When it first came out, Alex Haley’s Roots was an Event. Event with a capital E. That goes for the miniseries, too. The novel spent forty-six weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, twenty-two of which were at number one. It inspired Black Americans to dive deep into their genealogies and celebrate Black history. And the timing of its publication, the nation’s Bicentennial, deserves a chef’s kiss. In this context, what was James Baldwin’s take on Haley’s cultural sensation? On the forty-fifth anniversary of the novel, we’re going back in time to Baldwin’s review. It appears in our forthcoming paperback edition of The Price of the Ticket*.
I cannot guess what Alex Haley’s countrymen will make of this birthday present to us during this election and Bicentennial year. One is tempted to say that it could scarcely have come at a more awkward time—what with the conventions, the exhibition of candidates, the dubious state of this particular and perhaps increasingly dubious union, and the American attempt, hopelessly and predictably schizophrenic, of preventing total disaster, for white people and for the West, in South Africa. There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it.
What most significantly fills this void, or threatens to, is the presence, in America, of the world’s first genuine black westerner. Created here in pain and darkness, remnant of slaughter, his hour may, at last, and in mysterious, unprecedented ways, have begun to strike. Certainly a bell is tolling now for all that the western peoples imagined would last forever. This electoral contest, taking place in an arena which is, presently, at the very center of the troubled world, seems to have invested the black vote with a power, and exhibits toward it a respect, which the black vote has never, in the memory of the living, had before. This has not happened before now for the very simple reason that, until now, Americans were able to prevent it from happening. They cannot prevent it now simply because—they cannot; it is not because the Americans have seen a great light. They need the moral authority of their former slaves, who are the only people in the world who know anything about them and who may be, indeed, the only people in the world who really care anything about them.
In any event, and no matter how diversely, and with what contradictions, the black vote is cast in the twenty-four years left in this century’s life, the impact of the visible, overt, black presence on the political machinery of this country alters, forever, the weight and the meaning of the black presence in the world. This means that the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility—which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new—and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which means that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now.
The world of Alex Haley’s book begins in Gambia West Africa in 1750 with the birth of one of his ancestors, Kunta Kinte, born of Omoro and Binta Kinte, of the Mandika tribe, and of the Muslim faith. In the recreation of this time and place, Haley succeeds beautifully where many have failed. He must have studied and sweated hard to achieve such ease and grace, for he would appear to have been born in his ancestral village and to be personally acquainted with everybody there. The public ceremonies of this people are revealed as a precise and coherent mirror of their private and yet connected imaginations. And these ceremonies, imaginations, however removed in time, are yet, for a black man anyway, naggingly familiar and present. I say, for a black man, but these ceremonies, these imaginations are really universal, finally inescapably as old and deep as the human race. The tragedy of the people doomed to think of themselves as white lies in their denial of these origins: they become incoherent because they can never stammer from whence they came.
There exists, in West African life, what I have heard described as the “eight day” ceremony. This ceremony takes place eight days after the birth of the child, during which time the father—alone—has to give his child a name. This name is both a gift and a challenge, for it is hoped that the child will make his own some of the positive qualities that the name implies (very like, if you will, and yet entirely unlike people naming their children after movie stars). On the eighth day, in the presence of the village, the child is named: “[Omoro] lifted up the infant and as all watched, whispered three times into his son’s ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child’s name, for Omoro’s people felt that each human being should be the first to know who he was.”
Now, nothing like this has ever happened to me, or to any American black I know, and, yet, something like this surely happened somehow, somewhere, for the tenacity with which a black man, or woman, can insist on not being called “out of their name” has something of this tone. And even way up here in the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali will not be the only one to respond to the moment that the father lifted his baby up with his face to the heavens, and said softly, “Behold—the only thing greater than yourself.”
We know that Kunta will be kidnapped, and brought to America, and yet, we have become so engrossed in his life in the village, and so fond of him, that the moment comes as a terrible shock. We, too, would like to kill his abductors. We are in his skin, and in his darkness, and, presently, are shackled with him, in his terror, rage, and pain, his stink and the stink of others, on the ship which brings him here. It can be said that we know the rest of the story—how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country. Alex Haley’s taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage, but this book is also an act of love, and it is this which makes it haunting.
The density of the African social setting eventually gives way to the shrill incoherence of the American one. Haley makes no comment on this contrast, there being indeed none to make, apart from that made by the remarkable people we meet on these shores, who, born here, are yet striving, as the song puts it, “to make it my home.”
The American setting is as familiar as the back of one’s hand. Yet, as Haley’s story unfolds, the landscape begins to be terrifying, unutterably strange and bleak, a cloud hanging over it day and night. Without ever seeming to, and with a compassion as haunting as the sorrow songs which helped produce him, Haley makes us aware of the disaster overtaking not the black nation, but the white one. One will not, for example, soon forget the fiddler, who had been told by his master—who was considered to be a “good” master—that he could buy his freedom, and how he worked for thirty years to buy it. But when he brought the money to his master, his master regretfully informed him that he could take the money only as a down payment on the fiddler’s freedom because the price of slaves had risen so high that he would be cheating himself if he allowed his slave to buy his freedom for so little. This is the same master who later sells Kunta’s daughter as punishment for her having aided a runaway slave, and who, as Kunta is beaten nearly unconscious, as the girl’s mother lies prostrate, and as the sheriff drags the girl away, walks, head downward, into his house. What, one can’t but wonder, can be waiting for him in that house. Perhaps, all hard things considered, it was wealthier in the slaves’ cabins. We had to face whatever was in there, and, while we might call each other nigger, we knew that a man was not a thing.
Roots is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one—the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.
* James Baldwin, “How One Black Man Came to Be an American: A Review of ‘Roots,’” New York Times, September 26, 1976.
About the Author
James Baldwin (1924–1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America’s foremost writers. His writing explores palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he lived periodically in exile in the south of France and in Turkey. He is the author of several novels and books of nonfiction, including Notes of a Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen, and of the poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues.