Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Roots of an American Family

"When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything."

Alex Haley
"Roots" (1976)

On this day in 1976, the publishing world was changed by the publication of a once–in–a–generation kind of book ...

Alex Haley's "Roots."

There had been other books that had come before that had been about the black experience in America. And there were certainly books that came along later that spoke of it in greater detail.

But "Roots" seemed to be unique. Never before (to my knowledge, at least) had a novel told the story of a young black man — captured in 18th–century Africa and sold into slavery in the North American colonies — and his descendants, both slave and free, and the generational struggle to find their way back to their point of origin.

As it turned out, the story wasn't unique. Someone had told it — or something remarkably similar — before Haley did. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

Ostensibly, it was the tale of Haley's own family, his attempt to put a little meat on the bare–bones stories that he said had been handed down in his family from one generation to the next. Initially, it was presented to the public as nonfiction, but, ultimately, Haley had to acknowledge that parts of the story were fiction — if not borrowed fiction.

Haley reportedly said, "Roots is not just a saga of my family. It is the symbolic saga of a people."

In that respect, I suppose, it was really a writer's story — and that is the kind of thing that the writer in me has never been able to resist.

I think, too, that one of the things about it that attracted me was the similarity — in concept if not in actual writing style — to the works of James Michener, a writer I greatly admired.

Michener wrote books that told the stories of places through the generations that lived there. He did it so well, in fact, that my father, who taught religion and philosophy on the college level when I was growing up, used a book Michener wrote on the Middle East ("The Source") as a textbook.

In "Roots," the locales changed — and so did the people, for that matter — but the roots that linked them to one another went back hundreds of years and extended for thousands of miles. Even when you read the more modern stories of his descendants, you were always aware of Kunta Kinte and the influence he continued to have through the oral legacy he handed down to his daughter and was kept alive by succeeding generations.

It is important to remember, after all, that "Roots" wasn't a literal history — even though it was initially promoted as nonfiction. That, at least, is what is on the old paperback copy on my bookshelf — and that edition was printed in 1977.

Haley said it was his family's oral history that inspired the book, and that was logical. Because of the circumstances behind the arrival of most black people in America, there is little documentation that can prove where they were born, when they left their homes or what became of them after that.

Slaves wouldn't have been treated as people. They would have been treated as cargo. If one got sick and died while the ship was crossing the Atlantic, the body would have been thrown overboard, but it is doubtful that much note would have been made of it in the ship's log.

Haley apparently learned all he could and filled in the gaps based largely on educated guesses. Given the circumstances, what else could be done?

I remember reading the book as a teenager, and I found it enthralling. I couldn't pinpoint the sections where Haley had made educated guesses or where he wrote of documented events and/or conversations. I found the reading experience to be smooth and logical, seamless.

But it may not have been as original as it seemed.

Haley (who would have turned 90 last week if he was still living) originally claimed that the inspiration for the book and his own research had been the stories he had been told as a child.

But genealogists challenged his research, and so did a man named Harold Courlander, who published a book in 1967 called "The African." It was the story of an African who was captured by slave traders and brought to America, where he tried to hold on to his African heritage as much as possible.

If you ever read "Roots," you will recognize the premise.

In 1978, Courlander filed suit against Haley, whose dizzyingly best–selling book, by that time, had been turned into an extremely successful TV miniseries as well. Courlander alleged that Haley could not have written "Roots" without the material that had been lifted from "The African."

The parties settled the case five weeks after it was brought to court. The settlement included a financial payment and a statement that read "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book."

I have never read "The African." Perhaps, in the interest of fairness, I should. But I can say, from having read "Roots," that Haley's work was rich and rewarding — whether it was mostly fact or mostly fiction.

Whatever the truth may be, it was worth reading in 1976. It is still worth reading today.