Maybe I should be ashamed to say this…but I just finished watching Roots: The Saga of An American Family for the very first time. It was phenomenal! It had me thinking thoughts and feeling feelings foreign to me. Once I came down off the praise high of thanking God for giving us a royal foundation to build on, I had an urge to do a little Alex Haley research.
I knew the basics about him, that he’d written Roots and a couple of his other works. What I didn’t know was that he went from college dropout & Coast Guard toilets & pots scrubbing to writing love letters for crewmens’ girlfriends to USCG Chief Journalist (a position they created just for him), and on to ultimately become the best selling and one of the most noted African American nonfiction writers of our time.
Neither did I know his work on Roots was highly criticized, scrutinized, largely discredited and disregarded in various academic fields. (Give me a break, I was five years old when it first came out…:-)
I was stunned at first but then I came to the conclusion that we take ourselves too seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we often remove ourselves from the capacity to ever BE anything.
I believe the human experience is about discovering one’s purpose and passion, cultivating the courage to pursue it, and assuming the responsibility to aid other’s in that same pursuit. But when we begin to dissect thought provoking, self esteem enhancing, imagination inducing, courageous works of the mind and spirit like Alex Haley’s Roots, then what we’re really committed to is academics and semantics (religiosity), not the search of human fulfillment. I liken it to the saying “can’t see the forest for the trees.” We do have to the responsibility of taking our words and creative capacities seriously, but not to the point where we strangle the life giving power out of them, so focused on the jots and tittles.
Here are the noted cons…
Is it unfortunate that more than 81 passages of Alex Haley’s work found their origin in Harold Courlander’s The African? (Haley ultimately paid $650,000 in an out of court settlement fee to Courlander (1978)). Is it unfortunate that Alex Haley more than likely overlooked dates in the genealogical records that weren’t lining up with the oral traditions that’d survived in his family for years? (Toby was reportedly owned by Slave owner John Reynolds in 1792, years before Haley’s family history tells of Kunta Kinte’s Annapolis auction selling, and that he was also might have been dead years before his daughter, the lineage’s beloved “Kizzy” was born.) Is it unfortunate that Haley was probably led astray by his own need to “make” Kunta Kinte be larger than life, not just in his own family history, but also in the village of Juffure where Kinte been taken some 200 years prior by slave traders? ( Kebba Fofana, who cosigned the story of Kinte’s seizing, was apparently not a griot recognized by his village as a keeper of the traditional stories).
Yes! Yes to all of these but none of them make his work any less groundbreaking.
Had Alex Haley included a prologue saying something like ‘the characters in this book are real based on the oral history of my matrilineal family. Where discrepancies were found regarding dates, I’ve chosen to stay with the story as it has been shared with me down through 7 generations” might have kicked all the academic and genealogical disputations in the butt….
But for me, the omission doesn’t make the saga any less ‘true’. It happened. It all happened: from the seizing, to the transatlantic voyage & its conditions, to the deaths, revolts, murders, auctions, floggings, runaway attempts, rapes, marriages, selling offs and forced separations, the racial pejoratives, the war, the unfree freedom, the night terrors of Night Riders, all of it happened.
The lack of a telling statement explaining any discrepancies in Haley’s research to his family’s beloved oral history speaks more to the inner conditions of the man than it does the writer. These kinds of attributes often intermingle serving to halt the creative process more than taint it. Alex Haley was not an amateur journalist or writer. I believe the passion, nature, and sheer length of the story are proof that he never intended to impugn himself. The discrepancies do not strip the brilliance, audacity, and empowering essence about the spirit of and spirit in the African, African Americans, and Caucasians whose lives came together for the telling of this beautiful tale of love and triumph the story so illustratively depicts.
Film critic Eugenia Collier shares this:
I think that I would give almost anything I own to know who my African ancestors were . . . And here is a man who had the oral tradition, the financial resources, the contacts, and the determination to find out this very thing- and who blew it…. I believe that Haley sold out. Capitalized on his Negro-ness. I doubt that he was ever committed to much beyond his own ego. Otherwise he would never have permitted such a travesty on his/our history.
Here’s how I see it…
I don’t have to remind you that I’m not a noted film critic, genealogist, anthropologist, historian, griot or anybody else who might consider themselves ‘expert’ enough to condemn Alex Haley’s Roots, The Saga of an American Family. But I am black woman whose roots are grounded in the American experience and I JUST CAN’T FIND THE TRAVESTY!
In fact, I came away from the story/movie feeling very empowered and enriched. As one of many blacks who weren’t raised with the knowledge and constant reminder of “who/where I came from” I found that it not only stirred a sense of triumph, it solidified an understanding of what I believe God has been and is still longing to communicate to Believers since the pillars of our time were erected…
WHO WE ARE IN CHRIST…!!!
When we know and understand the concept & power of Royal Blood and that it’s not just “out there” but that it runs through our veins, it does make a difference in how we see ourselves. It changes the altitude of our perspective. It gives us a sense of ability and heightens our self worth and expectations of ourselves.
Kizzy said it best when telling her son Chicken George about her decision not to go away with and marry Sam. “People who don’t know where they come from have a different sense about where they’re going (my paraphrase).”
Kizzy having made her choice after seeing Sam in a compromising posture, decided there was no “two ways about it” she wouldn’t leave with him the following day. Sam saw fit to remind her she wasn’t better than him, though I don’t think Kizzy thought she was. It wasn’t about being better than him, it was about being ‘bigger’ than the situation she was about to compromise for. He told her had dreams for himself, “they’re just not as big as yours”….
And that’s when his words seared into me like a new testament to the power of our dreams and of our names. Kizzy’s name was a Mandika word meaning “stay put”. Her daddy, the Juffure fighting man, warrior Kunta Kinte, named her that to keep her from being separated from her mother and him. Kizzy was sold, however. At 16 she was sold as punishment for forging traveling papers for Noah, the plantation young blood she loved who could not subdue his taste for freedom.
But the name still remained in her service all her life. She did stay put. Stayed with the dream of freedom, “put” it in her son, and while Chicken George was gone, traded to an English master, she “put” it in his wife, and in their children. Had she gone with Sam she would’ve abandoned the dream in service to her flesh.
Here, I’m reminded of the importance of the things of the spirit. Keeping the dream, the heart’s desire is never easy. There is always opposition.
But the chosen generation and royal priesthood of Christ must remember to “kizzy”, to stay put…
For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come… ~Habakkuk 2:3
Isn’t it easy to watch the royal parades of a William and Kate, behold the privilege they enjoy, and think …if only? Watching the great Mandinka fighting man and warrior Kunta Kinte and the strength in his descendants helped me to see that it WAS SO for that lineage.
But reading the Bible, God’s promises to His people lets me know that it IS SO for me, for us, right now…
All praise be to God for the greatest indisputable story ever told…!!!