Roots traces the journey of seven generations of a family, from the birth of Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in the mid 1700s, through his capture and removal to the United States. Life in Juffure is vividly described, and we follow Kunta Kinte through his childhood, goat herding, manhood training, rites of passage and the development of his relationships with his father, brothers, friends and elders. And then it all stops.
The first half of the book details Kunta Kinte’s journey, through his torturous journey from the Gambia to America, from masser to masser, from Kunta Kinte to Toby, through his escape attempts, lashings, and gradual outward resignation. Having to hide being African; anything that might threaten sensibilities and voodoo. Having half his foot hacked off, and the tenderness with which he is treated by the doctor, who becomes his master. Who seems a good man, though.. white. It is hard to separate men from their place as white men, and all it entailed.
Partway through Kunta Kinte’s story I started reading reviews of the book, which I can never stop myself from doing, and found the usual ‘this book is so important’, ‘it really makes you think how beautiful the simplicity of life in Africa really is, maybe we should all take a leaf from their book’ type drivel. Somebody’s comments about how they felt cheated when they realised that the book is embellished and that it isn’t entirely true to Alex Haley’s own ancestry. Which seems to be a grievous missing of the point. How terrible, reader, that you feel cheated. What you are really being cheated of is an understanding and shallow empathy (for that’s all that we can really claim) for generations of people, who were wrenched forcibly from their lives only to be transplanted as sub-human work horses into somebody else’s.
These are the people who were cheated. People are still cheated, now.
As each protagonist becomes the focus of the story, the previous families are left behind, more quickly and severely as the book progresses. We are left not knowing what becomes of Kunta Kinte and his wife Belle, once their daughter Kizzy leaves with her new husband, and again and again, to the end. The book gathers pace and seems to rush through generations, for the second half of the book, though without sacrificing or compromising the connections with the characters. They are robust and weighty, still lingering in my head.
There are moments of abject despair, when freedom is promised and so close, only to be snapped away with little more than a cursory consideration. The lives these people live are inconceivable. It is as if they are on a leash loose enough to give the illusion of freedom, to enable more productivity and less ‘trouble’ to ‘deal with’, only to be yanked back when it appears too close and real. Families being ripped apart, being sold, being cheated and lied to. I read parts of this book with my heart in my mouth, it was so real as to detach me completely from my own life.
The landscape and the slave rows are etched in my mind, along with the road down to Chicken George and his fighting cocks. Sucking blood clots out of their wounds and sharpening their spurs. Chicken George, born of his mother’s rape by her new master, who served that master as a slave.
There are moments of tenderness between master and slave, at various points of the book, almost enough to muddy the relationship. Almost enough to feel thankful that, well, at least in such a sickening situation and irksome period of history, there were kind men. But it’s a trap. And it’s a trap that thankfully, this book does not let us fall into for longer than it takes for us to feel it snap back in our face. Just like it did, again and again. Because, hey, Just kidding! Remember your place.
The born sense of entitlement and superiority, which I wish was something that this book could bring to life, as an historical artefact to grapple with. Conversations that make my skin crawl. Parts of this book brought me to tears. Parts of it I read with dread, not wanting to even know what would come next, while knowing, already. The promises of freedom. What happens when freedom finally comes. Freedom in name, which is still subject to whims and norms.
This book will stay with me for a long time. I went to Zanzibar a few years ago, the last slave trading outpost to have existed, where slavery was only abolished in 1897.
I sat in the chamber where slaves were kept, the ceiling too low to enable an adult to stand, where excrement ran down the gulley between platforms. Where light could get in through
Where men were kept, those that survived, the strongest, sold for higher prices. The whipping post, formerly in the slave market, now the altar of a church.
I thought that slavery had been abolished officially in the nineteenth century. Apparently not.