View Chapters

Book: Identifying Roots

Chapter: "The Saga of an American Family"

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.31159


This third chapter presents a Close Reading of Roots: the Saga of an American Family. Rather that passing itself off as a window into “the historical Haley,” my analysis approaches Haley as a master of historiography who describes—and in turn, prescribes— an understanding of how identity works in America. I use grounded theory to parse his inflections of rootedness as a process of uproot, routing, and taking root in a social context.

I begin by locating Haley’s use of the root metaphor within a complex history of African American cultural expression. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frederick Douglass, among others, reference roots as symbols of agency against the involuntary presence of blacks in America. Historical work by Yvonne Chrieau underscores that roots provided the New World material for Old World conjure traditions to exist in the diaspora. But the valence of genealogy is not nearly as “natural” or “native” as African Americans presume. A discussion of rootedness must also take into account the Western fetish of origination as presented in mathematics and philosophy. Haley’s post hoc reflections presuppose recognition of a vast semantic range. Even the must reductive ludics are the product of creolization.

Haley uses frame story to present the roots discourse as a solution to America’s racial problems. He acknowledges that in the year of the novel’s publication, 1976, de jure integration had yet to take place. This provides him a fortuitous opportunity to present himself as a consummate American who managed to realize the nation’s promise. In the preface to his novel, he offers his Roots as a “birthday gift” to the bicentennial nation. Thinking with Jacques Derrida, I characterize this gift as “an oblique offering” that beckons the reader to open the text to entertain Haley’s charismatic gesture and in turn, recognize his giftedness. The novel concludes with Haley’s well-known success story and bids the reader in an invitation to partake in its cause, Roots.

In an outline of the novel, I show how Haley narrates the power of rootedness in two ways. The first is a nominal rootedness—the advantage of having identified origins. The second is the verbal nature of rootedness. Haley notes that in the United States, identifying one’s origins becomes a site where a group can take advantage or uproot another. This requires the uprooted to route for an identity that will work in this disadvantageous context. Complacency in that context appears as having managed to take root.

Haley leads readers on two cycles of rootedness. The first half of the book follows Kunta Kinte’s uproot from Africa, his futile routing through America as a defeated runaway, and his taking root as a New World patriarch who passes on African traditions to his daughter, Kizzy. The second half of the novel goes through cycle with each verbal inflection personified by a descendant of Kunta Kinte. Kizzy’s uprooted from her nuclear family and raped by her new slave master. Their son, George routes through a biracial struggle wherein trusting his father leads to the rent of his own family. But George’s son, Tom helps the family take root in the old ways passed on by Kizzy and Kunta—and eventually in the Reconstruction South.

The Close Reading evinces two arguments about the way identity works in the United States. The first is that it qualifies the argument of cultural studies scholars who choose to describe identity as “routing” over and against “roots.” Routing is a helpful reminder that identity is not static. But the grammar of rooting calls due attention to the power dynamics of these operational acts. Secondly, Haley’s own identity claims are a meta-reflection on historiography as “scripture.” In my analysis, I show that not only does Haley offer an American scripture in Roots, but that the narrative turns (i.e. uprooting, routing, taking root) happen around the way scriptures manifest in the novel’s Translatlantic scenes—be it family history, conjure roots, the Qur’an, the Bible, newspapers, and other indices of power.

Chapter Contributors