Roots: seven generations of a slave

Slave trading is arguably one of the darkest practices in the entire human history. Tradition of enslaving people has ruptured the gamut of consciousness, history, language and culture of the entire African continent. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) is an epic tale of a person abducted as slave from his native land of today’s Gambia during 18th century, his perilous voyage through Atlantic and his subsequent six generations. Jabir Misbah reviews the book.   

 

“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a black slave “

IT’S a pleasant summer evening, you sit down with your grandmother and ask her to recount some stories of your ancestry. How far will she go?

Book cover of Roots.Seven generations. That’s as far as Alex Haley went to find out his ‘roots’. It is an African American author’s literary obsession to find his origins, the birth place of his ancestors and their journey from the great continent of Africa to the United States of America. As the first black American writer, he has told the story of 25,000,000 Americans of African descent. He has rediscovered for an entire race a rich cultural heritage that slavery took away from them, along with their names and their identities. This work was so captivating and immersive that you’ll find its place on The New York Times Best Sellers list for twenty-two weeks and Pulitzer Prize to be undercompensating. This book grasps our inner desire to know of our past and culture. So much so that, the back-cover of Roots reads, ‘In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage’.

Haley’s writing style is simple but elegant and daunting. You cannot help but feel as if you are really witnessing the stories of the book with your own eyes. The attention to detail, the amount of research that must have gone into getting the details right, will definitely strike the reader once they have read the book. With years of careful research and travelling, the author managed to trace ‘Kunta Kinte’ who was kidnapped from Gambia in Africa in 1767 to be sold as a slave in the United States. He also found the actual village, Juffure, from where Kunta Kinte was taken. The village exists today as well, and its elders still tell the tale of Kunta.

The story sets off in the early 17th century and the local residents of the village Juffure are still unaware of any other place outside the continent of Africa. They are a Muslim tribe and are mostly comprised of farmers with a clear devotion to traditions and customs. The book beautifully describes the structure of their society and the customs and traditions they follow. It also describes, in detail, the traditions followed by adjoining tribal villages and how these villages interacted with each other. Kunta Kinte is born in a well-known family of the village and inherits his name from his grandfather who was a well-respected member of their society. The traditions of his society makes him grow up into a strong man capable of hunting and farming with dignity. But as he grows up, so does his fear of ‘white’ people, who kidnaps his local people, also increases.

Haley has written the phenomenal two-century tale of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him—slaves, blacksmiths, farmers, fighters, chefs and lastly, at the very end, an author. You will feel the passion as Haley tells you his history in such an alluring descriptive fashion that it becomes impossible to put this book down. His words will make you awe in thrill, cry in sadness, scream in delight and love or hate a character. In the end, of the third last chapter, the line ‘That boy, six weeks old, was me’ will pull you into a sense of closure to the travels that you have made with Kunta in this novel.

This novel captures the essence of slavery through Haley’s character design and dialogues. His work displays our greatest weakness as humans—our ability to hurt one another, while also celebrating our greatest strength—our ability to love one another, even in midst of extreme difficulties.

In terms of genre, the book is from a unique section, named by the author himself as ‘Faction’. A work of fiction in tandem with facts. The book was originally described as ‘fiction’, yet it is sold in the non-fiction section of bookstores. Haley spends the last chapter of the book describing his deep research into his ancestry. However, historians and genealogists found critical errors and lack of actual evidence to back up his tale. The author was also accused of having plagiarised other works, which were later dismissed by the court. With that said, I simply can’t give the book a bad rating. I truly love and hate this book at once. I feel that hatred because of what was done to people, human beings being treated worse than anything. Roots does and always will shine a light onto something that we as humans should never forget. Slavery was a shameful thing, but we must learn from the history. So even if Haley did lift work from other authors the book for me still stands up as a meaningful must read. He is still as revered as he ever was, in 1992, at age 70, Haley died of a heart attack. A decade later, Annapolis unveiled a memorial in the harbor where Kunta Kinte first stepped foot in America.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Haley’s stark portrayal of the horrifying and gruesome ship voyage from Gambia to the States. Here Alex Haley shows how characters can remain strong even in the harshest of situations. The scenes are so lyrically strong, that you would have to be heartless to not be moved by them. The black men and women were stripped off their clothing and were tortured on their travel. Some attempted to jump off the ship but their efforts went in vain as they drowned. They had to live with very limited ration and sanitary services, many died due to the adverse conditions. Amidst all these, one black woman moved round helping and nursing the men and women in pain. Kunta Kinte describes her by saying that she moves as a queen, though she’s nude. This is strength; this is resilience. It’s true that in the face of adversity and danger, we do become stronger.

The book emphasises that African Americans have a long history and not all of that history is lost as may had previously believed. This book has been translated into thirty-seven languages. It has won 1977 National Book Award as well as Pulitzer Price and went on to become a land mark television miniseries in 1977. Roots is a must read as it speaks, not just to blacks, or to whites, but to all people and all races everywhere, for the story it tells is one of the most elegantly written novel talking of the resilience of the human spirit.

 

Jabir Misbah is a story-teller and knowledge enthusiast.

 

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