Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Roots - Alex Haley

 I'm sure that all of you who have made your way to my humble blog and its views on literature will know of Alex Haley's famous book, Roots. It was of course made into a mini-series in the early 1980's and I vaguely remember parts of it nearly thirty years on. The book itself I read sometime last year. It had been on my 'to read list' for some time and I picked up an old copy several years ago and finally manged to read it after several previous false starts.

 The story revolves around a so called 'ancestor' of Haley's named Kunta Kinte. He is snatched from Gambia in the mid eighteenth century as a sixteen year old, and transported to America as part of the slave trade. There has been much controversy over this book as Haley purported so much of it to be historical fact and backed it up with his 'research'. Subsequent historical analysis has found Haley's findings to be incorrect. He also blighted his name because he was taken to court charged with plagiarism, which he settled out of court. He was again charged with plagiarism by another author but it was thrown out to. I haven't read either plagiarised book but I have read the very famous slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Haley refers to several times in Roots.

 For me as I read Uncle Tom's Cabin I couldn't help but feel certain parts and passages were lifted straight from it and into Roots. Sure both are about slavery, and their will always be similarities, but there is in Roots parts that are way too similar to be original and reek strongly of plagiarism. Roots has had its due recognition, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is the foremost book in bringing the abhorrence of the slave trade to the world's attention. It is a shame that Haley delved to the depths he did for Roots is a very fine book for all the faults of its author.

 For all the faults of Roots though the reader must read it with a grain of the proverbial salt. All of Haley's personal anecdotes and references to his 'researches should be some what dis-regarded because they are faulty to say the least. He has embellished much to his own purposes, which again is unfortunate because all he has done for posterity is leave a legacy of lies and a flawed book. If you read Roots it pays to read it as a straight novel based on historical events. It is not at all a family history as Haley would have us believe.

 If you read this as a straight novel then you will enjoy it the more. It isn't original in describing the plight of Africans taken from their native country for the slave trade. But unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin it starts in Africa and is far, far more harrowing than Uncle Tom. The description of the slaves on the slave ship is so harrowing and vividly described I felt physically sick and found it almost impossible to keep reading at times. It is embellished, and for Haley's faults he must be praised for his descriptions of the sufferings of the slaves themselves.

  The slaves were transported in ships chained down close together, lying in their own filth, with only one wash a week. They were whipped and the open sores festered from the filth and stung unmercifully when sea water was used to wash them. The women were raped, and the men were powerless to help them. The reader is led into the impotent rage these men felt at their plight and their inability to do a thing about it. Over half of them die en-route from their appalling conditions. They are treated worse than animals and fed on a diet of flour and water for months on end. It is despicable. As a white it makes you bow your head in shame for what was done to the black man.

 After Kinte is landed in America his rage is so great he attempts several escapes but is caught each time. He finally has one of his feet cut off with an axe. Can you even begin to imagine that??! He is sold to a owner who uses him as a carriage driver as he can barley walk. He marries late in life and has a daughter who is sold off for helping a young boy she likes escape. She is repeatedly raped by her new owner and has a child by him. A 'mulatto', a term that crops up repeatedly when reading the slave trade ( as does that word, you know the one, 'nigger' ). Mulatto being a person of mixed white/black parentage. Even with white blood the person was treated as black, and hence a slave.

 The tearing up of families runs right throughout Roots. In many respects it is more harrowing reading than the transporting of the slaves. Woman have babies torn from their arms as they are sold separately from their mothers. Husbands and wife's separated, and children sold off unceremoniously. It is all vividly told and the reader can't help but feel extreme anger towards those doing the buying and selling. The blacks are treated like so much cattle and aren't even given the credit for being human. Once Kinte daughter Kizzy is sold off he disappears from the book completely and we never learn what happens to him.

 The book goes through all the conditions the slaves lived in, to the attitudes of the owners towards their 'property'. Some are good to the slaves, while others are terrible and employ sadistic over-seers to make them work. The slaves themselves know they are stuck but quietly rebel by intentionally breaking tools and woman house-cooks putting their 'bodily wastes' into their masters food. Oops, sorry they pronounce it 'masser'.

  Unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, Roots is easier to read. The slaves have a pidgin sort of English and in Uncle Tom it is extremely difficult to read. Mammy's speech in Gone With the Wind is a very good example and I had trouble deciphering her speech ( at times I just skipped it as it was starting to annoy me as I stumbled my way through it ). Haley in Roots has made it a bit clearer and easier to read, and yet it is still undeniably slave talk. It was with relief it was so, because I seriously doubt I would have had the patience to slog through such pidgin type speech and found it enjoyable.

  The story Haley tells is quite a good read. He encompasses the many decades of the slave trade within a novel extremely well. The Civil War is gone through and the subsequent emancipation, as is the white owners attitudes to having to set free their slaves. Slavery may have ended but the attitude of the predominantly white population didn't change. The blacks were still 'niggers' and though slavery was gone another evil manifested itself in the guise of racism. Haley goes through the end of slavery and how blacks had to adjust to being free and the uphill struggle they faced to gain equality.

  Roots is an extremely good book. It is flawed because Haley plagiarised some of it and insisted his researches on his own family's history was that of the book. But that aside, Alex Haley has written an outstanding novel ( because that is what it is ) on the slave trade through one hundred and fifty years. It is brutal, sad ,disgusting, and quite harrowing. It will appall the reading in knowing how a whole population of people were treated. You will feel anger like very few books can make you experience. You watch human beings treated worse than animals, and yet by the end these same people ultimately triumphed, and you feel uplifted by it.

  An astonishing 'must' read. A book you will never forget and will think about over and over again.

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1 comment:

  1. With respect, I didn't find 'Roots' much like 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' I haven't read the works Haley is supposed to have plagiarised so I can't comment on them.

    It's possible that Haley was not so much a deliberate fraud as self-deceived. Family historians often assume a person with the right name is the one they are looking for, and go off on the wrong track.

    We can't know if Haley really heard his great-aunts recounting the family history. Only he could know that. Admittedly, there are some reasons to doubt it.

    Under slavery, a good number of people would not even have known who their parents were. Familis were routinely brutally torn apart for trading purposes. The fictional Topsy could not believe that she ever had parents.Marsha Hunt said it was impossible to trace her ancestors back further than liberation. It was as if they had fallen from the sky in 1865.

    The obvious analogy is with children adopted at birth who also feel that they have dropped from outer space. If it is possible to trace the original family in adulthood, that is often a healing experience. when it is not possible, it is common to persuade yourself that your imaginings and conjectures about your origins are factually based.

    People from unhappy families also sometimes convice themselvs that their real origins are something much more exciting and glamorous. Psychologists call this 'the family romance'.It is a symptom of a deep psychological wound and should be viewed sympathetically.

    Haley said the slave Toby aka Kunta Kinte had a daughter he called Kizzy. He glossed this as a Gambian verb. It seems to me that it could be short for Kezia, a Biblical name that was not so uncommon in the eighteenth century.

    Some say that Toby was in America while Kunta Kinte was in Africa.It has also been said that Toby died ten years before Kizzy's birth.I am not qualified to say if this is right.

    In any case, I think the subject is more nuanced than out and out fraud.Some might say it is irrelevant. Haley must have been of slave descent,regardless of the details. There were numerous Kintes.

    Of course, it would have been inspirational if the story had been accurate. It would have shown that the human spirit and specific family memories can sometimes survive the most degrading and calculated oppression. This seems to be a delusion. But it would be lovely if it was true.