Roots Paper Essay

Roots: The Saga of an American Family Alex Haley

(Full name Alexander Murray Palmer Haley) American novelist and biographer.

The following entry presents criticism on Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976).

Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) is an historical novel that purports to trace the African American ancestry of its author, Alex Haley, back to a tiny village in Gambia, West Africa. Within two years of its publication, more than eight million copies of the book had been printed in twenty-six languages, and Roots had won 271 awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1976, the volume also inspired a generation of ancestor-seeking Americans and led to one of the most ambitious and most-watched television productions ever undertaken.

Biographical Information

Roots author Alex Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, the eldest of three sons. His father was a college professor; his mother a schoolteacher. Haley grew up in the small town of Henning, Tennessee, where his early memories reportedly included stories from elderly relatives about an African ancestor who refused to respond to the slave name “Toby.” The tales of his childhood eventually inspired the search for his past that led to the writing of Roots. Although Haley's reputation in the literary world rests primarily upon this much-acclaimed historical novel, he is also remembered for writing Malcolm X's “as told to” autobiography in 1965. Haley wrote many articles for popular magazines, appeared on countless television shows, and lectured throughout the country until his death in 1992.

Plot and Major Characters

Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinkan from the small village of Juffure, Gambia, in West Africa, and his American descendants. Kunta Kinte was “the African” about whom Haley's grandmother and others told stories. Roots imaginatively recreates the life of Haley's ancestor in Africa, his capture into slavery in 1676, and his experiences as a slave in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Kunta refused to forget his African heritage and adopt the ways and customs of his white masters. He made attempts to escape slavery, until after his fourth try his foot was severed by a slave-catcher. He later married Bell, the slave cook in the big house on the plantation, and they had a daughter named Kizzy. Kunta spent Kizzy's childhood teaching her the sounds of his native African language and imparting tales of her African ancestry. At the age of fifteen, Kizzy was sold to a master whose rape of his new young slave resulted in the birth of the third generation, George, who in turn learned of his African heritage through the stories of his mother. This was the most famous of Haley's ancestors, after Kunta Kinte. George, known as “Chicken George” for his success as a gamecock trainer, fathered eight children with Mathilda. His fourth son, Tom, was the father of Haley's maternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was taken to Henning, Tennessee, on a wagon train of freed slaves. In Henning, Cynthia met and married Will Palmer and had a daughter named Bertha, who married Simon Haley: these were Haley's parents.

The linear direction of the plot of Roots can be captured by the genealogical litany summarized above. The saga, however, incorporates the violence and degradation experienced by slaves at every turn in the story, from the inhumane capture of young men and women on the shores of West Africa and the unspeakable horrors of the subsequent Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, to the beatings, rapes, mutilations, and brutal living and working conditions to which slaves were routinely subjected, when they were not being bought and sold in marketplaces. Each generation from Kunta Kinte on preserves memories of the ancestral past while achieving incremental and achingly slow progress toward the day when they would be slaves no more.

Major Themes

Roots riveted public attention on one of the most painful chapters of American history, and yet it was read—and in its television version, watched—by millions of Americans, black and white. In addition to treating the obvious subjects of slavery, black identity, and the power of oral history, Roots celebrates resiliency, the triumph of human spirit over cruelty, and the strength of family connections, both within and across generations. Families work together to protect their members. Children are taught that principles are worthy of risk. Ancestral memories are preserved and passed on through the telling of stories to one's children, and humankind's universal search for its identity is given a personal face. These themes cross racial and ethnic boundaries and help account for the book's immense popularity. At the time of its publication, Roots was called “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League. The creative revelation of one family's story opened doors that had long been locked, in individual families and in American culture as a whole.

Critical Reception

Although critics generally lauded Roots, they seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. While the narrative is based on factual events, the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Haley himself described the book as “faction,” a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics concurred and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. Newsweek applauded Haley's decision to fictionalize: “Instead of writing a scholarly monograph of little social impact, Haley has written a blockbuster in the best sense—a book that is bold in concept and ardent in execution, one that will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves.” Some black leaders viewed Roots “as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma,” according to Time.

Not all the attention accorded Roots was positive, however. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, alleged separately that Haley plagiarized their work in Roots. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander $500,000. The same year other accusations arose, alleging that Haley had altered data to fit his objectives, fabricating ancestors and changing timelines or geographic details to make the story into the one he wanted to tell. These charges were never proven or resolved, but Haley's supporters maintain that the author never claimed Roots was a factual document, calling it instead a work of “faction,” fiction based on the facts of his ancestry, as he discovered them. Despite these controversies, the public image of Roots doesn't seem to have suffered. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their curriculum.


1) Introduction

2) Alex Haley – short Information about the Author himself

3) Fictionality in Dialogues of the Book Roots

4) Summary

5) Index of Literature

1) Introduction

In this work about the book Roots by Alex Haley the author will show that the book Roots is not non-fictional, like it is said on the cover of the book (chapter 3). The analysis of dialogues and characteristics of persons in the book will prove it. For the task was to prove the fictionality of the book in comparison to the representation of the characters in the film, these two means of style of fictionality were chosen: dialogue and representation of characters. The author did actually not compare with the film because it was not clearly visible if the directors of the film were black or white, and so the analysis could have led in a wrong way. About the importance of the race will be said more in the analysis.

One important point for proving the fictionality comes from Alex Haley himself in chapter 120: "In the years of the writing, I have also spoken before many audiences of how Roots came to be, naturally now and then someone asks, 'How much of Roots is fact and how much is fiction?' To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or my American families carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been conventionally to corroborate with documents.(...) Since I wasn't yet around when most of the story occurred, by far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place."[1]

Further on, the work will tell about Alex Haley himself (chapter 1). For this part the Microsoft Encarta of the year 1996 was used.

Further, the "Einführung in die Anglistik" from Sammlung Metzler[2], the "Arbeitsbuch Literaturwissenschaft" from UTB[3] and the "Einführung in die Literaturinterpretation"[4] build the scientific basis for this work.

2) Alex Haley – short Information about the Author himself

Alex Haley (1921-1992) was an African-American author, whose contributions to American letters led to the popularization of Black history and helped to promote racial understanding. Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. Although not academically outstanding, either at school or at university, Haley was determined to become a writer. He practiced and perfected his craft during his early years in the Coast Guard. After retiring from the Coast Guard at the age of 37, he moved to New York to actively pursue a career as a writer. He had no immediate success until he interviewed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and, later, political activist Malcolm X for Playboy magazine. The meeting with Malcolm X led to his co-authoring The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). This became an important text for Black nationalists involved in the struggles of the 1960s. It also received much critical acclaim, and was widely adopted as required reading for students of literature and history classrooms. Immediately after the success of the Autobiography, Haley began work on the family saga, Roots (1976), which subsequently received dozens of awards, including citations by the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees. Almost 9 million copies were sold, and it has been translated into 26 languages. The screening of a television adaptation in 1977 increased its impact on American culture. It is estimated that 130 million Americans saw at least one episode of the eight-part series. Roots recounted the story of Haley's search for his ancestors and triumphantly recorded his tracing of his lineage back to a West African village. Haley used his imagination to fill in the details of the family story and created a series of portraits, which moved many Americans of all racial backgrounds to take up an interest in genealogy.[5]

3) Fictionality in Dialogues and Characters of the Book Roots

For proving the fictionality in the dialogues, of course not all dialogues could have been analyzed. So some important dialogues were chosen, which are characterizing persons of the book. In the analysis, the dialogues are wearing short names: the slave-dialogue, the Kizzy-dialogue, and the Lea-dialogue. They all include characteristics of persons in the book, or important information for the reader.

Before starting to analyze, the word "fictionality" should be explained, as it is used for this analysis:

1. Literature that refers explicit to parts of the reality of experiences is always also imagined and creative. Literature creates reality that is not necessarily provable. The reference to reality that lies out of literature may be important for some forms of literature, like historical novels, but also here the poetic freedom does not make the text a lie or a fake. As parts of literary texts also provable facts are part of a fictional reality.[6]
2. "You can define it (the literature) as 'imaginative' writing in the sense of 'fiction' – as a writing, that is not true in the verbatim sense." (Eagleton, 1992, 1)[7]. The representation of empirical facts within fictional texts makes – after Stierle – always only ideal equivalences of such reference points of the text visible, which non-fictional texts in their representation refer to. Fictional texts give a view on reality within a specific situation of communication.[8]

Fictionality always has a function. As Haley says himself, he wrote down what he feels could have happened. So he creates the characters in the book like he feels they could have been.

In the whole book, there are not really a lot of dialogues at all. Haley prefers to use the inner monologue rather than dialogues between persons. He describes the emotions and intentions of the characters. At least, there are, of course, dialogues, from which the already mentioned three were chosen.


[1] Haley, A.: Roots. Dell Publishing, New York 1974. p.726-727.

[2] Korte, B./ K. P. Müller/ J. Schmied: Einführung in die Anglistik. Verlag J. B. Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar 1997.

[3] Eicher, T./ V. Wiemann (Hrsg.): Arbeitsbuch: Literaturwissenschaft. UTB Paderborn/ München/ Wien/ Zürich 1997.

[4] Schutte, Jürgen: Einführung in die Literaturinterpretation. Verlag J. B. Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar, 3. Auflage 1993.

[5] "Haley, Alex,"Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[6] Korte, B./K. P. Müller/ J. Schmied: ibid., p. 81-83.

[7] Eicher, T./ V. Wiemann: ibid., p. 14.

[8] Eicher, T./ V. Wiemann: ibid., p. 81.

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