Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: Alex Haley's Roots

I recently finished reading the classic novel of the slave experience in America Roots: The Saga of an American Family by legendary author Alex Haley. Reading this classic was a very moving experience for me, and as with many of my favorite things, this novel made me think a lot about things. In this case, I've been thinking a lot about history, life, and humanity. I saw some of the mini-series based on the book (I was too young to watch it when it premiered.) and I saw the sequel mini-series in its entirety when it originally aired, but I have not revisited them since,

Let me start by saying that I am aware of criticisms leveled against this book,  almost all of which have to do with its historical accuracy or lack thereof. But I came into the experience knowing it is not non-fiction, but rather a dramatized version of reality. Historical fiction based loosely on real events. I read the book as a depiction of what life was like for Africans and their descendants during the days when slavery was a common practice in the United States.

The story tells mostly of Kunta Kinte, an African who is captured by slavers and taken to the colonies that would soon become the United States of America. He is sold into slavery, tries to escape several times, and eventually accepts his condition, marries, and has a child. Unfortunately that child is sold to another owner in her teens. The story then continues with Kunta's daughter, Kizzy, and her descendants, all the way to Alex Haley himself.

The bulk of the book tells the plight of slaves and describes the institution of slavery in the United States. In modern times it is often hard to believe slavery was ever allowed in America, much less that it was popular worldwide for much of human existence. The aspect that most struck me is how the slave owners believed that slavery could ever work. The mentality is that slaves should just accept their fate and be good slaves, then they owners wouldn't have to punish them. The reason this is crazy is that there's no way any person wants to be owned. No matter what, even with the most humane treatment, slaves are always going to want freedom. And there's no way any revisionist is going to make a convincing arguement that slaves in America were treated humanely.

The other thing that hit me the hardest is how the white men would look upon the blacks as inferior, treat them like subhumans, but then seemed to have no problem sexually assaulting them. The one aspect of American slavery that has been the most damaging, and continues to haunt us today, is the racist rationale behind it. White people in positions of power assumed and rationalized that they were superior to darker skinned people, and used it as justification to treat them horribly.

As a final note, the novel does an excellent job telling the story of slavery through the eyes of the characters, and the characters and their lives are very engaging. This makes the book more entertaining than a non-fiction book about the subject. But even more importantly, it makes the story that much more human, and allows the reader to connect with the characters and understand

their situation more.

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