Gleaning Alex Haley's Scriptural "Roots"

Curator's Note

During the nation’s bicentennial, a media phenomena captivated the attention of American reading and television audiences. Alex Haley’s award-winning work broached the contested role of black people in the U.S. The novel and miniseries located blacks at the center of an American historical mythology and invited a (re)imagining of the country’s social realities under such terms.

The persistent signification of Haley’s mythology in black cultural representations suggests that Roots entertains some semblance as a canon portrayal of African-American history.

  • Helen Taylor recalls that “the novel’s advance print run of 200,000 [copies] sold out at once; 1.5 million copies were sold in the first eighteen months and millions have sold since. The novel was translated into at least thirty-three languages and distributed in twenty-eight countries”…. and won a special award from the prestigious Pulitzer Prize Board.
  • The miniseries adaptation remains one of the most captivating viewing experiences in television history, an epoch that Time Magazine called “Haley’s Comet.” 

On the occasion of the multi-mediated saga’s 30th anniversary, NPR’s Farai Chideya asked Haley’s son, Bill Haley, to comment on the use of Kunta Kinte as a “putdown.” He thoughtfully replied:

Well, ["Roots"] was, to a lot of folks, uplifting because we had often thought of our African ancestors as savages. And I think what "Roots" did was dispel many of those perceptions. So some folks really took Kunta to heart and others, as we do in our community from time to time, we thrust things in reverse. Where all things that we admire, we put down in a sense. [sic]

As the subject of consideration, criticism, and quips, Haley’s work continues to serve as a secular scripture for making sense of the “black Atlantic” experience.  In so doing, Roots prompts investigation into the complicated ways people learn about race from mass-mediated mythologies.

Questions for Consideration:
  • How do the politics of representation (de)form communal boundaries?  
  • What other mediated mythologies have shaped the world’s communities in such pervasive ways? How do they compare to Roots
Bibliography:
  1. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).
  2. Helen Taylor, “The Griot from Tennessee’: the saga of Alex Haley’s Roots,” in Critical Quarterly 37, vol. 2 (2007): 46-62.
  3. Thirty Years of Roots.” News and Notes, NPR West Studios (Culver City, CA: KPCC, June 4, 2007). 
  4. "Why ‘Roots’ Hit Home," Time Magazine, February 14, 1977.

Comments

Alfred Martin's picture

Root(ing) American Blackness

One of the legacies of Roots is that it, for the first time, gave black Americans a sense of geneologial rootedness.  The mythology holds that once black people trace their geneology to slavery and eventually off the continent, that there is a cold trail.  Roots, I think, sparked this fascination with geneology that still persists today (as can be seen in Henry Louis Gates’ PBS documentaries and the NBC series "Who Do You Think You Are"). 

But another thing that Roots has wrought is a desire for black Americans to be rooted in a mythic Africa - regardless of whether or not we can be traced there with any sense of definiteness. 

Mediated historical references

This is a wonderful compilation Richard.  The clip really does show how "Roots" or at least Kunte Kinte has become part of pop culture vernacular. 

The scene from The Wire is both a racial and verbal wordplay that reminds me of references that we see with Charlie Chan and other Asian Americans.   Those references, as Robert Lee and others have argued, however, distance Asian Americans from being rooted in America and instead highlight their foreign nature.  

 

Richard Newton's picture

 Thank you very much for

 Thank you very much for  your input Shilpa. Could you can point me toward the works of Lee and any other persons you referenced? It would be really helpful. 

References

Hi Richard,

See the books: ORIENTALS: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999) and EAST MAIN STREET: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (2005).  There are also others that look at film, performance, and tv that are referenced in these books.

Rhett's picture

Especially for the time,

Especially for the time, "Roots" was an enlightening break from most television shows involving African-Americans or any race-based programming of the time. Considering how many of the programs from the 50s to the 70s (even later in some respects) either displayed a number of racial stereotypes and/or portrayed African-Americans in an unrealistic fashion. From "Amos n’ Andy"’s black face-esque racism, to "Julia"’s unrealistic ‘single black woman in a white man’s world’ mantality, to even much of the racial portrayals/tension reported on the news; much of television couldn’t make a reasonable, respectable representation. As stated in this article, "Roots" can represent African-Americans’ ancestors as a group of ‘real,’ respectable people instead of a group of "savages." Despite making some white viewers feel uncomfortable, guilty, etc. it was an accurate depiction of our nation’s past and stood out from the rest of the programs on tv at the time. It really was its stereotype breaking image that really added to debates around the subject of depictions on television, whether the context was shifted one way or the other (as stated), it really was a respectable and "captivating" event. 

Allen Goolsby's picture

Roots

Roots as a social meidator of race was created to expand on the misconceptions of the origins of blackness. Many of the reaganist beliefs viewd blackness as an undermining or threat to whiteness. The character of Kunta Kinte in the Roots is a social martyr who holds the core of otherness or africaness within the signs in his repersentations. One as a modern consumer of media would be able to associate blackness with deeper meaning than Kunta, therefore Kunta as embodiment of blackness represents all white social and and filmic narrative attemtps to negotiate with those representations of black or otherness.  

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