haley’s Roots is a long read for sure but in most parts, it doesn’t lose pace and has enough twists to keep one turning the pages.
What I loved
Roots reinforced some of my previous thoughts on Africa and slavery which I wrote about in my review of the Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The book was quite similar to Roots, except that it came from a woman’s point of view.
Haley’s book bought home once more, the horror of it all — the casual cruelty with which the blacks were treated, the brutal splitting up of families, the shoot-outs and the rapes.
However, I’d like to talk about the more positive parts of the book.
I loved Kunta’s Africa
The first two hundred-odd pages, which talk about the growing-up years of Kunta, remain my absolute favourite. I realise that Haley somewhat glorifies life in the bush. However, that in no way took away from my enjoyment of Kunta’s Africa. The lifestyle is simple and basic at some levels, yet deeply steeped in complex tradition; the customs quaint and intriguing. People accept the vagaries of the elements without complaint. There are days when they teeter on the verge of starvation. And there are days when they are inundated by the rains. They accept it all.
The Manhood Training
At the age of 15 all the boys are taken away from their homes to a secluded settlement where they are taught to master an astounding range of skills. The training is gruelling and unforgiving but it teaches them to survive in nature, to almost become one with it. It’s ironic how the whites thought of Africans as slow and stupid. Consider, for a moment, if the tables were turned and a white man was taken from his home and homeland and left in the African bush where he didn’t understand a word of the language or customs and traditions. He wouldn’t even last a day.
Kunta will remain one of my favourite protagonists of all time.
The African Diversity
The book also brings home the diversity of the African tribes. Kunta talks about the distinguishing factors of each of the tribes. Not only are their physical features very different but also each of them is known for varied character traits with different sub-cultures and religions. Some are aggressive, some easy-going and friendly. I found that interesting because people often make the mistake of lumping together all Africans as one homogenous race quite like all Indians are clubbed together as a single mass of people.
My other favourite bit is right at the end — that moment when Haley finally returns to Africa and is standing surrounded by the people of the tribe of his great great great grandfather, when he is surrounded by a crowd of all black people. That moment gave me goosebumps just as it did him.
I have read a lot about the book since then and while the authenticity of his story remains debatable Haley’s writing made his journey, his discovery and his final arrival in Juffure, surreal.
What I would have liked more of…
It’s a long book and the narration gets tedious in parts, specially when there’s talk of the war. More so, because, although the war affects our protagonists, they have no part of it. It is simply being narrated to us through them.
Where did Kunta go?
As the narrative shifted from Kunta to Kizzy, the former was left aside and forgotten. I was so heavily invested in Kunta that this felt like abandonment. I do get that Haley was tracing his lineage and needed to move on but it still rankled. One cannot invest in a character and then be expected to forget about him.
The women get a short shrift
Haley traces his lineage through three men (Kunta, George, Tom) and three women (Kizzy, Cynthia, Bertha). The men get the lion’s share of pages, the women get too little attention. Even Kizzy is written about in detail till she is with Kunta. Her affair with Noah seemed contrived only serving the purpose of getting her sold away. She would have had her tribulations settling in at the new place. That gets barely a mention and the focus quickly shifts to her son George. Cynthia and Bertha are just about there. Bertha was the first woman in the family to go to college. That was certainly something to write about. Was she surrounded by white men and women at college? Did she feel out of place? What kind of friends did she make? I would have liked answers to those questions, perhaps in a sequel if Roots was becoming too ungainly.
Fewer pages dedicated to cock-fighting and a little more about the women would have made the book more balanced, I thought.
Last thought: Even if you don’t believe the events of the book, read it as a great piece of historical fiction.