An American Family

Roots

by Alex Haley
Doubleday, 587 pp., $12.50

Roots is about lineage and blood, history and suffering, and the need to know about these things. The need-to-know is Alex Haley’s. Why and how the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X has driven himself for a dozen years to find his own bloodlines, or one strain at least, is almost as intriguing as the saga that has been the result. The costs have been high in time and energy. The author could hardly have guessed twelve years ago that the work would earn him a million dollars and be one of the major publishing events of the year, but he scoured libraries and archives in two continents, consulted university professors of African history and languages, and read widely in history and anthropology. He lectured freely along the way to keep himself going.

All of this he did to connect the stories his grandmother told on the front porch of her Henning, Tennessee, home with the remote African homeland of the most vivid personality in Grandmother Cynthia’s tales. Her family originated in America, so it had been told through many generations, with a young African named Kunta Kinte, a man so rebellious that he made four attempts to escape his new owner, received as many vicious beatings, and on the last attempt had half his right foot severed in punishment.

As Haley’s story develops (and one cannot tell from the book where Grandmother Cynthia’s story leaves off and Haley’s research begins), young Kunta was brought in 1767 to Annapolis, Maryland, at the age of seventeen, aboard the slaver Lord Ligonier, and soon thereafter taken into Spotsylvania County, Virginia, where he began a long, cruel, and imperfect adjustment to the ways of the white man and his plantation. After monumental effort, and not a little blind luck, Haley found his way back to the African Kunta, alive in the oral tradition of West Africa, stored in the memory of a griot, a village storyteller whose memory bank included, among thousands of other matters, the bloodlines of Kinte’s people, and the very story Grandmother Cynthia herself had told about how young Kunta had met foul play one day when he had gone to the forest to cut wood for a new drum and was captured by slave traders.

One concrete story. Not much perhaps, but enough to convince Haley that he had brought together two oral traditions separated by two centuries, that he had connected his own American family with an ancient and distinguished tradition of West Africa. Haley promises another volume soon that will explain his search for his roots, that will outline the detective work, and perhaps some of the emotional experience that accompanied his own journey from America to Africa and back again. But for the moment we must assume that something stronger than curiosity, and an urge different in more than degree, separates him from the would-be members of the Daughters of the American Revolution or other like-minded patrons of the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.