Friday, April 14, 2017

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is a work of historical fiction written in 1976 by Alex Haley. He begins with the life and eventual capture of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte in Africa. In what follows is a mostly fictional story, except for possibly a few details and Kinte's lineage.

Fiction or not, Roots is an amazing saga of nine generations. The most intriguing part of the book, for me, was the beginning, which focused on Kinte's life. After Kinte was transported to America to be sold as a slave, I understood how he yearned for his village, the sounds of the monkeys in the trees, his simple hut, hunting for food, and being so self-sufficient. When I first started reading about life in his village I thought how horrible it must be to life in such primitive conditions. But by the time Kunta was kidnapped, I saw how beautiful and amazing his life had truly been.

It was also interesting to see how, when Kunta lived as a slave on two American plantations, he despised the American slaves. Their culture was so completely different from his, and they seemed more complacent to him, as he couldn't understand why they didn't all try to escape. In the first of many personal compromises he would make, he married a Christian American slave and struggled with instilling his heritage in his daughter, Kizzy. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read or write (and Kunta could do both, in Arabic), made it even more difficult. In addition, after Kizzy was sold to another plantation, her ties to her father and mother were completely severed. What would Kunta have thought, to know that his grandchildren would grow up to be culturally similar to those American slaves he despised? His dreams of a family, living as Muslims, repeating the traditions he grew into, would never be achieved.

In full disclosure, there is some controversy surrounding the book that might make it unpalatable to some. A few years after its release, Haley was sued by author Harold Courlander and Haley settled, acknowledging that some passages were take from Courlander's book, The African.

There were also questions raised about how true certain parts of the book actually were, in terms of Haley's purported research into his family's ancestry. 

Controversy aside, this was quite the read, and so worth it. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening, and likely a  different perspective on American history than many of us were offered in school. Highly recommend. 

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