Alex Haley, author of Roots, sparked a movement when the book was first published in 1976. It was inspiring for African Americans to hear this long family history, from Africa, enslavement, war, and separation. Through it all, there was a preservation of their history and heritage. It also encouraged its readers to get in touch with their own history and heritage too, their “roots”. The miniseries was incredibly popular. It first aired in 1977, and starred Lavar Burton as Kunta Kinte, the main character through which the first half of the story was told. To this day it remains one of the most successful mini-series in TV history, I’ve even heard there’s a remake in the works.
Before writing Roots, Haley had served in the Coast Guard. After retiring from twenty years of service, he began his writing career. His first book was published in 1965; he co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography. Ironically, this was the same year Malcolm X was assassinated. The publication of Roots represented years of work, it was a story that involved Haley’s own family history. Haley, in researching his own family’s history, was able to trace his family tree back to a small village named Juffure. In researching this book, he traveled to Africa and claimed to have met a distant relative in Gambia. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his work, but was later sued by another writer named Harold Courlander, who was able to prove that Haley plagiarized part of his work, which was used in over 100 pages of Roots.
In a distinguished literary career, this was a small setback. Highlighting the importance of oral history, the story of Kunta is told through many generations. It was something the family was incredibly proud of, as Kunta considered himself to be a warrior. He was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the colonies. Here he is talking about this experience, and being separated from his family. He wonders if he was being punished by God:
“What sins was he being punished for in such a manner as this? He pleaded to Allah for an answer. It was sin enough that he hadn’t prayed once since the morning he went for the wood to make his drum. Though he couldn’t get onto his knees, and he knew not even which way was east, he closed his eyes where he lay and prayed, beseeching Allah’s forgiveness.”
The story of America’s past is also told through this family’s history. Living through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the early Civil Rights era, all of this is told through the eyes of this African American family. While living on a Virginia plantation Kunta is given the name Toby. It is there that he meets Bell, a house slave, that he falls in love with. Their daughter Kizzy is sold away from her parents, ripping the family apart. She eventually gives birth to George. George becomes a skilled laborer, and is somewhat of an entrepreneur. He and his wife Matilda have several children, all of whom gain their freedom. Haley was first able to trace his roots to George’s youngest daughter Cynthia, who is Mr Haley’s grandmother. Through multiple generations this family remained centered along the Atlantic coast – in between Virginia and Maryland, and even Haley’s military career brings him back to Annapolis, Maryland.
However flawed the history and research may be, this book is important in that it marked a beginning in African American history. Through this story, families began to be more interesting in understanding their connection to Africa, their relationship with each other. It was a story and a past to be proud of, and certainly Haley highlighted the importance of celebrating and remembering this past.