The Inspiration of Alex Haley’s Roots

My one and only classic 1976 original version of Roots: The Saga of an American Family
 
It took Alex Haley 12 years to finish Roots: The Saga of an American Family, known widely as simply, Roots. The book shot straight to the top of the bestseller charts, and the twelve-hour mini-series (Jan. 1977) was watched by 130 million people. They translated the book into 37 languages; it won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and sales soared to over 5.5 million.
 
This was not without controversy. No success story is. Haley had to settle a plagiarism suit out of court—that part of his story was copied from a 1967 novel, The African (The Guardian). It was also said there was no documented evidence that the alleged elder he spoke to in the Gambia had been accurate in his account of Kinte. Critics said that if Haley had written Roots as a fiction novel, there would not have been a cause for alarm. “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang”, Henry Louis Gates Jr said in 1998, calling Roots “a work of the imagination.” (But if you listen to Haley here, his story is very detailed. It is also consistent with many of his other interviews and speeches about the story of how Roots came about. This is hard to do if you are lying). 
 
Roots is now part of history and the original 1977 TV series awakened a new generation of young Blacks to the horrors of enslavement when movies and television shows about slavery were few and far in-between (both in books and film). While it may seem an over-saturated topic now, in 1977 this was groundbreaking.
 

Enslaved persons had little knowledge of what Haley referred to as “family continuity.” They were sold so much that as adults they came to know little about their family lineage, where they came from and who they were. Roots was therefore something special because Blacks had come out of the Black Power movement of the 60s, had just seen the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin King, and Malcolm X. Roots was not just the story of one man’s family but the family of all Black people who had been taken captive and robbed of their family tree and any connection to it. It would become a history lesson, a recommended educational film that Black parents will watch with their children with just as much seriousness as their parents forced them to watch The Ten Commandments. Some would even name their children Kunta Kinte.

After Roots, Octavia Butler used time travel to explore slavery in Kindred (1979), Alice Walker used an African subplot (Nettie’s life in Africa) in The Color Purple (1982) which also went on to win a Pulitzer and National Book Award, and Toni Morrison made a fugitive slave her protagonist in Beloved (1987). Beloved was voted the most influential African-American novel of the 20th century in a poll of PBS viewers. But as Frances Smith Foster has pointed out, “in terms of actual audience and effect on politics and policies, Roots has been the most influential such story in the modern era.”

As I listened to the entire 2hours of the clip linked above, I wondered why I was doing this when I had (seemingly) much more important stuff to do. That is until I came to the final hour and fifty something minutes. Here, Haley speaks about how the father’s name the babies at eight days old. In the villages, the people would not see much of the father for seven days because he was spending time with the baby to come up with a good meaningful and significant name. On the eighth day the people would gather at the family’s home. The mother would come out once hearing the signal and sit on the stool and hold the eight-day-old baby. The father would walk over, lift the infant, and whisper the name into the infant’s ear three times.

He would do this so that the infant would be the first one to know who he/she was. This resembles, to me, the ancient practice of circumcision of the male child, and naming of the child, in ancient Israelite culture (Gen 17:12) which I believe is also Black culture. For example, the Ashanti Empire was a powerful Akan empire and kingdom in what is now modern-day Ghana. Ashan was the name of a city in southern Israel. The word Ashan in Hebrew means “smoke” “smoke city” or “burning city” so that Ashanti means “the people of Ashan or the people of the smoke city”. This was a reference to the city of Ashan after the Israelites took it over during the conquest of Canaan (1 Ch 4:32, 1 Ch 6:59). The Ashanti people had many Hebrew customs and traditions as part of their way of life. For eight days after the birth of a child, it is only on the eighth day that the child receives his/her personal name.

It was here that I had discovered the purpose of my listening to this piece in its entirety. I believe this to be such a powerfully subtle telling of who we, so-called Blacks in America, truly are. For the customs of the Hebrews is something that can still be found among many African cultures such as the Ashan. 

Roots is a powerful example of why we shouldn’t give up on whatever we are striving toward. It inspires me as a writer and as a person of the fruits of patience and of perseverance. While Roots has had (and continues to have) much success, remember that it took Haley 12 years to complete (one whole year from Kunta’s birth to capture… which could be a book by itself). 

Think about that the next time you worry about that book taking too long to finish.

Twelve. Whole. Years.

4 thoughts on “The Inspiration of Alex Haley’s Roots

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