Roots by Alex Haley, Read by Avery Brooks

I finished listening to Roots last night! And Avery Brooks (of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and American History X) did an excellent job in reading it. When he modulated his voice to fit the different characters, I felt like I was listening to a real radio dialogue!

The book overlaps with the television miniseries (both Roots and its sequel, Roots: The Next Generations), but there are also significant differences. With a few exceptions, the book focuses on the thoughts, feelings, opinions, and struggles of the African-American characters, whereas the whites tend to be in the background. There is no Ed Asner struggling over his role as a slave-trader. Mike Brady does not have a fling with Ben Cartwright’s wife, who has Sandy Duncan (or, initially, Tracy Gold) as a result of the affair. Senator Burl Ives does not try to reinstate slavery after the Civil War. John-boy doesn’t marry a black woman, leading to him being disowned by his father, Henry Fonda.

In the book, the only time that we get to see how a white person feels is when Haley says that Tom Lee (Chicken George’s master and father) lost everything he had, but at least he had the consolation that he was white. That reminds me of something I read in Philip Yancey’s book, Soul Survivor, in which he describes growing up in a racist family in the deep South of the 1960’s: “We were white trash, but at least we were white.”

Whereas the miniseries tended to focus on a few dramatic scenes that communicated a point, the book reports that the scenes actually occurred a number of times. For example, on the Roots miniseries, Kunta runs away, gets caught, and is beaten until he says his name is Toby. Later, he runs away again, gets caught, and his foot is cut off. The book just says that Kunta ran away a few times, so there is no dramatic “What is your name?” scene. But the book also relates that those who caught him offered him a choice: either they cut off his foot, or they castrate him. I think it’s Cousin Georgia (a descendant of Kunta) who says later in the book, “Good thing for us he chose the foot!”

In Roots: The Next Generation, Alex Haley goes to the UN and asks an African ambassador if certain African words (e.g., ko, kambi belongo) mean anything to him. (Alex is trying to identify the tribe of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte.) The ambassador responds with a puzzled look, “Excuse me, but I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about.” The book just says that Alex Haley asked a bunch of African ambassadors about the African words, and they didn’t understand what he was saying, probably because of his thick Tennessee accent.

The miniseries had a lot more gut-wrenching drama, but the book had valuable things that were missing from the TV series. In the book, when Kunta is on the slave ship, he hears another African promise Allah that he will pray five times a day, if Allah will only deliver him from his situation. That really evoked in me an emotion of hopelessness. Here is an African who will never see his home again–everything and everyone he knows is now in his past, and he is about to experience a lifetime of servitude. He tries to bargain with God, but God does not answer (or at least God lets free will run its course).

I enjoyed many of the discussions among the slaves about current events. One of them mentions Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty” speech, and another inquires why white people would desire liberty, since they’re not the ones who are slaves. We also got to hear about Thomas Jefferson and his mistress, Sally Hemmings. So I take it that was a topic of discussion even in the 1970’s, when Roots came out.

One thing that really saddened me was that Alex Haley’s father, Simon Haley, passed away before Roots was published. On the miniseries, there was a considerable amount of tension between Alex and his father. Alex respected his father because he (Simon) got an education and made a success of himself, amidst considerable challenges. But Alex always felt that he fell short of Simon’s approval, and he didn’t want to follow in his dad’s footsteps, since schooling did not appeal to him. On the miniseries, Simon tells Alex that he should apply himself like George, Alex’s Republican lawyer brother. I often wondered if Simon got to see his son become the successful author of Roots, a book and television miniseries that boldly inspired Americans to evaluate themselves and their history. I guess not. But, as Alex says, he likes to think that his family is looking down on him from heaven!

Alex Haley closes his book by saying that history is written by the victors, which is why he wrote Roots. His point here seems to be that we mostly get the white side when we study history, whereas his goal is to relate to us the unseen African-American experiences of slavery and discrimination. I had a hard time identifying with Haley here, since I grew up in a Northern school, which frequently taught us about the evils of racism. We watched the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in the fifth grade, after all! But who knows? Haley may have set this trend when he wrote Roots, which went on to become a renowned miniseries. If that is the case, then he accomplished his goal.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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