I’d read this book the first time back when I was barely thirteen. I know it was quite a long time ago and this book was hardly age-appropriate. But it suited me. I forgot the details after and remembered them only when I read it again a few days ago. But what I didn’t forget were the emotions I felt when I read this book. Roots is an important part of modern African-American history. It’s a story that has to be heard. And that’s why this review.
RATING: 5 FULL Stars
GENRE: Fiction, African-American History, Classic
YEAR PUBLISHED: 1976
DISTINCTION/AWARDS: Pulitzer Prize
Here, Alex Haley tells the story of his family. And we’re not talking about our current nuclear families that consist of a mother, a father, and their kids. Nope, we’re not. We’re talking about the story of his forefathers, his ancestors. He goes down following the trail of history back to when the first man from his family set foot in what he calls as his homeland.
The story starts with Kunta: Haley’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Yes, people. We’re talking about seven whole generations here. Kunta was born in Gambia and grew up amid his people, culture, and traditions. He was taught to hunt by his father whom he both loved and respected. In this safe and beautiful world that Kunta inhabits enter the much-feared toubab, the white men who kidnap black men to ship them away as slaves. And this reader could literally feel the disturbance that their arrival, though they’re pretty far away, causes. People who used to roam the land freely to hunt are now more cautious.
Meanwhile, Kunta grows to become a solemn young man, whose eyes don’t miss injustice when they see it. There’s the case of a young black woman who’s kidnapped by the toubab and when she returns, she’s pregnant. The village council refuses the brown-skinned baby as one of their own, and the woman is isolated and shunned by others. Kunta notices this all. But, he doesn’t do anything about it.
Then disaster strikes. Kunta is kidnapped and taken away by the Slavedrivers who ship him to the United States. The birds’ wings are broken brutally. And Kunta will never return to the land of his birth.
This reader was chilled by Haley’s stark portrayal the horrifying and gruesome Ship voyage from Gambia to the States. Even more, Haley adds characters that show dignity, poise, and strength even in the face of humiliation. This reader was also moved by some scenes that Haley vividly describes. The black men and women are stripped off their clothes and are tortured on the ship. Some attempt to jump off the ship and swim to the shore but drown instead. One black woman, though, moves around helping and nursing men and women in pain. Kunta describes her by saying that she moves like a queen, though she’s nude. This is strength; this is resilience. It’s true that in the face of adversity, we become stronger.
With Kunta’s arrival in the States is born a new family, whose roots are in the rich land of Africa but who are American in every way of being.
Kunta is sold as a slave, marries another slave-woman named Bell, and has a daughter. He passes on his memories to his daughter Kizzy, a young, sweet and mischievous girl filled with dreams for herself. And those dreams are shattered when her beau Noah is caught running away North using a pass that she forged.
She’s separated from her parents and is sold away to another slave owner Tom, who rapes her. She bears his child who is named George. This reader was reminded of another brown-skinned child from Kunta’s village at this point. That child wasn’t accepted for not being black enough. And George will not be accepted for not being white enough. The poignancy of this incident and the sadness that engulfed this reader was too much to bear at thirteen years of age and this reader confesses to having shed a tear for Kizzy, who was older than this reader back then by only three years.
Kizzy teaches George about his heritage, passing on the knowledge that was taught to her by her father.
George goes on to become a famed cock-fighter in his father Tom’s place. He marries and has kids, one of whom is Tom Junior, who’s Haley’s great-grandfather. Tom becomes a blacksmith and also has an entrepreneur streak. This reader is not going to divulge all the details of the story, so we’ll just rush through the basics of the plot. After the Civil War, he sets up his own shop and becomes very successful. His daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer and has a daughter Betsy who becomes the first in the entire family to attend college. The significance of that achievement is not lost on the readers, especially after we’ve witnessed the trials and tribulations faced by six generations of this family on print.
Cynthia marries Simon Haley and their son Alex is the author of this book.
And as every generation passed, the knowledge of his homeland that Kunta gave to his daughter was diligently safeguarded and taught to his children and grandchildren and their children.
It’s this knowledge that prompted the author to set out on a journey to Africa to know more about his family, about Kunta and where he came from. And his journey back to Africa completes a circle.
Haley’s writing style is simple but elegant and haunting. One can’t help but feel as if she/he is really is witnessing the proceedings of the book first-hand. The attention to detail, the amount of research that must have gone into getting said details right will definitely strike the reader once they’re done with the book.
Haley tells the story of his family with raw candor. It appeals to the masses and to the academicians equally, due to its compelling plot and largely historical accuracy. This is a family that was witness to two of the most important wars that America had fought: The Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Every generation in the family has its own tale, and every character that appears in the story plays its own significant role.
But the star of the show is definitely Kunta. He’s the one because of whom this story exists. It was his thirst for his daughter to know more about her heritage that led the family he never knew to know about a world that they never got to know.
This is a story of life, love, and loss. This is the story of a search for an identity. It’s this reader’s second time reading this book after five years, and the emotions this reader felt are the same.
If I could, I’d go on and on forever about how much of significance every incident in the book has. But I can’t. So, I’ll end with what I believe is the most important lesson this book can teach anyone.
Alex Haley has written a masterpiece, a testament, in that he showed that though the white men had owned Kunta’s body, they couldn’t own his mind. His thoughts and memories were his own. And centuries later, millions of African Americans were inspired by his story and were proud of their roots.
This is one of those books that will live on forever, on our shelves and in our hearts.