Last summer I had the good fortune to work on the PBS miniseries Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which itself was an offshoot of the very popular African American Lives series. All of these trace the family trees of several celebrities, and working this closely on with genealogy reminded me of my intense Alex Haley jag of the late 90s. Over this and subsequent posts, I’ll fill you in on why I think he is such a noteworthy writer. (Trust me on this one; I’m building up to something pretty cool.)
Ever finish a book and think, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book”? Well, that’s the rush I had the entire time I read Alex Haley’s Roots. Like so many people who lived through the 70s, I’m well aware of the story, the characters and the significance of the book—but exclusively because of the landmark TV miniseries. And even though millions at the time also read the book, I wasn’t one of them. (Hey, gimme a break–I was only 8!)
Then in the late 90s, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), When I finished, my immediate thought was, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book.” My very next thought was, “OK. Time to read Roots.”
Epic in scope and length (the current edition is 900 pages), it’s an awesome read. Haley’s acknowledged it’s primarily a work of fiction, and I’d like to zero in on a few literary aspects that were particularly resonant for me, devices that render it unique from the television experience.
1. When Kunta doesn’t understand, we don’t understand. Like the miniseries, the book begins with Kunta Kinte in Africa, where he is captured and brought to America. This covers the first couple hundred pages of the book, and until Kunta understands English, there is NO English dialog. (In fact, this extends to his inability to understand fellow prisoners on the slave ship who come from different villages, and therefore speak a different language). This may be a literary device, but it’s certainly not a gimmick. It definitely keeps the focus on Kunta Kinte’s experience.
2. When a character leaves the narrative, that’s it. No more. Kaput. This is another of Haley’s frustrating-yet-historically-accurate devices. When you think it through, if Kunta’s daughter Kizzy was separated from her parents and she never saw them again, then none of her descendants would know what became of them either, right? So, when Kizzy is ruthlessly sold from her parents, we never learn what became of Kunta. The author ignores the fact that we’ve spent hundreds of pages with Kunta—his entire life—and ends that character’s storyline in a few paragraphs. Since there was no closure for Kizzy, Haley decides there will be no closure for us. This is a painful recurring incident in the history of African-Americans in this country, and when it happens in Haley’s book, we as readers feel an intense drop of it. (It’s worth noting, too, that when Kizzy is sold off, there’s only a chapter break; there is none of that “End of Part 1: Kunta Kinte/a few white pages/beginning of Part 2: Kizzy” malarkey. It’s so underplayed that it took me a few chapters to realize, “Hey, I’m never gonna know what happened to Kunta…Damn!”)
3. He brilliantly shifts from speculative biography to autobiography. Towards the end of the book, Haley himself enters the narrative, and instead of writing about himself in the third person, he switches to the first person…in one sentence. I’ll neither diminish its impact nor spoil anything by including that sentence here, but trust me: if you read 800+ pages in the omniscient voice and the writer painstakingly brings you to a place where he shifts that voice in a single line, it splits your mind wide open. (This is the face I made when I read it.) I’m grateful the book didn’t pander and do something more conventional (i.e. end the third-person narrative and write a first-person epilogue).
So maybe this book’s already on your One-of-These-Days list but finding the time for 900 pages is a tall order in our current media-swamped world. Well, in future posts, I’ll suggest a couple of ways you can absorb Alex Haley’s culture-altering tale in a less time-consuming manor. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, let me know what you thought of it. Honestly, I’ve never had a conversation about that book with someone who’s read it.
NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.