“Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.”
In the summer of 1976, the celebrations for America’s bicentennial newly over, talk began to build of a book that, it was said, would shed new light on something those commemorations took pains to overlook: the terrible fact of slavery. Published at the very end of the bicentennial summer, Alex Haley’s Roots did just that, igniting an interest not just in the history of slavery, but also in genealogy, as Americans, inspired by Haley’s research into his family’s past, sought to discover their own ancestries.
Haley’s opening lines announced that project, making it clear that he was taking a most personal approach to the bitter legacy of captivity. A Reader’s Digest editor and the author of Malcolm X’s controversial autobiography, he related a long story of lives born in freedom and enslavement that, he said, began with a history told to him by a grandmother in rural Tennessee, one that had been passed down for generations as an anchor joining the descendants of that freeborn man-child to their homeland.
Many readers took that history as pure fact, and some were unhappy when it developed that Haley had embellished some of the details—though, in fairness, the book was promoted from the first as a “genealogical novel.” Embellished, yes, but mostly in the interest of telling a good story as fluently as possible. Unusually, in that time, Haley took his research to Africa, spending time among the griots and storytellers of what was once called the Slave Coast. He tried to put himself in the physical position of his ancestors, lying on the floor of a freighter making its way across the Middle Passage that brought so many unwilling travelers to America. The experience, he said, drove him to thoughts of suicide, while other hardships almost caused him to abandon the book at several points.
But Haley pressed on, and in the end Roots proved to be a tremendous success, a bestseller from the first. It was a phenomenon, provoking many other books along the way from many ethnicities, among them Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. A few months after the book appeared, in January 1977, millions of Americans gathered around their televisions to watch the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants unfold, just as they did in late spring of this year, with a reimagined television epic that improved on the original without in any way diminishing the greatness of the earlier production. A new edition of the book, published by Da Capo Press, accompanies the remake.
Alex Haley died in 1992, joining the ancestors who, he wrote at the end of Roots, “watch and guide.” He added that he hoped that his story would help correct a historical record hitherto “written by the winners”—one that then did not include such advances as the election of an African-American president but that promised better things than the ugly racism that befouls the country to this day. The saga of Roots, then, continues.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.