76. Roots By Alex Haley-The Journey of African Americans

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Circa 1988, Krishna District , Andhra Pradesh, India....


When I was a 10th Class student and I heard a Book Review in Telugu in Radio Broadcasted by Vijayawada Satation of All India Radio , explaining about the Journey of One African Zambian Teenager to America as a slave...


This program was about the Novel, Roots . Though Roots has been written 1976, it took more than 10 years to reach Indian shores and then on to All India Radio of Vijayawada Station in those Non-Social Media Times...


They have explained that, How Slaves have been transported in inhuman conditions in Ships like Animals with no proper food, with or without dress, no Sanitation and health care etc....


When They arrived in America, how they have been auctioned, beaten and chopped of their hands sometimes and enslaved in the fields and houses for life...


And Generations of African Americans brought into slavery until abolish of Slavery in 1865....


Later in my life, I could read this very intense and gripping Novel in 1996.....to feel and empathise with fate and lives of these African American as we too, Indians, had passed through Extreme British Brutality for 200 Years in India.


Roots is One of the Original Treatises on African American History and its Fame and Popularity proven that beyond a doubt and This Book has been taken as Television Series and it was highly successful, there after, It was unstoppable....


Why Roots is Relevant in American History Forever ?


Roots: The Saga of an American Family is a 1976 novel written byAlex Haley. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, transported to North America; following his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley. The release of the novel, combined with its hugely popular television adaptation, Roots (1977), led to a cultural sensation in the United States, and it is considered to be one of the most important U.S. works of the 20th century.


The novel spent forty-six weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, including twenty-two weeks at number one.



The last seven chapters of the novel were later adapted in the form of a second miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations (1979). It stimulated interest in genealogy and appreciation for African-American history.



The book was originally described as "fiction," yet sold in the non-fiction section of bookstores. Haley spent the last chapter of the book describing his research in archives and libraries to support his family's oral tradition with written records. However, historians and genealogists found critical errors in his research. Most of the novel is either unsupported or contradicted by the available evidence.



Plot


Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte—a young man taken from the Gambia when he was seventeen and sold as a slave—and seven generations of his descendants in the United States. Kunta, a Mandinka living by the River Gambia, has a difficult but free childhood in his village, Juffure. His village subsists on farming, and sometimes they lack enough food, as the climate is harsh. Kunta is surrounded by love and traditions. Ominously, the village had heard of the recent arrival of toubob, men with white skins who smell like wet chickens.



Kunta is excited to see the world. At one point, Kunta sees men in hoods taking away some of the children. This confuses Kunta, but is eager to learn his father, Omoro, will take him outside Juffure. Omoro and Kunta set off, learning much more about their surroundings. When they return, Kunta brags to all his friends about the journey, but does not pay attention to his family's goats, which fall prey to a panther.


Later on, Kunta is taken off from manhood training, with other children of his kafo (division or grade). Kunta learns even more about the Gambia, but fears the slave trade, which he learns is closer to home than he thinks. Kunta passes his training, and learns more about Juffure's court system. One day, he witnesses the case of a young girl, who was kidnapped by the toubob, and came back pregnant. She gives birth to a mixed-raced child, and the case is unresolved.


One morning when Kunta is cutting wood to make a drum, he is ambushed by slatees (black slave traders), and is knocked unconscious. He awakens in the brig of a ship, naked and chained. After a nightmarish journey across the Atlantic on board the British slave ship Lord Ligonier, he is landed in Annapolis in the British colony of Maryland. John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia purchases Kunta at an auction and gives him the name Toby. However, Kunta is headstrong and tries to run away four times.

When he is captured for the last time, slave hunters cut off part of his right foot to cripple him.Kunta is then bought by his master's brother, Dr. William Waller. He becomes a gardener and eventually his master's buggy driver. Kunta also befriends a musician slave named Fiddler. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, Kunta marries Bell, Waller's cook, and together they have a daughter, Kizzy. Kizzy's childhood as a slave is as happy as her parents can make it.


She is close friends with John Waller's daughter "Missy" Anne, and she rarely experiences cruelty.Her life changes when she forges a traveling pass for her beau Noah, a field hand. When he is caught and confesses, she is sold away from her family at the age of sixteen.


Pic: Transporting Africans as Slaves in Ship


Kizzy is bought by Tom Lea, a farmer and chicken fighter who rose from poor beginnings. He rapes and impregnates her, and she gives birth to George, who later becomes known as "Chicken George" when he becomes his father's cockfighting trainer. Chicken George is a philanderer known for expensive taste and alcohol, as much as for his iconic bowler hat and green scarf. He marries Matilda and they have six sons and two daughters, including Tom, who becomes a very good blacksmith. Tom marries Irene, a woman originally owned by the Holt family.



When Tom Lea loses all his money in a cockfight, he sends George to England for several years to pay off the debt, and he sells most of the rest of the family to a slave trader. The trader moves the family to Alamance County, where they become the property of Andrew Murray. The Murrays have no previous experience with farming and are generally kind masters who treat the family well. When the American Civil War ends, however, the Murray slaves decide rather than sharecrop for their former masters, they will move from North Carolina to Henning, Tennessee, which is looking for new settlers.



They eventually become a prosperous family. Tom's daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer, a successful lumber businessman, and their daughter Bertha is the first in the family to go to college.


There she meets Simon Haley, who becomes a professor of agriculture. Their son is Alex Haley, the author of the book.


Search for his roots


Alex Haley grows up hearing stories from his grandmother about the family's history. They tell him of an ancestor named Kunta Kinte, who was landed in "'Naplis" and given the slave name Toby. The old African called a guitar a ko, and a river the Kamby Bolongo. While on a reporting trip to London, Haley sees the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and thinks of his own family's oral traditions. Could he trace his own family lineage back to its origins in Africa?


In the United States Census for Alamance County, North Carolina, he finds evidence of his ancestor Tom Murray, the blacksmith. He attempts to locate the likeliest origin of the African words passed down by Kunta Kinte. Dr. Jan Vansina explains that in the Mandinka tongue, kora is a type of stringed instrument, and bolongo is the word for river. Kamby Bolongo could then refer to the Gambia River.



Alex Haley travels to the Gambia and learns of the existence of griots, oral historians who are trained from childhood to memorize and recite the history of a particular village. A good griot could speak for three days without repeating himself. He asks to hear the history of the Kinte clan, which lives in Juffure, and is taken to a griot named Kebba Kanji Fofana. The Kinte clan had originated in Old Mali, moved to Mauritania, and then settled in the Gambia. After about two hours of "so-and-so took as a wife so-and-so, and begat," Fofana reached Kunta Kinte:

About the time the King's soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, when he had about 16 rains, went away from his village to chop wood to make a drum ... and he was never seen again.

After searching records of British troop movements in the 1760s, Haley finds "Colonel O'Hare's forces" were dispatched to Fort James on the Gambia River in 1767. In Lloyd's of London, he discovers a British merchantman named the Lord Ligonier had sailed from the Gambia on July 5, 1767 bound for Annapolis. The Lord Ligonier had cleared customs in Annapolis on September 29, 1767, and the slaves were advertised for auction in the Maryland Gazette on October 1, 1767.


He concludes his research by examining the deed books of Spotsylvania County after September 1767, locating a deed dated September 5, 1768, transferring 240 acres and a slave named Toby from John and Ann Waller to William Waller.


Pic : Alex Haley's boyhood home and his grave beside the home (2007)


Characters in Roots

  • Kunta Kinte – original protagonist: a young man of the Mandinka people, grows up in The Gambia in a small village called Juffure; he was raised as a Muslim before being captured and enslaved. Renamed Toby.

  • John Wallerplanter, who buys Kunta

  • Dr. William Waller – doctor of medicine and John's brother: buys Kunta from him

  • Bell Waller – cook to the doctor and wife of Kunta

  • Kizzy Waller (later Kizzy Lea) – daughter of Kunta and Bell

  • Missy Anne – Dr. Waller's niece, who lives off the plantation, but visits Dr Waller regularly. She befriends Kizzy and teaches her reading and writing by playing "school".

  • Tom Lea – slave owner in North Carolina to whom Kizzy is sold

  • George Lea – son to Kizzy and Tom Lea, he is called "Chicken George"

  • Matilda – whom George later marries

  • Tom Murray – son of Chicken George and Matilda

  • Cynthia – the youngest of Tom's and Irene's eight children (granddaughter of Chicken George)

  • Bertha – one of Cynthia's children; the mother of Alex Haley

  • Simon Alexander Haley – professor and husband of Bertha; father of Alex Haley

  • Alex Haleyauthor of the book and central character for last 30 pages; the great-great-great-great-grandson of Kunta Kinte.



Pic : Historical marker in front of Alex Haley's boyhood home in Henning,Tennessee(2007)


Haley initially conceded he may have been led astray by his African research, and admitted he had thought of calling Roots an "historical novel". However, he stated Ottaway's article was " unwarranted, unfair and unjust ", and added he had no reason to think Fofana unreliable.


Haley also criticized his detractors' reliance upon written records in their evaluation of his work, contending such records were "sporadic" and frequently inaccurate with regard to such data as slave births and ownership transactions.


Haley asserted for black genealogy, " well-kept oral history is without question the best source".



Ironically, the Millses discovered a better fit to the Haley oral history in the written record than Haley himself had found. Dr. William Waller's father was Colonel William Waller, who owned a slave named Hopping George, a description consistent with a foot injury. Colonel Waller also owned a slave named Isbell, who may be the Bell in Haley family legend. Tom Lea's father lived in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and he may have purchased some of Haley's ancestors from the Wallers.



When the Lea family moved to North Carolina, they would have taken their slaves with them. The Leas lived in close proximity to the Murrays and Holts, and there are three Kizzies associated with the Lea and Murray families in the post-Civil War records.

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a friend of Haley, but years after Haley's death, Gates acknowledged doubts about the author's claims:

Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination."

Gates later hosted the TV series African American Lives and Finding Your Roots, which used DNA testing to corroborate family histories and genealogies. Haley wrote another novel in regard to his paternal grandmother Queen [Jackson] Haley but died before he could finish it; it was published posthumously as Queen: The Story of an American Family. Subsequent DNA testing of Alex Haley's nephew Chris Haley revealed that Alec Haley, Alex's paternal grandfather (and Queen Haley's husband) was most likely descended from Scottish ancestors via William Harwell Baugh, an overseer of an Alabama slave plantation.




Legacy and Honors


  • Haley received a Pulitzer Prize for his book, and the TV series won several major awards.

  • Including weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, the book is considered a publishing and cultural sensation.

  • The state of Tennessee put a historical marker by Haley's childhood home in Henning, noting the influence he had as an author because of Roots.

  • He was buried in the front yard of his childhood home, where a memorial marks the gravesite.



How Alex Haley remembered today ?


Alex Haley wrote “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), in collaboration with its subject, and “Roots: The Saga of a Family” (1976), two of the most important books by an African-American in the second half of the 20th century.


Each sold more than six million copies. Each had a profound impact on black identity in America. Each was billed as nonfiction but, crucially, only the Malcolm X book should have been so designated. Therein lies the painful story of a literary reputation made and lost, one that is told simply and well in Robert J. Norrell’s “Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation.”



Epilogue


The Saga of an American Family is a 1976 novel written by Alex Haley. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, transported to North America; following his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley.


Alex relates his journey back to Africa to find his roots and discover as much about his family as he can. Eventually Alex goes to Juffure, the very village that Kunta came from 200 years before.


Roots, Its a Intense and Gripping Story of how free men, women and children of Africa brought to America and Its a Critical Account of how they have experienced extreme cruelty at the hands of their Masters and Slave Owners.


Its also shows the Barbarian behaviour of mostly White Owners, who ruthlessly auctioned and sold Both their Black Slaves and their Children in Slave Markets.


One can feel the death of Humanity of most of those White Owners in some of the pages and can feel the Pain of helplessness of African Americans.


Then, Racism cropped up in modern times continuously in the American Society and it is still continuing and Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. in the hands of White Policemen is a glaring example of that.


In Totality, Roots moved the American Nation and become a One of the Dominant Book not only in the Annal of African Americans History, but American History too.



MM Rao

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Sources :

https://www.gradesaver.com/roots/study-guide/summary

https://www.google.com/search?q=Alex+haley+in+Jaffure+village+zambia&rlz

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roots:_The_Saga_of_an_American_Family

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/books/review-in-alex-haley-and-the-books-that-changed-a-nation-a-reputation-made-and-lost.html

https://www.google.com/search?q=pictures+of+slave+markets+in+USA&rlz

https://www.google.com/search?q=alex+haley+quotes&rlz=1C1CHBF

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