Monday, February 8, 2010

Roots by Alex Haley

It’s been more than two months since I blogged about a book I’ve read. I guess there’s two reasons for that. One is that I chose the 729-page Roots as my next book. The second is that I joined a novel critique group and have been spending a certain percentage of my free time reading other people’s unpublished novels.

It’s been a good experience for me. I had to read and critique two other novels before the group would read and critique mine. And so far I’ve read and critiqued one more after I got the group’s feedback on mine. Perhaps I should mention that it was Columbia: Reflections in Broken Glass that I asked them to review—just the odd chapters that comprise the main story line, because the full manuscript was too long for the group’s guidelines. Evidently, they think a 267,000-word novel by an unpublished author has little chance of getting published. They’re probably right.

But let me get to Roots. I but dimly remember the sensation the TV miniseries caused back in 1977, and now that I’ve read the story that inspired it, I can more clearly understand what the fuss was all about. Even in 2010, Roots reads very much like a ground-breaking novel. It’s almost shocking to speculate on how it must have affected people when it was published in 1976.

It’s also a novel that suffers some from its own fame. The first 164 pages, as a prime example, which document Kunta’s life in Africa from birth to teenager, are an interesting and all-enveloping look at life within Kunta’s culture—replete with its strict class structure, Muslim faith, and rites of passage. I may have appreciated these pages more had I not known what was going to happen—i.e., that at some painful moment Kunta was going to be captured by slave traders and shipped across to ocean to the British colonies in America. That tragedy hangs heavily over this entire first section of the novel, and when it finally comes on page 165, it is at once surprising and expected.

He was bending over a likely prospect when he heard the sharp crack of a twig, followed quickly by the squawk of a parrot overhead. It was probably the dog returning, he thought in the back of his mind. But no grown dog ever cracked a twig, he flashed, whirling in the same instant. In a blur, rushing at him, he saw a white face, a club upraised; heard heavy footfalls behind him.

What follows is 50 or so pages of one of the most harrowing stories ever told—Kunta’s ordeal on the slave ship. Near the very end of the novel, when Haley himself is traveling the globe to track down the activities of his ancestors, the author says this about the imperative he felt to write this section as accurately as possible:

When we put to sea, I explained what I hoped to do that might help me write of my ancestor’s crossing. After each late evening’s dinner, I climbed down successive metal ladders into her deep, dark, cold cargo hold. Stripping to my underwear, I lay on my back on a wide rough bare dunnage plank and forced myself to stay there through all ten nights of the crossing, trying to imagine what did he see, hear, feel, smell, taste—and above all, in knowing Kunta, what things did he think? My crossing of course was ludicrously luxurious by any comparison to the ghastly ordeal endured by Kunta Kinte, his companions, and all those other millions who lay chained and shackled in terror and their own filth for an average of eighty to ninety days, at the end of which awaited new physical and psychic horrors. But anyway, finally I wrote of the ocean crossing—from the perspective of the human cargo.

Indeed he does, and it isn’t something I will soon forget. Kunta and his companions are kept chained and lying naked on rough wooden planks, packed and stacked into the ship’s hold like so much cargo, without room to even sit up or roll over. They all become sick at one point or another, and the waste of their bodies—the vomit, the diarrhea, the urine—is allowed to collect around them for days at a time, until the hold is periodically opened and the ship keepers come down with tubs of vinegar water to fight the stench and trowels to scrape away all the filth. About as frequently the captives are brought up on deck and scrubbed with sea water and stiff-bristled brushes, the sores on their shoulders and joints from laying on their wooden bunks opened up nearly to the bone.

Kunta survives it all—most miraculously with his Muslim faith intact.

He lay there in the darkness hearing the voice of his father sternly warning him and Lamin never to wander off anywhere alone; Kunta desperately wished that he had heeded his father’s warnings. His heart sank with the thought that he would never again be able to listen to his father, that for the rest of whatever was going to be his life, he was going to have to think for himself.

“All things are the will of Allah!” That statement—which had begun with the alcala—went from mouth to ear, and when it came to Kunta from the man lying on his left side, he turned his head to whisper the words to his Wolof shacklemate. After a moment, Kunta realized that the Wolof hadn’t whispered the words on to the next man, and after wondering for a while why not, he thought that perhaps he hadn’t said them clearly, so he started to whisper the message once again. But abruptly the Wolof spat out loudly enough to be heard across the entire hold, “If your Allah wills this, give me the devil!” From elsewhere in the darkness came several loud exclamations of agreement with the Wolof, and arguments broke out here and there.

Kunta was deeply shaken. The shocked realization that he lay with a pagan burned into his brain, faith in Allah being as precious to him as life itself. Until now he had respected the friendship and the wise opinions of his older shacklemate. But now Kunta knew that there could never be any more companionship between them.

There are times when he wrestles with his faith—questioning how Allah, of whom it was said that He was in all places at all times, could possibly be there with them—but they are largely fleeting. And his view of the “pagans” in the hold with him never truly wavers. Even as Muslim and pagan begin to die all around him, he can never quite bring himself to see the suffering of the non-believers as something that presents a true moral challenge to his faith.

When he arrives in America and is bought by a plantation owner, Kunta continues to do the best he can to adhere to the restrictions of his Muslim faith—refusing to eat pork regardless of his hunger—and he looks upon the slaves he meets that were born in North America as something less than human.

It was after sundown when the horn sounded once again—this time in the distance. As Kunta watched the other blacks hurrying into a line, he wished he could stop thinking of them as belonging to the tribes they resembled, for they were but unworthy pagans not fit to mingle with those who had come with him on the big canoe.

It’s a bit surprising to me—all this intolerance—but it’s likely an accurate testament to the intractability of humans and their various dogmas, regardless of the color of their skin.

From a narrative perspective, Kunta’s rigid thinking about Muslims and pagans sets up one of the few flaws in the novel—the issue of Kunta’s eventual acclimatization to the new society he finds himself in. When Kunta first arrives in America, it’s as if he is a spirit that can never be tamed. He runs at the first opportunity, gets caught, and runs again. This continues for several cycles until they decide to cut off half of one of his feet to keep him from running. That it does, but it doesn’t seem to quench the fire that still burns within him.

But despite this, on page 287, we read:

Nearly everyone was gone for the next few days—so many that few would have been there to notice if Kunta had tried to run away again—but he knew that even though he had learned to get around all right and make himself fairly useful, he would never be able to get very far before some slave catcher caught up with him again. Though it shamed him to admit it, he had begun to prefer life as he was allowed to live it here on this plantation to the certainty of being captured and probably killed if he tried to escape again. Deep in his heart, he knew he would never see his home again, and he could feel something precious and irretrievable dying inside of him forever. But hope remained alive; though he might never see his family again, perhaps someday he might be able to have one of his own.

What’s strange is that the scene that I so vividly remember from the miniseries – Vic Morrow whipping LeVar Burton, telling him again and again that his name is Toby, and all the while LeVar whimpering and mumbling that his name is Kunta, Kunta Kinte—doesn’t happen in the book. But it could very well have. That’s how defiant Kunta is in his early years in America, and when Haley makes him succumb it seems a bit out of character. The Kunta who survived his manhood training in Juffure, I think, would have kept running—half a foot be damned—until they killed him.

But Kunta succumbs and Kunta survives, as Kunta must because if Kunta is killed there would be no more story and no Alex Haley to be writing it. Kunta marries and has a daughter he names Kizzy, and it is in his relationship with his daughter that the true extent of Kunta’s tragedy is made manifest. This scene from when Kizzy is seven and full of the natural curiosity of youth is especially poignant.

“Do I got a gran’ma?” asked Kizzy

“You got two—my mammy and yo’ mammy’s mammy.”

“How come dey ain’t wid us?”

“Dey don’ know where we is,” said Kunta. “Does you know where we is?” he asked her a moment later.

“We’s in de buggy,” Kizzy said.

“I means where does we live.”

“At Massa Waller’s.”

“An’ where dat is?”

“Dat way,” she said, pointing down the road. Disinterested in their subject, she said, “Tell me some more ‘bout dem bugs an’ things where you come from.”

“Well, dey’s big red ants knows how to cross rivers on leafs, dat fights wars an’ marches like an army, an’ builds hills dey lives in dat’s taller dan a man.”

“Dey soun’ scary. You step on ‘em?”

“Not less’n you has to. Every critter got a right to be here same as you. Even de grass is live an’ got a soul jes’ like people does.”

“Won’t walk on de grass no mo’, den. I stay in de buggy.”

Kunta smiled. “Wasn’t no buggies where I come from. Walked wherever we was goin’. One time I walked four days wid my pappy all de way from Juffure to my uncles’ village.”

“What Joo-fah-ray?”

“Done tol’ you don’ know how many times, dat where I come from.”

“I thought you was from Africa. Dat Gambia you talks about in Africa?”

“Gambia a country in Africa. Juffure a village in Gambia.”

“Well, where dey at, Pappy?”

“’Crost de big water.”

“How big dat water?”

“So big it takes near ‘bout four moons to get ‘crost it.”

“Four what?”

“Moons. Like you say ‘months.’”

“How come you don’t say months?”

“’Cause moons my word for it.”

“What you call a ‘year’?”

“A rain.”

Kizzy mused briefly.

“How you get ‘crost dat big water?”

“In a big boat.”

“Bigger dan dat rowboat we seen dem fo’ mens fishin’ in?”

“Big enough to hol’ a hunnud mens.”

“How come it don’ sink?”

“I use to wish it would of.”

“How come?”

“’Cause we all so sick seem like we gon’ die anyhow.”

“How you get sick?”

“Got sick from layin’ in our own mess prac’ly on top each other.”

“Whyn’t you go de toilet?”

“De toubob had us chained up.”

“Who ‘toubob’?”

“White folks.”

“How come you chained up? You don sump’n wrong?”

“Was jes’ out in de woods near where I live—Juffure—lookin’ fer a piece o’ wood to make a drum wid, an’ dey grab me an’ take me off.”

“How ol’ you was?”


“Dey ask yo’ mammy an’ pappy if’n you could go?”

Kunta looked incredulously at her. “Woulda took dem too if’n dey could. To dis day my fam’ly don’ know where I is.”

“You got brothers an’ sisters?”

“Had three brothers. Maybe mo’ by now. Anyways, dey’s all growed up, prob’ly got chilluns like you.”

“We go see dem someday?”

“We cain’t go nowhere.”

“We’s gon’ somewhere now.”

“Jes’ Massa John’s. We don’t show up, dey have de dogs out at us by sundown.”

“’Cause dey worried ‘bout us?”

“’Cause we b’longs to dem, jes’ like dese hosses pullin’ us.”

“Like I b’longs to you an’ mammy?”

“You’se our young’un. Dat Different.”

“Missy Anne say she want me fo’ her own.”

“You ain’t no doll fo’ her to play wid.”

“I plays wid her, too. She done tole me she my bes’ frien’.”

“You can’t be nobody’s frien’ an’ slave both.”

“How come, Pappy?”

“’Cause frien’s don’t own one ‘nother.”

“Don’t mammy an’ you b’long to one ‘nother? Ain’t y’all frien’s?”

“Ain’t de same. We b’longs to each other ‘cause we wants to, ‘cause we loves each other.”

“Well, I loves Missy Anne, so I wants to b’long to her.”

“Couldn’t never work out.”

“What you mean?”

“You couldn’t be happy when y’all grow up.”

“Would too. I bet you wouldn’t be happy.”

“Yo sho’ right ‘bout dat!”

“Aw, Pappy, I couldn’t never leave you an’ Mammy.”

“An’ chile, speck we couldn’t never let you go, neither!”

So much of the sadness of this book is wrapped up in this one section of dialogue—as well as so many of its core themes. Kunta comes to accept the facts of his life in America, but he pledges to himself that he will raise his daughter in a way that she is not ignorant of her African heritage and what it means to him. But as this section shows, it is a world she cannot conceive, much less understand—her and all her progeny. Kunta’s tale is one they hand down from generation to generation, carrying it like a talisman whose secret they can’t unlock. By the time Kizzy’s son Chicken George passes it on to his son Virgil, it has become little more than a stale recitation of facts, absent any of the richness of Kunta’s actual experiences.

“Listen here, boy! Gwine tell you ‘bout yo’ great-gran’daddy. He were a African dat say he name ‘Kunta Kinte.’ He call a guitar a ko, an’ a river ‘Kamby Bolongo,’ an’ lot mo’ things wid African names. He say he was choppin’ a tree to make his l’il brother a drum when it was fo’ mens come up an’ grabbed ‘im from behin’. Den a big ship brung ‘im ‘crost de big water to a place call ‘Naplis. An’ he had runned off fo’ times when he try to kill dem dat cotched ‘im an’ dey cut half his foot off!”

Yet it is these facts that eventually allow Haley to connect all the broken pieces of the chain that exists from Kunta to himself and which are what make Roots possible. For this reason, the words have magic, even if the people in the book don’t always know what that magic is.

One other thing about that section of dialogue between Kunta and Kizzy. It foreshadows the ultimate tragedy of Kunta’s life, when Kizzy is sold away from him and the plantation he cannot leave for forging a traveling pass so that another young slave—the boy she loves—can escape.

“O my Lawd Gawd!” Bell shrieked. “Massa, please have mercy! She ain’t meant to do it! She ain’t knowed what she was doin’! Missy Anne de one teached ‘er to write!”

Massa Waller spoke glacially. “The law is the law. She’s broken my rules. She’s committed a felony. She may have aided in a murder. I’m told one of those white men may die.”

“Ain’t her cut de man, Massa! Massa, she worked for you ever since she big ‘nough to carry your slopjar! An’ I done cooked an’ waited on you han’ an’ foot over forty years, an’ he…” gesturing at Kunta, she stuttered, “he done driv you eve’ywhere you been for near ‘bout dat long. Massa, don’ all dat count for sump’n?”

Massa Waller would not look directly at her. “You were doing your jobs. She’s going to be sold—that’s all there is to it.”

“Jes’ cheap, low-class white folks splits up families!” shouted Bell. “You ain’t dat kin’!”

Angrily, Massa Waller gestured to the sheriff, who began to wrench Kizzy roughly toward the wagon.

Bell blocked their path. “Den sell me an’ ‘er pappy wid ‘er! Don’ split us up!”

“Get out of the way!” barked the sheriff, roughly shoving her aside.

Bellowing, Kunta sprang forward like a leopard, pummeling the sheriff to the ground with his fists.

“Save me, Fa!” Kizzy screamed. He grabbed her around the waist and began pulling frantically at her chain.

When the sheriff’s pistol butt crashed above his ear, Kunta’s head seemed to explode as he crumpled to his knees. Bell lunged toward the sheriff, but his outflung arm threw her off balance, falling heavily as he dumped Kizzy into the back of his wagon and snapped a lock on her chain. Leaping nimbly onto the seat, the sheriff lashed the horse, whose forward jerk sent the wagon lurching as Kunta clambered up. Dazed, head pounding, ignoring the pistol, he went scrambling after the wagon as it gathered speed.

“Missy Anne!...Missy Annnnnnnnnnnne!” Kizzy was screeching it at the top of her voice. “Missy Annnnnnnnne!” Again and again, the screams came; they seemed to hang in the air behind the wagon swiftly rolling toward the main road.

When Kunta began stumbling, gasping for breath, the wagon was a half mile away; when he halted, for a long time he stood looking after it until the dust had settled and the road stretched empty as far as he could see.

The massa turned and walked very quickly with his head down back into the house, past Bell huddled sobbing by the bottom step. As if Kunta were sleepwalking, he came cripping slowly back up the driveway—when an African remembrance flashed into his mind, and near the front of the house he bent down and started peering around. Determining the clearest prints that Kizzy’s bare feet had left in the dust, scooping up the double handful containing those footprints, he went rushing toward the cabin: The ancient forefathers said that precious dust kept in some safe place would insure Kizzy’s return to where she made the footprints. He burst through the cabin’s open door, his eyes sweeping the room and falling upon his gourd on a shelf containing his pebbles. Springing over there, in the instant before opening his cupped hands to drop in the dirt, suddenly he knew the truth: His Kizzy was gone; she would not return. He would never see his Kizzy again.

His face contorting, Kunta flung his dust toward the cabin’s roof. Tears bursting from his eyes, snatching his heavy gourd up high over his head, his mouth wide in a soundless scream, he hurled the gourd down with all his strength, and it shattered against the packed-earth floor, his 662 pebbles representing each month of his 55 rains flying out, ricocheting wildly in all directions.

This tragic and powerful scene—Kunta finally turning his back on the beliefs of his African past and figuratively destroying his past life by shattering the calendar gourd—is the last we will ever see of Kunta. At this point, the book begins to treat Kizzy as the main character, and then her son Chicken George, and then people of the multiple generations that follow. There are times early on when you think that perhaps Kizzy will see her father again, but as the years wear on you realize that it isn’t so, and that Kunta will remain the sad and desperate victim of his final scene for the rest of time. In keeping true to the book’s theme, it is an absolutely masterful technique.

The book is only half done at this point, but Kunta has been such a large part of the book’s attention for so long that many of the following characters seem a little like strangers in comparison. Chicken George comes closest to capturing that attention again, especially as he struggles to find acceptance in a world run by whites without alienating his black family. Several interesting themes get developed through this story line.

First is the fact that George is part white. His father is actually his own master, who forced himself on his mother Kizzy shortly after her arrival on his property. He gets the name Chicken George as a teenager when he takes on an apprenticeship under his master’s aging negro chicken trainer, and begins to excel at the assignment. Massa Lea is a cock fighter, and it is through George’s raising, training, and betting on his prize chickens that a shadowy father/son relationship begins to develop between the two of them. It gives him many privileges that are not available to his mother, his wife or his children, but at the same time it separates him from them in ways that pains him and them.

But more interesting—and maybe unintentionally—is Haley’s use of names. Kunta was born Kunta, named by his father in one of the most important ceremonies of his African village. He is given the name Toby by his American master, but never accepts and never comes to think of himself as anything other than Kunta. It’s the name his wife Bell consistently says, and the one the narrative voice uses to refer to him throughout the novel.

George is born George, also named by his father, but much more cavalierly than the pains that Kunta’s father took in choosing a name. George, too, is later given another name by his American master—Chicken George—but unlike Kunta who never truly became Toby, George becomes Chicken George—to his family, to the narrator, even to himself. Once the name is applied, it is used throughout the rest of the novel as the universal way to refer to him.

I think that says a lot about the world these people lived in. Wikipedia says there is some doubt over whether or not Haley plagiarized some of the content of his book—but even if he did, there are subtle elements like that throughout which add a lot of depth and meaning to the reading experience. There’s also some not-so-subtle descriptions that quickly and effectively orient you towards the alternate universe (to our modern sensibilities, at least) that the characters are living in. Descriptions like:

He had heard many a whispering of cooks and maids grinning and bowing as they served food containing some of their own bodily wastes. And he had been told of white folks’ meals containing bits of ground glass, or arsenic, or other poisons. He had even heard stories about white babies going into mysterious fatal comas without any trace of the darning needle that had been thrust by housemaids into their soft heads where the hair was thickest.

And like:

Kunta thought about how “high-yaller” slave girls brought high prices at the county seat slave auctions. He had seen them being sold, and he had heard many times about the purposes for which they were bought. And he thought of the many stories he had heard about “high-yaller” manchildren—about how they were likely to get mysteriously taken away as babies never to be seen again, because of the white fear that otherwise they might grow up into white-looking men and escape to where they weren’t known and mix the blackness in their blood with that of white women. Every time Kunta thought about any aspect of blood mixing, he would thank Allah that he and Bell could share the comfort of knowing that whatever otherwise might prove to be His will, their manchild was going to be black.

This is a strange land we’re visiting in Roots, but what makes the novel so powerful is the realization that this land is really not that far away. The story traces the generations down to the present day, and helps the reader see not just how far our society has come, but how painfully recently the improvements have actually been.

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