Making Roots: A Nation CaptivatedMain MenuRoots (1977) Video ClipsRoots (1977) Video Clips page 2Roots (1977) Video Clips page 3Speaking Roots: How Alex Haley's lectures built an audience for RootsThe First National Conversation on RaceRoots in CartoonsRoots & Hip HopScholars on RootsMatthew F. Delmont5676b5682f4c73618365582367c04a35162484d5
AB:Roots is one of my intellectual blind spots. We all have them, but this is a particularly big one for me. Roots is one of the defining works of this period, not only with the influence of the novel, but the influence, of course, of the miniseries in shaping the African American public image in that era. The fact that there are so many works since, both in literature but also in popular culture, that come back to that touchstone of Alex Haley’s book speaks to how enormous it is. One of the consequences of that enormity of Roots’ social and cultural impact is that it almost erases the text. The context becomes so big that it envelops the language of the literature itself. One is able to hold a reasonable and seemingly informed conversation about the novel without having actually read it. Maybe I’m just rationalizing, but I think that’s what happened to me.
I was born just before the book came out and was only a toddler by the time the miniseries first aired. It wasn’t an immediate part of my experience at the time of its release. I know so many folks who talk about sitting in front of the TV with their family every night for a week taking it all in. That never happened with me. I only experienced Roots in college—initially, through pop culture. The music that was in rotation in the early to mid 1990s, the period when I was in college, was things we now consider classics, like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. They had a song on there called “What?” Let me see if I can remember it:
“What’s Oran Juice and Doug E. Doug without Shaniqua? Not a not a not a, not a damn thing What’s Duke Ellington without that swing? What’s Alex Haley if it doesn’t have roots?”
When you hear lyrics like that it draws you into awareness. So much of the work of being a hip-hop head is about contexts and connections. It’s about chasing down allusions in the lyrics. It’s about decoding. Tribe took me in the direction of decoding that Duke Ellington swing line and the Alex Haley roots lyric.
Another album that was on heavy rotation around that same time was Common’s Resurrection and there’s a track on there…“Orange Pineapple Juice” he has line talking about: “stepping to me with them dirty feets, you’ll get defeated / Like Kunta Kinte.” That lyric made me chase it down, because I knew enough just from the layer of context that surrounds the text, both of the novel and of the film, who Kunta Kinte was, and the fact that he had his foot cut off as punishment. There’s obvious creative dissonance between the playfulness of the Common line and the weighty historical context of the violence of slavery. How do you resolve that tension? Common resolves it in the play of sound, the insouciance of his delivery. I resolved it by having to figure out what Roots was really about.
MD: Picking up on that, what are your thoughts on Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta”?
AB: That song is something because it speaks to the legacy of the literature, the relevance of that cultural referent—of that name, of that character. So many rap lyrics, when you go back to them after ten or twenty years, haven’t aged well. Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest referencing a 1990s sitcom like Martin? I’m not sure how that plays with kids who weren’t even born when the show went off the air. There’s an expiration date on some of the references. It’s a testament to what Alex Haley created that Kendrick can reference Kunta Kinte and reasonably expect that much of his audience will know what he’s talking about, or at the very least be curious enough to discover it. It’s also a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s roving intellect and his field of cultural reference.
MD: Can you speculate on why Roots the book isn’t taught much by academics?
AB: One of the reasons Roots is not often encountered in the classroom setting is the obvious one; it’s too damn long. Or I should say it’s so damn long, so as not to put a value judgment on it. It comes down to the practicality of teaching that book in a single semester without it subsuming the entire course. It’s the same challenge that I’m facing right now in editing the enhanced edition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for Random House. Hearing from high school teachers (and some college professors as well), they point out how difficult it is to teach Invisible Man in a single term—and it’s three hundred pages shorter than Roots! We English professors are generally loath to teach excerpts from works of literature, to upset the integrity of the aesthetic whole. So the question is do you excerpt from Roots or do you find some way of designing your course that allows students to read the entire book while somehow saving room for something else. That’s the first challenge.
I think there’s also—and I actually had to look this up to remind myself what it was all about—the matter of the controversy surrounding the book. Whenever anyone mentions the book to me it carries the hint of scandal, just in terms of the production of the book. The rumors of plagiarism that surrounded it, whether merited or not, remain. That might have some influence on the book’s place in the de facto canon of American literature.
And then there’s a third matter, in addition to the length and those rumors, and that just comes down to judgments of its aesthetic merit. I know enough of the secondary literature to know that there is no consensus that it's a classic novel. There is consensus that it’s an important novel, but on the level of craft there are some substantial critiques of the work, that might also make it slip off the syllabus.
MD: Is there anything else that you want to mention about Roots?
AB: On the personal side of things, my lack of familiarity with the miniseries in particular (and secondarily with the novel) exposed a point of difference between my identity as a biracial kid who had grown up in a white home, in a very white place like Salt Lake City, Utah, and the identity of my fellow black students in college, who had grown up in black homes, where Roots was something that was celebrated as a sources of pride, a touchstone of identity. For me, it never inhabited that space and I can distinctly recall as a college student, sorting out my racial identity, understanding that I could not expose that fact to my black classmates. When Will Smith did that Kunta Kinte joke on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” I had to play like I was in on the joke even though I wasn’t. I thought that being in on references like that was an important part of maintaining my black card.
In grad school after I had a more settled sense of self, I remember buying the book and having it on my bookshelf and still not reading it. Though I still hadn’t read it cover to cover, I thought that it was important nonetheless to have it on my bookshelf as a sign not only of identity but as a certain professional responsibility as an emerging scholar of African-American literature. It remains an important book in a personal sense because I can map onto it certain of my own experiences in understanding my blackness, but also in understanding my responsibilities as a scholar of African-American literature.