Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book of the Month: Roots

Since this is Black History month, I thought we'd kick it off with Roots: The Saga of An American Family by Alex Haley.

Roots was first published in 1976 and became a television "event" the next year, a miniseries that was broadcast over seven consecutive nights. I saw the television series, but somehow I had not managed to read the book at the time.

Now I have corrected that oversight, and that's why it's the book of the month, despite the controversies over parts of the book that may have been plagiarized from another author (a court case settled that portions of Roots were identical to some sections in another book) and the historical problems -- whether Haley actually found the ancestral village of Kunta Kinte, and whether his characters were "real" people.

Roots is a densely packed historical fiction that illustrates the basic evil -- but also the confusions, the complexity, and the complications -- of the slavery system. As Thomas Jefferson said, slavery was dehumanizing for both slave and master; even the "best" master was still a slaveholder, and even the "best" slave was still held in perpetual bondage.

There are always differences between books and the movies made from them, but one the major differences between Roots the book and Roots the miniseries was that, as best as I can recall anyway, not much if anything was made of Kunta Kinte's religion before he was kidnapped out of Africa. In the book he was a devout Muslim, and therefore his captivity and enslavement by the "infidels" (i.e., Christians) is seen to be even worse, especially when as punishment he is forced to work with the plantation's pigs.

Haley researched the book for nearly ten years, and it shows. The African segments especially -- which take up much more space in the book than they did on the screen -- seem to be right on the money, and they stack up well against the best of other African writers, such as South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer and her powerful July's People.

When it comes to the depiction of slavery in the United States, nothing else comes close to Roots ... with the possible exception of the actual stories told by the former slaves themselves. In the 1930s, as part of the Federal WPA Writers' Project, some 2500 Slave Narratives were gathered by interviewing the aging former slaves who had been freed by the 13th Amendment. Most of these slave narratives are available for free download from the Gutenberg project. They make for some pretty sobering reading, and they ought to be required for those in the government -- and out of it (are you listening, Toad?) -- who think that the constitutional three-fifths of a person for a slave was just fine and the 13th Amendment, along with the rest of the constitution, doesn't really mean what everyone thinks it means (are you listening, Scalia & Thomas, et al on SCOTUS?)...