Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Common Heritage

by Alex Haley

The television movie of Roots came out when I was in third grade. I did not watch it, as my parents thought (probably correctly) I was too young for the brutality and violence. Nevertheless, I have always thought it would be an important book to read, and am glad that I finally got around to it. One caution: I read an edition of the book released in 2007 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first release. If you are going to read Roots, get an original edition. I do not know if the anniversary edition was made on the cheap or what, but it is riddled with grammatical errors (especially misplaced commas) that have nothing to do with dialect or changes in vernacular. It was horribly irritating and distracting, and a great disservice to the late Alex Haley and our common cultural heritage. I can't imagine that the original has so many misprints.

However, I am glad that I read Roots. It is a story that humanizes the evil of slavery and illustrates the spiritual bankruptcy that could lead to such a practice in the first place. What chilled me was how the "massas" would make these pronouncements that their slaves were "part of the family," yet at the same time had this "business is business" outlook that led them to sell other human beings and treat them like animals. I do not know how the white slave owners could live with themselves. Even more awful were the slave catchers who sailed to Africa and captured human cargo to be transported to the United States and other places. The story of Kunta Kinte's voyage from Africa to Annapolis, MD on several occasions almost made me physically ill.

What struck me while reading Roots was that in some ways the story of the slaves is all of our story. I would not presume to claim that my ancestors suffered like the African slaves did, but now, in retrospect, we see that our nation was largely built by slave labor. Even whites who were not slave owners had their lives changed by the practice and in some cases benefited economically from it. I doubt that anyone who has read Roots would tell today's African Americans to just "get over it." Atrocities were committed that affected families for generations. There can be no moving forward until sin is acknowledged, and Alex Haley is to be commended for sharing his family's history so we could all begin to consider our place in the larger history of our nation and of the larger world.

I do not know how we heal the communal wounds wrought by slavery and racism, but I do know that understanding the institution of slavery for the moral evil that it was (and still is) is a place to start. It is NOT OK to say "Lots of slaves were really happy" or "White and black children played together and were the best of friends." There can be no genuine relationship when one human being owns another. The relationship between Missy Anne and Kizzy in Roots painfully illustrates that truth. The more white people try to act like slavery was not so bad after all, the more we slow the reconciliation that can be brought about by confession, truth-telling, and forgiveness.

This is a difficult book to read (not literarily, but emotionally), but one that has a place in our cultural and social history. It still has much to teach us.

Reverent Reader


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