Book Review: Roots: The Saga of an American Family

I first became vaguely aware of the mini-series of Roots when it came on TV back in 1977. I didn’t watch it then. According to Wikipedia it came on in January of that year, so I was probably back in college by the time it aired, where we did not have TVs nor the time to invest in a mini-series. I knew it made a sensation, but I was never interested in pursuing it. Videos of commercial films and home video players were not quite so prevalent then. And the whole subject of slavery is awful and cruel and a blight on our national history, and I had no desire to spend several hours watching a film about it.

Some years later, our pastor happened to mention a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a message, and commented, “Uncle Tom is the kind of Christian you always wanted to be.” I had not read it for the same reasons I hadn’t watched Roots, but I hadn’t known it had a Christian perspective to it. Curiosity piqued, I picked it up one day, and after reading it agreed very much with my pastor’s assessment. Though some scenes were horrible, the way Uncle Tom met them was inspiring and admirable.

Fast forward a few years later: I was watching some black comedy from the 80s, and I heard someone derisively called an “Uncle Tom.” Derisively, I thought? They don’t like and admire him? Didn’t that book lay the groundwork for the Civil War? Didn’t it lend a voice to back people when they were not allowed to have one? Why wouldn’t anyone like Tom?

I didn’t know. But just a few weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the classics listing at looking for a new book to listen to, I came across Roots. It wasn’t on my radar at all, but in October I’m hosting the reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Carrie’s book club, and I began to think: “Kunta Kinte from Roots is held in high regard and Uncle Tom is not, at least from what little I have heard. I wonder why.” So I decided to listen to the book and find out. I’ll come back to that thought a little later.

The book opens with Kunta’s birth in the small village of Juffure in the Gambia in the 1700s. The description of family and village life as he grows up is fascinating. Everyone has a responsibility: the youngest boys greet visitors passing the traveler’s tree and invite them in; boys a little older herd goats;, after “manhood training” they go on to other responsibilities, until they’ve established a home, built up their flock of goats and land, and desire to marry. The religion is primarily Islamic but some superstition is mixed in. At first it seemed kind of idyllic, but gradually the problems and dangers of life crowded in (drought, near-starvation before harvest, people disappearing, captured by slavers.) And some of the customs themselves seemed cruel. Men were not to show emotion, and when a boy excitedly runs to greet his father during manhood training, he is beaten. Children and wives could be beaten for many reasons. Women were even lower in social standing than teen-age boys. So it wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and there was much admirable about it outside of those things.

Knowing that Kunta was eventually going to be captured, every time he went off by himself I was afraid for him, and one of the saddest parts of the book is when he is actually captured by slavers. He endures a grueling and horrid few months in the hold of a ship with scores of others, chained together, eating poor food, being beaten at a whim, having to sit in their own filth with festering wounds, being at the mercy of disease that spreads rapidly in the close conditions.

When he is sold to a Virginia plantation owner, he makes several attempts to run away, but is captured and cruelly treated each time. The last time was especially horrid, and he is taken, bleeding and broken, to a doctor’s home, where the doctor and his maid nurse him back to health. The doctor eventually buys him from his first owner, who happens to be the doctor’s brother. The doctor is not what I would call a kind man, but life on his place is a heap better than the first place Kunta had been.

But Kunta holds himself aloof from the other slaves. He comes across as proud, and indeed he does look down on them because they don’t do things in the “superior” way he is accustomed to, but especially because they seem to have forgotten their heritage. But he can no longer run, and eventually he marries and has a child.

The rest of the book traces the next couple of generations and what happens to them, each of them passing down the story of their ancestor, Kunta.

The book is aptly named for several reasons: Kunta’s trying to hang on to his own roots, his ancestors passing down his story, the other blacks having forgotten theirs, and the setting of new roots down in this country.

One caveat: the book is very….frank about Kunta’s awareness of his budding sexuality as he grows up, and in its description of a couple of rapes and of one master’s leeriness. But I didn’t think any of it was meant to be sensationalized or titillating. It was just matter-of-fact.

Overall the book was wonderfully told, though heartbreaking in places.

The book was inspired by Alex Haley’s grandmother telling stories of her ancestors. He began to research and believed Kunta was his ancestor. That research is disputed now, but Haley defended it.

A shadow is cast over the book with the accusation of plagiarism. Haley first denied it, then settled in court and released a statement that he did use material from Harold Courlander’s book, The African.

I must say that Avery Brooks’ rich timbre greatly enhanced the audiobook. During the African section of the book, I almost felt like I was sitting on a log at the evening fires listening to a master storyteller passing along the oral traditions and history of the village’s forefathers, and then when Kunta is taken to Virginia, Brooks ably displays an amazing variety of Southern accents.

I’ve watched the first hour or so of the mini-series on YouTube. I definitely prefer the book so far. But I do hope to see it all at some point.

Back to the question: why does Kunta Kinte seem to be held in high esteem and Uncle Tom does not? I’ll be better able to think about this after I refresh my memory by rereading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a few months, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Kunta never did fully settle in to life here, and he continued to have a hatred of white people (understandably). Uncle Tom, by contrast, was a Christian and as such was governed by admonitions to love his enemies and overcome evil with good. That looks like “kowtowing” to those who don’t understand, but the meekness of Uncle Tom is the same meekness Christ showed, not the meekness of a sycophant or of the conquered. There is a difference.

Interestingly, Kunta’s grandson married a Christian girl, and late in the book the story of Joseph in the Bible is a comfort to her and to others when she shares it.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Roots: The Saga of an American Family

  1. Your review has piqued my curiosity, especially because there’s a local connection to Alex Haley’s family around here supposedly. I hope ican squeeze in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in October! I’ve never read it.

  2. You certainly made me want to read Roots, but with all three of my kids’ birthdays in October (and family visiting during that time) I’m not sure that it can happen. Thank you for explaining the Uncle Tom…totally didn’t get that!

  3. I watched every minute of the series when I was a teen, but interestingly enough it never occurred to me tor read the book. It’s going onto my list now.

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