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Looking Back at the Roots Phenomenon.

Twenty-five years ago, Doubleday published Alex Haley's "factional" account of his African American family, launching a juggernaut that redefined Americans' perceptions of slaves and slavery.

During the summer of 1976, cascading fireworks and majestic tall ships ushered in this nation's Fourth of July bicentennial. A few weeks later, a Southern governor named Jimmy Carter became the Democratic Party's candidate for President of the United States. And that October, Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family went on sale for $12.50, igniting an American cultural revolution.

As a pioneering writer of the Playboy interview format and co-author of the widely read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Grove Press, 1965), Haley had already established his bona fides as a writer to be taken seriously. But he was hardly a household name and nothing could have prepared him or his publisher for the thousands of Americans who would cram into auditoriums, bookstores and church basements with hopes of touching the stocky, fleshy-jowled, brown-skinned man whose search for his African ancestors had begun to redefine America's perception of slaves and slavery.

Doubleday's initial 200,000 print run--unprecedented for a book by a black author--was quickly exhausted as Roots pushed its way onto the New York Times bestsellers list. Within the first year of publication, readers purchased more than a million hardcover copies. By 2000 it had sold 8.5 million copies in 26 languages.

Looking back, Roots editor Lisa Drew (now with her own imprint at Scribner) likens the sales frenzy that engulfed Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to last summer's Harry Potter craze. "One can't overemphasize the impact of Roots," she reflects. "It filled a huge gap in our country's past--not only African American history, but all Americans' history--and sold more copies at a faster rate than any previous book."

Before the Roots phenomenon, most Americans--black and white--had few media images to counter the Tarzan version of Africans and the Gone with the Wind depiction of African American slaves. Beginning in 1914, when the first of 23 Tarzan novels appeared, and for much of the twentieth century, Englishman Edgar Rice Burroughs' portrayal of primitive black savages and superstitious cannibals reigned almost without challenge. As late as 1963, one of every 30 paperbacks sold had been written by Burroughs, and many of the more than 50 Tarzan movies remained Saturday afternoon television staples.

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind endured with similar persistence if not pervasiveness. Initially published in 1936, it hit the million copy sales mark in less than a year. When David O. Selznick's star-wattage GWTW movie premiered during the 1939 Christmas season, hundreds of thousands of fans partied and paraded in the streets of Atlanta for three straight days.

Through the decades, African Americans had watched Tarzan and Gone with the Wind with wary, but not entirely unaccepting eyes. Who among us black Baby Boomers did not spend at least a few moments of childhood swinging from playground monkey bars as we imitated Johnny Weismuller's yodel? If later a few of us little black girls were charmed by Rhett Butler's swagger, we cringed each time we heard Butterfly McQueen's simple-minded Prissy squeal about "birthin' babies." With so few black faces on the silver screen, Hattie McDaniel's portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara's mammy left us ambivalent. Were we proud that she was the first black person to receive an Oscar, or embarrassed that her character personified the bossy, but loyal stereotype that seemed to amuse white people?

Finally in early 1977, with the transformation of Roots, the book, into Roots, the mini-series, Gone With the Wind lost its unchallenged claim on our collective psyche. Scheduled for eight consecutive nights in late January--and positioned by ABC executives to precede sweeps month just in case it flopped--all or part of this record-breaking television extravaganza was seen in 85 percent of the nation's households, and thirty cities officially observed "Roots Week." "Teachers taught Roots in their classrooms, and socialites gave dinner parties centered around watching it" editor Drew remembers. On each successive night, as restaurants lost business and bar owners switched their overhead television sets from basketball to Roots, the audience mushroomed until the Sunday night finale reached 100 million viewers. By week's end, in a deliciously ironic triumph, Roots had toppled Gone With the Wind--which had made its television debut just a year earlier--from its perch at the top of the nation's ten most watched programs.

By tracing seven generations of his own family to the Gambian village of Juffere, Haley had turned whatever lingering shame black Americans felt about Africa into pride. Equally as important, his story had challenged many white Americans' long held belief that blacks were intellectually inferior with no history or culture worth recognizing. When Kunta refused to accept Massa Waller's attempts to change his name to Toby, we cheered because we could confirm that our great-great-great-grandparents had not been the docile figures of our high school history texts. When half of Kunta's foot was amputated to prevent him from trying to escape, our agony was tempered by the knowledge that our ancestors had resisted their bondage. As we watched Kizzy being sold off the plantation and dragged from her parents' arms, centuries of pain and anger welled inside us. On those eight nights, Haley's family story became a quintessentially American story. And if Haley and the producers of the mini-series had romanticized and embellished as the critics charged, at least they had begun the process of chipping away the ubiquitous mountain of misinformation.

In a September 1976 review of the novel Roots, Newsweek sneered at Haley's "pulpy style" and "the excesses of [his] flamboyant Gothic fiction." He was criticized for turning Juffure into a paradise and for taking too many liberties with history. In his own defense, he called his writing "faction" to acknowledge the mix of fact and fiction. "Every one of us goes back ancestrally to someone who lived in one of those African villages, was caught, brought across the ocean and worked on a plantation, went through the Civil War" Haley told Newsweek. "That's the saga of the whole race"

He knew that a dry, scholarly work would alter the thinking of far fewer people and have less social impact than a sweeping, near mythological epic that placed African Americans' struggles and victories within the constellation of all of America's ethnic groups. His goal, he said, was to "touch the pulse of how alike we human beings are when you get down to the bottom, beneath these man-imposed differences."

The telling of Haley's family tale awakened an interest in oral history, spawned enthusiasm for family reunions and created a hunger in all Americans for more information about their ancestors. What had been the domain of Mayflower families and European descendants with coats of arms, now fell within the purview of those families whose grandparents had arrived in steerage and on slave ships. Roots also created a climate that made the publishing industry more receptive to books like the current crop of multi-generational sagas that includes Alice Randall's just released novel The Wind Done Gone, Lalita Tademy's Cane River, Tony Burroughs' instructive nonfiction genealogy guide Black Roots, Neil Henry's family memoir Pearl's Secret, and family histories of the last decade and a half like James P. Comer's Maggie's American Dream, Adele Logan Alexander's Homelands and Waterways, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's The Sweeter the Juice and Stephen Ball's Slaves in the Family (see below "Alex Haley's Literary Children" for more information on these titles).

Haley had broken the barriers for many writers and spent a great deal of time--surely time when he could have been completing his own projects--generously mentoring those writers. Sadly, after Roots, he published only one more book, A Different Kind of Christmas, before his death in February 1992. Posthumously his estate commissioned author David Stevens to complete two other novels, Queen and Mama Flora's Family.

Perhaps his writing stalled because he had experienced a crisis of confidence after certified genealogists found discrepancies in his research. Certainly during the last decade of his life, his diabetes and high blood pressure were taking their toll. And sometimes he was just plain tired from all the demands that others made of him. But perhaps more than anything, his muse had been bruised by two lawsuits that accused him of plagiarism. He was able to disprove the copyright infringement claim brought by Margaret Walker charging that he had lifted from her 1966 novel, Jubilee. But Haley's lawyers settled the second lawsuit for $500,000 after conceding that "given his extensive and unannotated notetaking" he had unintentionally taken material from Harold Courtlander's The African, a novel that had been published in 1968.

Today Haley's flowery language and use of dialect may seem quaint, even jarring to our early 21st century ears. But it is the significance of his message and the magnitude of his ambitions, much more than his literary style, that make Roots a lasting contribution to American letters. "As Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl personified the Holocaust," says Lisa Drew, "so Alex Haley's Roots made human the shame and tragedy of slavery and its devastating effect on the United States."

Editor's Note: In the next issue of BIBR, A'Lelia Bundles shares her more personal recollections of Alex Haley, who was one of her mentors in the publishing industry in the decade before he died.

RELATED ARTICLE: Alex Haley's Literary Children

Recommended works in the tradition of Alex Haley's Roots:

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. Publication of this clever Gone with the Wind parody, originally due out June 2001 (and reviewed in the May/June 2001 issue of BIBR, page 22) from Houghton Mifflin, was temporarily blocked by a court order obtained by the Margaret Mitchell estate, but the preliminary injuction was overturned in May, although further appeals are planned.

Cane River by Lalita Tademy (Warner Books, April 2000, ISBN 0-446-52732-7, $24.95) In the May/June 2000 issue of BIBR, reviewer Brenda Richardson writes of this debut novel "Tademy's unremarkable but adequate writing style is compensated for by the wealth of content she weaves into her [Louisiana Creole] ancestral story ... Tademy [who quit her Silicon Valley vice-president's job to devote herself to this work in 1995] describes her work as fiction that is rooted in research, historical fact, and family love."

Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs (Fireside paperback, February 2001, ISBN 0-684-84704-3, $16) An experienced black genealogist presents a comprehensive guide to African American family research for the beginner, using examples from his own work to illustrate solutions to common genealogical research problems and sources most useful to African Americans.

Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family by James P. Comer, M.D., with a foreword by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (Plume paperback, November 1989, ISBN 0-452-26318-2, $13.95) The eminent Yale child psychiatrist and educator tells his family's story through a narrative of his mother who left abject poverty in the rural South to raise an accomplished family in Indiana--five children who earned 13 degrees among them.

Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926 by Adele Logan Alexander (Vintage paperback, July 2000, ISBN 0-679-75871-2, $16) Alexander, a professor of history at GeorgeWashington University, recounts the true narrative of three generations of her family intertwined with a sweeping account of the black experience in America.

The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip (Touchstone paperback, 1995, ISBN 0-671-89933-3, $12) A family memoir in which the author, raised in Connecticut where her father was a prominent Baptist minister, not only unearths her fair-skinned mother's secret family history going back six generations, but also reunites the family by finding descendants of her mother's siblings who passed for white.

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball (Random House paperback, 1999, ISBN 0-345-43105-7, $15.95) In this National Book Award-winning work, a white journalist (a former Village Voice columnist) constructs an exhaustively researched and moving examination of his family's South Carolina slaveholding past and makes a human connection to the descendants of the black families his own family once held as property.

Pearl's Secret by Neil Henry (University of California Press, May 2001, ISBN 0-520-22257-1, $24.95) A veteran black journalist (15 years at the Washington Post), now a Berkeley journalism professor, recounts his decade-long research tracing the Plantation South roots of his African American family in Seattle, Washington, and finally uniting them with the descendants of his family's white forebear. A review of Pearl's Secret is scheduled to appear in BIBR's next issue.

Selected Works of Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X 1965 (Ballantine/One World, 1999, ISBN 0-345-37671-4)

Roots: The Saga of an American Family (Random House Value Pub hardcover, 2000, ISBN 0-517-20860-1, OR Dell Books paperback, ISBN 0-440-17464-3)

A Different Kind of Christmas (Random House Value Pub hardcover, 2000, ISBN 0-517-16269-5)

Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Alex Haley, Murray Fisher (Editor). Haley's pieces for Playboy, written in the years between 1962 and 1992, were collected in an anthology (now out-of-print, but still available in limited quantities), including interviews with Malcolm X, Johnny Carson, Martin Luther King Jr., Miles Davis, and the young Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali.

A'Lelia Bundles is the author of the critically acclaimed, national bestseller On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, the first truly comprehensive nonfiction account of her great-great-grandmother. Her young adult biography, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur, received an American Book Award in 1992. A former ABC News Washington deputy bureau chief and Emmy award-winning network news producer for more than twenty years, she currently is ABC News' executive director, talent development. She is at work on a full-scale biography of A'Lelia Walker, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her look back 25 years ago at the phenomenon of Roots, whose author Alex Haley she first met in 1982, appears in Tribute on page 12.
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Author:Bundles, A'Lelia
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Words:2331
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