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Alex Haleys Roots: A Critical Evaluation

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These famous words from America's Declaration of Independence turn a blind eye towards the schism between the ideal and the actual that has existed since the beginning of America's history. As the Constitution later makes clear, through its designation of the slave as 3/5 of a person, the founding fathers did not really believe that "all men are created equal" or that "all men" should enjoy "certain unalienable rights." One of the ways slavery was justified was, in fact, through the argument that the slave was not really human, was less than human, and was actually only 3/5 of a human being. Roots is a fictionalized account of Alex Haleys family's history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in Gambia in 1767 to be sold as a slave in the United States. Roots won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become a popular television series Haley traces his ancestry through six generations-slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, lawyers and architects-back to Africa and his ancestor Kunta Kinte .The novel begins in the early spring of 1750, in the West African village of Juffure. Kunta Kinte is their first-born child of Omoro and is captured and forced into slavery. Out of 140 Africans, Kunta is one of only 97 who survive the crossing .It was this young man who had been torn from his homeland and in torment and anguish brought to the slave markets of the new world who held the key to Haleys distant past.

Kuntas life and those of all the blacks portrayed in this book is essentially a search for an established identity in an alien land to which they have been forcibly brought. The narrative meticulously traces the protagonists life in Africa. Almost 1/4th of the book is an account of Kuntas first 17 rains spent in his village, Juffure. There is a sense of nostalgia with which the African culture has been talked about. It is evident in the eloquent description of deep musky fragrance of mangroves, plants that grew along the bolong swaying in the light breeze and huge families of baboons springing about and shaking palm-tree fronds. The natives complete dependence on nature for survival has been stressed throughout this part of the text. The schism between the portrayal of harvest-time of plenitude and famines, which brought sickness, hunger and disease, shows the lack of technological and scientific advancement in the Dark Continent as compared to Europe. The community life is self-sufficient: each village produces its own grain, hunts for its own meat and spins its own cloth. The roles of men and women were strictly segregated. The men hunted and discussed administrative affairs with the Juffures Council of Elders while the women did everything else. They tended their familys plot of rice-field, managed their households and raised children. The necessity to catch a husband was a priority for women, their lives predominantly revolving around the marital duty of bearing children and doing housework. So they would go about poking their mango-sized breasts, tossing their heads and arms and showing off their jewelry, worse still, doing it for men at least 10yrs older than themselves; the marriageable age for women being 13-15 yrs and that for men beginning after their manhood-training. This was considered the most trying phase of every boys life during which he was taken away along with his kafo-mates for intense education and training. Foresthunting skills, physical fitness, emotional toughness were taught in this grueling 4-month camp. With circumcision, i.e. cutting off of a part of their foto, their advancement into manhood was considered complete. After undergoing this rite de passage, kunta desires to command the respect of his mother, binta, who, he thought, still treated him like a child. Though she pampered her eldest son, he charitably ignored her impertinence. Women were trapped in an internalized system of patriarchy from which there was no escape whatsoever. They have been depicted as emotionally weak, hysterical and unable to control and hide their emotions, an indispensable quality among the men of the society. Husbands usually resided separately from their wives and shared merely a sexual relationship with their wives. There is a great and real anxiety

on the part of the woman whose husband, following ancient Muslim tradition, might marry another woman during the time when the first one was nursing a child. Interestingly, a slave-system existed within this community too. The book claims that all slaves were treated respectfully and equally within the society. Their rights are guaranteed by the laws of our forefathers. Only convicted criminals were allowed to be beaten or punished by their masters. Slaves could buy themselves free with their savings from the farming on half-share with their master. No slave could be sold if he didnt approve of his future owners. The greatest fear of the people was the fear of being captured by the toubob. Frightening tales of hairy, red-faced, strange-looking white men who carried fire-sticks and captured natives to take them to the white-cannibal land abounded and mothers often disciplined their children with a sinister threat of calling the toubobs.

Unlike the Europeans who "discovered" and then appropriated the so-called "New World," the Africans who came to North and South America and the Caribbean were not "immigrants." They did not come to this New World by choice because they wanted to establish new lives; instead, they were sold into slavery and brought to the New World in chains. Colonization of the New World was initially a Spanish effort, though eventually Portugal, England, Holland, and France all became involved in the lucrative slave trade. When the Spanish first began to colonize the Caribbean, they intended to use the native Indian peoples to do the manual labor they themselves disdained to do. They so mistreated these people, however, and introduced so many epidemic diseases to them, that the native populations declined precipitously and the Spanish had to look elsewhere for labor. Scholars estimate that some 10-12 million Africans arrived in the New World as slaves over a period of some 400 years. Millions of others were taken but never arrived: they died in the holding forts on the west coast of Africa or in the long and horrifying journey across the Atlantic, now referred to as "Middle Passage." Altogether, almost 20-50 million Africans were taken from their homelands. The capture and journey of kunta kinte from Africa to America evokes great horror in the mind of the reader. Slaves were blindfolded, gagged, bound in chains and ropes and were whipped often. As the toubobs hands explored the parts of his body, kuntas muscles were knotted in fear and rage. The captured natives were imprisoned in underground dungeons called holding-forts until enough had been gathered to comprise a shipload under horrifying conditions. The captives who survived were eventually led to the holds of ships that would transport them to the New World. In the holds they were arranged on wooden platforms "like books on a shelf." Many of these "shelves" were scarcely 18 inches high, so that suffocation was often a cause of death. Eventually, the dead and the living would be lying side-by-side, unable to move. They were kept naked with little space to move. The urine, vomit n feces that reeked everywhere around him had spread into a slick paste covering the hard- planking of the long shelves where they lay. Kunta felt that it was a smell that would never leave his lungs and skin; either they would all die in this nightmare or somehow the toubob would have to be overcome and killed. Disease, of course, was rampant. The women were continually raped by the toubob. After Kunta and the other Africans get off the big "canoe" and wait for the slave auction to commence, "he and his mates had had to sit there, burning with humiliation at being helpless to defend their women, let alone themselves". Kunta feels hopeless because he cannot aid a woman in need; while at a slave auction, he hears "a chained Jola woman shrieking piteously...beseeching him to help her" he feels a rush of "bitter, flooding shame" at the prospect that he could not or did not do anything to help the woman. Especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, the mortality rate during this passage from Africa to America was as high as 25%. By 1860, there were four million slaves in the United States, most of who had been born here.


The clearly defined roles of men and women within the family in the African society are missing since the division of labor was governed by the requirements of the plantation. Under enslavement, Kunta Kinte and Bell's lives were dictated by their status of being owned by Master Waller, whose consent was essential for the marriage. Neither possessed any institutional power in their enslaved state. This is displayed when their child, Kizzy, is sold. Neither of her parents can change the horrible fate of their only child. Bell pleaded with Master Waller, "Don' split us up! but to no avail. Kunta tried to physically save his daughter but he "crumpled to his knees" after he was hit by the butt of the sheriff's pistol as it "crashed above his ear". Both the man and the woman are rendered powerless in the situation. Kunta also struggled to retain power within his life and relationship with Bell.

Slave women were subject not only to the same brutalities and indignities exercised against slave men but also to sexual assaults from their white owners. In Roots, Kizzy Waller, is separated from her family, when it was discovered that she could read and write which was against the law to educate negros. At the new plantation her married master, who brought a young slave girl, so that he would get more slaves, without paying for them and of-course as a sexual outlet, repeatedly rapes her. Thus, on a single plantation presided over by a white man and his wife there might be several children fathered by the plantation owner; those mothered by the white wife would be his heirs, while those mothered by a black slave woman whom he had raped would be his property. Chicken George was born out of Kizzys brutal rape by the new master, Tommy Lee. Noticeably, the father shows no tenderness or affection towards George. He simply sees him as an additional field hand. In fact, Tommy sends George off to England, wrenching him from his family, in order to pay off his debt. Also evident is the constant subtle discrimination towards the mulatto children who were called high-yaller by the blacks themselves. Kunta feels extreme disdain for the fiddler he meets at the plantation because his color is so yellow. Even later on, after the civil war, tom refuses to give permission to one of his daughters to marry a high yaller slave because he belongs to neither of the two classes (quote) pg654, this shows a discrimination within black community as well, though subtle.

African lineage!
The most poignant aspect of the book is the insistence of each generation to maintain to pass down the family chronicles and African traditions so that they are preserved for posterity. The story of gran-papy Kunta Kinte was told religiously to every generation along with a description of his life in his country as a free man, not beholden to anyone. The worst part of slavery was not the physical labor demanded of the slaves, nor the physical abuses perpetrated upon them rather, it was was the attempt to strip the slaves of their African names, their African culture, their African nativity--the very ground of their being. Basic to West African culture and religion had been the relationship of the individual person to the community--both the living community and the Ancestors--who were dead physically, but whose spirits continued to live and give wisdom and direction to the living community. In taking the Africans from Africa, transporting them across the ocean, and then forcing them into slavery, white people disconnected the Africans from everything that allowed them to make sense of the world. Slavery broke the Africans' connection to their past, to their community, to their language, and to their god.The greatest and most powerful symbol of this disconnection was white people's stripping of the Africans' names from them. A powerful depiction of this may be seen in Roots, Kunte Kinte's master has him systematically whipped until Kunte is forced to say "My name is Toby"--the name the master had decided upon. The master's imposition of a name on the slave was only the most visible sign of the master's determination to define who the slave was. Kunta wished to keep the traditions of his homeland alive. One way was by naming Kizzy by the same ritual as he was named in Juffure, however, it was accompanied by Bells legitimate fear of leading to trouble for the family.

House Negro vs the field Negro

In a famous speech,in Alex Haleys Malcolm X a clear distinction was drawn between two kinds of slaves: the "house negro" and the "field negro". The house negro lived in the master's house and had slavery rooted deep in his mind: he would say "our plantation", "our house, he'd worry if the master got sick, he'd work hard to extinguish the flames if the house caught on fire. The field negro, on the contrary, was exploited in the plantation, and he hated his master. This particular trope is evident in Roots as well. Although both the house and the field negro hate slavery, but working in the house is far less torturous than working under the burning sun for hours. It is precisely this reason that Bell is eager to teach her daughter all the housework (even if it means cleaning the slop jar in which the master relived himself at night) rather than facing the hardships of a field nigger.

Poor white trash

In roots we are shown that the worst and the most virulent form of racism is delivered by the poor white trash who are economically even worse off than most of the nigger, Infact at times they become the butt of ridicule even of the blacks, who would rather continue working in the fields than starve for days as a poor white. In Roots we notice that most of the atrocities are committed against the slaves by the poor whites. They are the ones who cut off Kuntas foot or beat fresh stock of slaves from Africa. Tom Lea, too belonged to a poor white family, and he embodies the crudeness and cruelties that symbolizes that section of the society for the blacks. But it would be incorrect to say that all poor people are cruel because in the latter half of the text the slave family meets Johnson who ends up living with them even after the civil war ends and become completely a part of the black community. Kind Benevolent plantation owner vs the cruel merciless Massa The book explores the working conditions under various types of plantation owners. The first plantation where Kunta is sold off to, had a whip-loving master and overseer who clearly perceived the slave as nothing more than a senseless, dumb animal. Kizzy owner Tom Lea, the rapist, too sees them as mules understanding only the language of kicks and curses. But the Murrays or massa Waller are portrayed as kind and sympathetic toward the slave family and see themselves as one family unit with the whites benignly taking care of, and feeding the Negroes. But Tom completely rejects the notion of them living as one big happy family because he says, They do not realize what it is like to be owned by another man. Their bitterness reveals how they were forced to act dumb, lazy, foolish or helpless in order to keep the white masters satisfied and happy, so that they do not invite any unwanted and deadly suspicion towards themselves Pg625 Post Civil war The civil war made little difference in the economic condition of most blacks. It remained very uncertain for most ex-slaves who left their former masters. The book realistically describes the economic hardships confronted by blacks after the civil war was over. Tom and his family decide to stay on with their former owners for a while, and work on a small patch of land, in order to survive after the war. Even after the family moves to Tennessee their problems are not solved because the whites in that town do not allow Tom to open his own Blacksmith shop. It is only after tremendous courage, enterprise and skills that the black family finally becomes a respected and a very successful member of the community.

The author grew up hearing the long, cumulative family narrative that had been passed down across generations while lounging on the porch of grandma Cynthias house with aunt plus, aunt Liz, aunt till, aunt viney, cousin Georgia n his own mother gathered to add their own bits and pieces from their memory. They all talked about the African who had, on being caught after his 4th attempt to run away from the plantation, been given the choice of being castrated or having his foot cut off and thanks to jesus, or we wouldnt be here telling it- he chose his foot. Alex Haley enlisted in the US coast guard at 17 and retired at the age of 37. During this time, he had become well known as a journalist and subsequently wrote biographies for readers digest and conducted several interviews for playboy. He was once more intrigued by the unique oral tradition of his family and decided to delve deeper into his own ancestry. With the encouragement of the now 80 yr old cousin Georgia who told him you go ahead, boy! Yo sweet grandma an all of em-dey up dere watchin you. Over a period spanning 12 yrs, Haley researched forgotten records, census counts and old slave advertisements dating back over 2 centuries. He traveled to Gambia and was able to locate the little settlement of Juffure, which has no more than 70 inhabitants. A griot, a repository of old history and family chronicles, opened up new vistas for A.H. He says, I was just weeping for all of historys incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seemed to be mankinds greatest flaw. James Baldwin has said of this book it is an act of love, and it is this which makes it hauntingroots is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate the coming one.

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