Hooray, it’s time for Kaggsy and Simon’s twice-yearly Year Book Club, and this week it’s 1976. Warned well in advance, I tackled the 889 pages of Alex Haley’s American Black history saga, “Roots”, as you do. Simon’s post collecting reviews is here and I’m sure there will be loads of great resources to explore as the week continues! I was fortunate enough to be able to read this book through September along with the bloggers Buried in Print (review here) and The Australian Legend (his review here), 30 chapters a week, every week; it was a pleasure and privilege to read it alongside them and also fascinating to get their Canadian and Australian perspectives respectively.

Alex Haley – “Roots”

(18 August 2021)

So Dad has joined the others up there. I feel that they do watch and guide, and I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners. (p. 888)

I’d known about this seminal saga of Kunta Kinte, his life in Africa, his abduction and Middle Passage on an American slave ship, his slavery, family and descendants seemingly forever, but it seemed to be too big, too brutal, too hard to read. I’m so glad I was prodded into attempting it by the 1976 Club – of course I can’t say I enjoyed it as such, but it was a compelling read, fascinating, human, and I learned a lot.

There was more than I expected about Kunta’s life – over a quarter of the book – and I loved reading about the society in his village in The Gambia, every day life and his growing up. I was particularly engaged by the fact that Haley doesn’t give explanations for a lot of the terms used, for implements, clothing, kinds of food – he just places the terms there and, presumably, expects you to know what they meant or look them up (some I did, some I did, if you see what I mean).

The descriptions of his capture and sale, his attempts to escape and the driving down of his spirit until he lacks the will to try again, are of course devastating. They’re brutal and deeply horrible, as are the rape of Kizzy and other scenes, but not gratuitously so: we needed and need to know this stuff.

As a reading group, we differed a bit on our attitudes to the way history was inserted into the narrative once we were in the US. I accepted the chunks of reported history as I felt it was realistic: house servants picked up scraps of news while serving dinner to their masters; slaves who were drivers or otherwise accompanied their masters out of the house and far away were able to bring back news; news travelled between people almost by osmosis then someone would report it to an audience, and I’m sure that’s what happened. I didn’t find it too didactic or bolted on and it kept the narrative rooted in history.

Bill found a link between the matriarchs of the family while I saw a line of males; Marcie made a great link between the treatment and breeding of the cockfighting birds and that of the slaves (there were too many “chickens” in that part of the book, needed as they were to advance the plot, and I think we all agreed on that!) which I’d not made. Discussing the sections as we went along by email was a great addition to the reading experience personally.

Looking through my post-it note markers, the overriding feeling is of heart-break. Kunta can’t feel he can talk to his mother when he lives in the village, then he’s snatched away and never gets to tell her what she means to him. Kizzy is snatched away and we lose sight of Kunta (of course; we’re seeing this through the family oral history, so when someone moves on, the continuing story of those they were with is lost) and she never sees her parents again. Kunta’s dignity and retention of his Muslim faith are so moving, too. We all know of the inhumanity of slavery of course, but this slams it home.

Maybe surprisingly, there are some beautiful descriptions of landscape and birds, in Africa and America. The landscape is always drawn very clearly, so you can see it in your mind’s eye. This is used to devastating effect in the slave ship and chase scenes, of course, but the occasional beauty and the clear interiors were not something I was expecting.

There’s so much more I can write about – the interrogation of attitudes towards integration: could Black slaves and White owners ever be more than slaves and owners; was it important to retain African bloodlines? – but really I’d say if you can, go and read this important book.

Was Haley writing history or historical fiction? Of course there was a debate about his sources and his researcher integrity. But I don’t think that matters: first off, it’s entirely plausible to have an oral history go that far back in a family, especially when in more recent memory and presumably before the details were chanted to each new family member. I know my gran’s grandfather was Spanish, and have access to his name and town of origin, and presumably my cousins’ children know this, too, so that’s a lot of generations here. And while conversations and details are obviously invented, the whole is plausible and gives an incredibly vivid picture of life for each succeeding generation, the struggles they faced, their psychology and everyday life, and that’s got to be more valuable than quibbling over exact accuracy.

My Vintage edition had an introduction by David Olusoga which sets the book in its own context and was very useful. He points out it was a massive counterpoint to a narrative of the “benign and fatherly slave-owner” (x) which existed at the time and also writes of the effect it had on Black British people, too.

And what did I do just the other day? Take delivery of a copy of “Queen”, Alex Haley and David Stevens’ 915-page (I know) story of Haley’s mother’s family …

In 1976, I was four years old, so I don’t recall the book or series coming out. Reading it now, having David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch, Sathnam Sanghera et. al to tell us about the Middle Passage, colonialism and slavery histories, it felt like I was prepared for what I was going to read, that I had some understanding of the history I was going to encounter, and the cruelty, if not the visceral feelings of what it was like to be an enslaved person. I would be fascinated to hear from anyone who experienced the book or series at the time, how much you already knew on the subject, what it did for you and how it changed you and your attitudes, if you have the energy to tell me.