Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Roots: The Saga of an American Family - Alex Haley, Michael Eric Dyson The teenage self who first read this book would have given it five stars without hesitation. The conception is brilliant. I don't think there's a better way to really absorb history, and really inspire people to dig deeper, than what this purported to do. To really have you come face to face with history by telling the story of one family, especially in fictional narrative form, where people of the past can be brought vividly to mind as people who bled and sweated and struggled. And Alex Haley had claimed not to be just writing a novel, but telling the story of his family--who he claimed he had traced back to its roots in Africa where his ancestor Kunta Kinte, in what is today Gambia, had been kidnapped into slavery and brought to America. There was nothing quite like that when it was published in 1976, and the miniseries based upon it was a landmark in American television. But since publication, the book has drawn controversy. First, this was marketed--and is still widely regarded--as factual history, even if told in fictional form. But geneologists who retraced Haley's footsteps found that Haley's pre-Civil War genealogy is not, as he had claimed, substantiated by public records. And the book hangs precisely on the pre-Civil war family--838 of Roots' 888 pages dealt with events from Kunta Kinte's birth in Africa in 1750 to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Just google Roots and "controversy" or "criticism" and you can read the details of the dispute over the book's historicity yourself. The "griot" Haley supposedly found linking him to an African heritage was no griot, and was reportedly pressured and coached into telling Haley what he wanted to hear. And as a Village Voice article by Philip Nobile detailed, Haley's own notes reveal that Kunta Kinte and Roots is largely a work of Haley's imagination. All right then, what we're dealing with is a novel. Just Haley's attempts to put it over as history admittedly tarnishes the book for me now, but there's another problem. The 30 Anniversary edition I looked through alluded to the other major issue that has come up since publication: plagiarism. As part of a court settlement, Haley admitted to lifting passages from Harold Courlander's The African. The 30 anniversary edition makes it sound like it was only a few paragraphs, but I've read the court papers charged over 80 different passages were involved. And I can't say I buy Haley's explanation that the work of other researchers made it undifferentiated and unsourced among Haley's notes from where he inadvertently copied it. What was material from a novel doing in research notes? There was also a charge that Haley plagiarized Margaret Walker Alexander's novel, Jubilee--but those charges were dismissed by the court as unsubstantiated. On the other hand, one commentator who actually bothered to read Courlander's The African said he found no real similarities in plot or character with Roots. Maybe so, I haven't read The African. So, giving Haley the benefit of the doubt about the plagiarism being substantial, is Roots still worth reading as a novel in the tradition of Michener and Rutherfurd? I think so, but I admit knowing what I do, the book has slipped quite far down in my esteem.