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Book: Identifying Roots

Chapter: "The Book that Changed America"

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.31158


The second chapter continues with an intellectual biography of Haley’s deliberate construction of an American scripture. The ensuing media spectacle insisted that subsequent tellings of American history would be incomplete without serious consideration of the African American experience. At the same time, Haley’s odyssey was marred by familial strain and challenges to his historiographic authority. In studying Haley, we observe that identity politics manifest around both ends (i.e. rootedness) and means (i.e. Roots).

Although Roots showcased familial knowledge as the sine qua non of his prodigious lineage, Haley went to great lengths to credential his story with institutional bona fides. He appealed to anthropologist Jan Vansina, US and British museums, the Gambian foreign ministry, and a supposed-Mandinka griot to justify his ancestral claim to a historicized Kunta Kinte, a young Mandinka man who was taken from Gambia to the New World in 1767. While Haley’s family saga professes the power of knowing one’s roots, it also concedes the need to prove one’s rootedness to others.

Haley set himself apart by reaching audiences unengaged by traditional barons of history. For blacks, Roots was a version of a myth that elders had long spoke of but could never prove. Haley touted the ability to verify it. For whites, it reconciled America’s love of freedom with the conspicuous presence of slavery’s progeny. The nation could rest assured—with Haley as proof—that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were available to people on both sides of the color line. The televised miniseries captivated blacks and whites with its rehearsal of star-spangled commonplaces in a new African American vernacular. The best-selling novel and record-breaking television program entered more homes than the literati had ever dreamed.

Haley’s rise to stardom was a calculated risk. The research trips and promotional lectures used to curry interest came at the expense of his own familial life. A costly divorce, alimony payments, and back taxes raised the stakes of his project. And after Roots became a multimedia phenomenon, professional historians, journalists, literary critics, and lawyers scrutinized Haley’s claims. The national hero fell into authorial obscurity.

Yet what differentiates scriptures from mere texts is that their audacious claims of identity are so mediated in the modes of cultural production (such as history and writing) that their importance no longer rests in the liminality of authorship. Roots was too entwined with America’s post-racial triumph to be untangled; his history, too pivotal to be troubled by facts. Roots became the inspiration for monuments across the United States. And Americans still conjure the works’ acclaimed essence through new means—such as Henry Louis Gates’ celebrity genealogy television show, Finding One’s Roots and the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots. Most ubiquitous is the widely-applied syllogism of “knowing one’s roots” in American speech. Haley’s work continues to live on in allusions acknowledged and unacknowledged alike.

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