"Roots: Alex Haley's Scriptural Story"

Richard Newton

September 26

Richard Newton, a PhD candidate in Religion at CGU, held forth on the topic “Roots: Alex Haley’s Scriptural Story” in the first session of the ISS Brown Bag discussion series for fall 2013.  Richard drew on his dissertation project to locate Alex Haley’s Roots in a long line of storytellers, folk tales, and poetry of the Black Atlantic peoples. This trajectory of story-making and story-telling, Richard argues, frames Roots as scripture, and inversely, scripture as Roots.

In The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (2012) historian of American religions Steven Prothero compiled a list of texts that have proven effective in transforming America. His compilation included the Bible (King James), Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, and others that have been embraced as rightfully a part of the American canon. Richard Newton engaged Prothero’s list of so-called American scriptures, and the absence of Roots in this list, to consider the question not from the perspective of “Which texts?” but rather, “Who gets bound in and by whom?” Through Roots, Alex Haley attempted to write himself into the American canon.  Through it Haley read America: “Roots as Scripture, Scripture as Roots,” Newton proffers.

Alex Haley was situated within the elite of mid-twentieth century African American society. His grandfather was a business owner and his parents were educators. During the Great Migration his surrogate family included Joe Delaney, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, and C. Eric Lincoln. This period was the precursor to what would become Afrocentric discourse in America. Haley’s process was writing, journaling, story-telling. The first black writer for the Playboy Interviews, he wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Autobiography was perceived as a jeremiad of the plight of the American “black” while Haley’s autobiography as that of an American scribe writing about an American hero. Eventually, Haley distanced himself from the nationalist agenda of Malcolm X and sought the path to write Blacks into the American story.

Stories told by his grandmother and maternal aunts often invoked a family lineage which included great-grandfather “Chicken George,” and ancestor Kunta Kinte. For Haley the decisiveness of these stories emerged when he visited an exhibit of the Rosetta stone in England in 1966. Haley pondered over the consequences of the “black” laying claim to oral traditions as legitimate as the Bible. Slavery was neither the first nor last word—these people came from somewhere and were going somewhere. What if he could excavate knowledge of the Old World and lay claim to his Mandinka roots?

Haley, Newton explained, saw his story as answering the deepest questions of the human heart. It told an American story and expounded universal truths. Haley’s intent for Roots was as metaphor of how the “savage” became savant. It also served to facilitate the hard fought hyphenated identity, “African-American.” Newton continues, “Previously, Black Americans had been a people without roots.” After Roots, Blacks became African-American. Roots also transgressed traditional modes of reading. In spite of the charges by sections of the literati that Roots was a fraudulent and plagiarized fiction, Americans across racial boundaries embraced the story as inspirational.

What Haley interjected with Roots is that history need not have veracity to be true. Scripturalization is not so much about facts to be verified by historical criticism but more to do with story-making and how peoples configure or are configured in and by the stories.  According to Newton, Haley's intent is to uproot the reader, to root out the reader’s misconceptions, and root in how the storyteller and reader believe things should be. Roots is also an exemplar of “routing” or the rhizomatic interconnections between narrative chains that organize and articulate power. In this sense, Roots enables the critical reader to consider the comparative nuances, code words, and rhetoric that all peoples and communities employ to root their selves. 
To extend the discussion:

  • Prothero considered the American canon still open and personally felt that Roots should be included. How does Haley's scripturalizing through Roots provide new criteria by which to expand upon the American canon (incomplete without the narratives of the Black Atlantic)?
  • Why was Roots favored at a time when there were others writing the African-American story? Besides the rhetoric of a rooted and retrievable but highly contrived past, what contours of social formations does Roots bring to light especially in the post-civil rights era?
  • Newton specifically discusses the fortunate timing of the publication of Roots (i.e. 1976) amid the bicentennial celebration of the nation's founding. How closely does this narrative of an African-American family emancipated from its own history into the unbounded future parallel, or differ from, the narrative of the nation’s emancipation in 1776 from its own tortured history?

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