Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Roots Readalong Post 1: Chapters 1-30.

Today is the first post for Christina's readalong of Roots by Alex Haley. A small group of us (5 total) are reading this during the month of February. It is a pretty big book; my edition is 899 pages. But, I was excited to read it.

I feel I should mention that this was a title originally in consideration for my 250 list. When I was compiling books to choose from, I had around 260. I wanted a more even number, so I eliminated enough to bring it down to 250 (in the future I'll read those other titles). This title was eliminated because of some controversy, and I think it is important to understand what that was.

When Roots was published, it was a bit of a juggernaut. It sold over a million copies in the first year, launched a TV mini-series, and inspired many to investigate their own roots. You have to admire and respect that kind of impact. When a book comes along and has the ability to inspire so much, you should take notice!

But then there is the controversy. Apparently Haley copied quite a few passages (Wikipedia tells me 81!) from another book (The African by Harold Courlander). It ended up going to trial, as obviously, you can't do that. That was why I originally took the book off my list. I figured if I had a lot of books on my list, fully and completely written by the authors whose names are on the covers, then I was good.

Anyway, I bring all this up so that I can remind myself to take this whole book with a grain of salt. Haley stated that the book was about his family and his roots, but there is some uncertainty about whether the book is really non-fiction or fiction. It falls somewhere in the middle, and with the shenanigans surrounding the authorship, you have to keep it all in perspective. I am choosing to remember that the ideas behind the book are more important than all of it.

After 30 chapters, I am hooked on this book. Haley can really write (unless its those parts he stole). The books begins by introducing us to Kunta Kinte, a very young boy born in Africa as the first son of Omoro and Binta. Most of these early chapters are spent introducing the reader to Kunta's life in his village of Juffure. There are amazing descriptions of everyday village life, interactions, and the beliefs of those in the village. We basically grow up with Kunta and go through his childhood in stages.

I was a bit fascinated by the rite and passages he must endure as he gets older. There are "kafos," or stages where young boys are placed depending on age. As they grow through their kafo to the next level, they take on bigger and better responsibilities. They also start to earn more respect as an individual in their society. Early on, as a member of the first kafo, Kunta is left unclothed. When he moves up to the second kafo, he earns clothing and the responsibility of watching his father's goats-protecting them from panthers and lions.

As Kunta grows older, he begins to realize more and more that aging brings with it new responsibilities. It is with age that he will gain wisdom and the right to marry, have children, and make decisions in Juffure.

The second chunk of what we read for this first section covers Kunta's transformation to manhood. With the other boys of the third kafo, he is taken away to be trained in the ways of men. They learn to hunt, fend for themselves, navigate by the stars, and how to act like men (basically that they are above children and women). This portion was completely fascinating. It was a completely different society for me to understand, and I loved how Haley described all of it. On one hand, I think a reader could be irritated by all that description, but it worked. I think that knowing the place Kunta came from on such an intimate level will add to the power of his eventual capture.

Once he and his fellows are deemed men, they return to the village and their new duties-to monitor things around the village for safety, and to watch over the women. This was an interesting transformation, especially in his relationship with his family. His mother is empty-nesting over losing her eldest son to being a man, but they eventually figure it out. I also liked the change in relationship with his younger brother, Lamin. Before leaving for manhood training, they were close. Since returning, Kunta must treat him a bit like a child since he is now a man. The two eventually go on a trip together to search for gold, which mends their relationship a bit.

The 30th chapter ended here, and I have a feeling we are closing in on the piece where Kunta is captured by slave-traders. I am sure that there will be a lot to discuss in that next section.

But I have to say here that I am having a hard time putting the book down. I want to know what happens to these people and even though I know that some nasty and seedy parts of human history will be coming up, I need to keep going. I have to commend Haley for his ability to draw me in this much. No wonder the book was a massive hit when it came out!

I am curious to see how he describes the parts coming up-the ship, being sold as a slave, etc. I have some familiarity with these kinds of things, having read a lot of narratives and textbooks in college (I also took an African-American Women's history class that gave me a new perspective). I am sure that it will be powerful and moving.

Has anyone seen the mini-series? Read the book? Your thoughts?


  1. I read this a few years ago and knew nothing about the controversy surrounding it. Though I don't know that it changes my opinion of it. I liked it. I found it readable, full of info, and just an overall great book.

    Stealing is not cool though.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the book as much as you have the beginning! :)

  2. I remember when the mini series came out on TV. It was such a big thing back then. I thought the series was really good; never read the book though. I think our country has really grown since then. Thank goodness.

  3. I love the sound of this. I've almost bought this book a few times. Must admit that when I saw you mention the readalong earlier I was sorely tempted. Look forward to seeing future updates.

  4. I think I watched the series when I was a kid, but can't remember anything about it. Except maybe a jail scene? Is there a jail scene? Who knows. Finally getting my post up today. :D

  5. I remember my mom watching the series. It was on too late for me to stay up. But she taped it and watched it back and I caught one scene that traumatized me so badly, I had nightmares.

    I'm glad that I'm finally reading the book but I'm not looking forward to that scene.

  6. Plagiarized Roots is no classic, sorry. There is worthier trash out there. Roots the mini-series is ok kitsch: watch for OJ Simpson as a village warrior.

  7. I had no idea about the controversy.

    I've seen the miniseries a few times -- when I student taught, that was the movie the kids watched whenever a sub came in and it's actually pretty decent.

    Like you, I quite like learning about Kunta's upbringing, although it makes me sad, the next part. But yes, I love reading about the kafos and Omaro and Lamin. And Nyo Boto. Sigh. The Africa bits are fantastic.

  8. I am in deep mourning about leaving Africa behind - I miss Kunta's family! They were so great to read about.

    I definitely plan on doing more research about the plagiarizing...maybe even reading The African to see how it compares.