African Roots

Roots by Alex Haley Doubleday, 587 pp, $12.50

DESPITE A RECENT awakening of interest in Africa and African culture, cliched National Geographic images of tribal Africa still predominate in the American consciousness: the hunter, spear poised, body glistening and tense, the wife, child at her naked breast, ad infinitum. Completely alien to the American experience, these stereotypes only further remove the average American, black or white, from tribal modes of existence in Africa.

Remembering his grandmother's stories of an African ancestor, author Alex Haley began to search for facts which would authenticate her oral history and rediscovered a rich cultural history that had been lost, along with his family's name, in slavery. Following the publication of his first book, The Autobiography of Malcom X, Haley began a 12-year quest which included over half a million miles of travel across three continents to find the name of his first known African ancestor, "Kunte Kinte," and the exact location of his family village, Juffure, in West Africa, now Gambia; that ancestor had been kidnapped in 1767, shipped to Maryland, and sold to a Virginian planter. The first black American to trace his lineage back to Africa, Haley has compiled an authentic and detailed picture of African life in his historical novel Roots. Haley retraces the oral history passed down through his family and also affords black Americans an opportunity to identify with a much neglected part of their own history. The novel covers a period of over 200 years, from the birth of the original ancestor in 1750 to current times.

In a tradition begun by that distant ancestor Kunte Kinte, each child in the successive generations in Haley's family was told the family history, which by Haley's time had been pared down considerably. He remembers his grandmother referring to their ancestor, "the African," who called the banjo "ko," the river "Kamby Bolongo," and who was out chopping wood for a drum at the age of 16 when four white slave traders kidnapped him and brought him to the United States.

Fleshing out the story, Haley was able to write the African section of the book in great detail having done extensive research in libraries and archives in over 50 cities on three continents, and having interviewed African "griots," the village storytellers. For Haley, these men of an ancient profession symbolized "how all human ancestry goes back to some place, and some time, where there was no writing. Then, the memories and the mouths of the ancient elders were the only way that early history of mankind got passed along..."

Inspired by his grandmother's original narrative, Haley present a view of African life striking in its immediacy:

Early in the spring of 1750...a manchild was born to Omoro and Binte Kinte. Forcing forth from Binta's strong young body, he was as black as she was, flecked and slippery with Binta's blood, and he was bawling.

Not only do Haley's words splatter the reader's body with the warm blood of the newborn child, but he later succeeds in sensitizing the reader's mind to the society this child has been born into.

IT IS NOT the Africa of the exotic glossy photograph or even the Africa compressed into a one hour television special, but an Africa where boys grow to be men through rigorous mental and physical training, where girls stay close to home and learn from their mothers, and, where all of life is carefully and traditionally metered according to an individual's age and experience. And, because this is the history of one man's family, the characters become individuals with whom it is possible for the reader to empathize.

Haley's narrative of the three generations of slaves in his family, dating from 1767 to the Civil War, is as keen as his African chapters. To ensure an accurate depiction of his ancestor's crossing of the Atlantic in a slave ship, Haley took a freighter from Africa to the United States, climbing down into the ship's cold dark cargo hold to lie on the rough planks stripped down to his underwear. Kunta's initial difficulty understanding and respecting American-born blacks, the selling of his daughter to the owner of a distant plantation, rape by her new master, and the economic struggle they faced in the post-slavery period, are all episodes which cover a broad range of emotional and factual material, yet Haley describes them with such natural and simple sensitivity that one scene flows smoothly into the next and leaves plenty of time for the reader to absorb all that has transpired:

She remembered her mammy's proud boast, "Ain't nothin' but black niggers here on massa's place." And she tried not to think about "sassoborro," the name her ebony-black father--his mouth curled in scorn used to call those with mulatto skin. She was grateful that they weren't there to see--and share--her shame. But she knew that...all anyone had to do was compare her color and the baby's to know what had happened--and with whom.... But before she fell asleep, Kizzy decided...she would never regard him as other than the grandson of an African.

As a historical novel, Roots seeks to concentrate on evoking the experience of black family life, in Africa and in America, such as it was. For Haley, the book is a link to a previously neglected past, so all blacks can "know who we are."