Book Review: Roots by Alex Haley

Over the past few days, I have had to take a few days off from blogging, and here’s why: I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you have been watching the news, you have probably seen my city at one of its most tumultuous moments in recent history. I have lived in Charlotte for only 5 years, but it is the longest that I have lived anywhere since I graduated from high school almost 20 years ago, and I consider it my home.

It is difficult to watch your city break down into violence on the streets that you have walked over and over again. It is difficult to watch the turmoil on the news, knowing you have friends at the protests; knowing the few dozen who broke off from the main protest and turned to violence do not speak for everyone. It is difficult to witness the arrival of the National Guard, the imposition of a mandatory curfew, and the declaration of a state of emergency.

Yesterday, I attended the peaceful afternoon protest, along with thousands of others. We marched the streets of Charlotte in unity for a better tomorrow. I participated because racial discrimination happens every day in Charlotte to a countless number of people, and something needs to change. In the crowd were public school teachers, lawyers, public defenders, social workers, clergy and faith leaders, and many of the youth of this city. The protests are not spreading hate against police officers, in fact, I witnessed many protestors handing out water to the National Guard and Charlotte police officers, and chatting with them on the sidelines. No, it’s not about hate…it’s a desperate plea for equality in a country that has some very serious systemic problems that need to talked about out of the shadows.

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I have a diverse group of friends, and a long time ago I realized I owe it to them to understand the complexity that is race relations, white privilege, and social justice in the United States. Sometimes the best way to understand is by talking to people. Other times, it can include picking up and reading a book, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

It is in that frame of reference I move on to my review of Roots by Alex Haley.

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Title: Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Author: Alex Haley

Genre: Historical fiction

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th century Mandinka man who was captured near his village in The Gambia and sent into slavery in the United States. The story is a sprawling family epic that follows the life of Kunta Kinte, as well as the lives of his descendants, continuing all the way to the author himself.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding this novel – Haley has been accused of plagiarizing parts of the novel from author Margaret Walker – doesn’t diminish the impact the book has had in helping modern-day readers understand the deplorable institution of the slave trade, and how it was carried out.

This is no Gone With the Wind. It is a gritty, raw look at the slave trade. It is not sugar-coated or glossed over. My timing in reading Roots, as well as The New Jim Crow last month, couldn’t be more powerful. It is challenging to read about American history’s darkest moments at a time when protests over the current mistreatment of people of color rock the streets of America.

As much as I enjoyed reading this novel, and especially the first few hundred pages detailing Kunta Kinte’s childhood, his kidnapping, and adjustment to life as a slave on a Southern plantation, the last part of the novel felt rushed. The reader is with Kunta for almost 550 pages or so. From Kizzy (Kunta’s daughter) and Chicken George (one of Kunta’s grandchildren) onwards, it became hard for me to get to know any of the characters. In fact, the last 100 pages, I had a hard time following all of the names and how they are interconnected, with events flying by so quickly. The reverse lineage that is described once Haley brings himself into the novel towards the end helped to an extent.

It’s an important book that should be required reading. Some say slavery was long ago, and we need to forget about it, but let’s face it: the system of slavery helped shape America into what it is today. To forget that it happened, or to brush it aside, does nothing to help us look at where we were, where we are now, and where we still need to be.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Roots by Alex Haley

  1. Pingback: October Wrap-Up | 4thhouseontheleft

  2. Pingback: Sunday Salon & a November Wrap-Up | 4thhouseontheleft

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