U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alex Haley’s ROOTS and the History of the Seventies

Late last year, I asked what makes a book fall into obscurity. I had in mind F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West, which was, briefly, a sensation when it first appeared in 1946, but quickly became unknown, kept alive in a fairly obscure corner of public (and scholarly) memory largely by the fact that it was a major influence on Robert Pirsig, who mentions the book by name in his enormously popular philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). I was particularly interested in the fact that intellectual historians don’t much discuss Northrop and his book when we think about the mid-1940s (though I was delighted to discover in comments that some people are now thinking about Northrop some more).

I have just returned from spending four days working at the Alex Haley Papers at the University of Tennessee. Unlike F.S.C. Northrop, Alex Haley is a name that is almost certainly familiar to readers of this blog. My guess is that most of you could identify what are generally considered to be Haley’s two most significant works: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976). For years, The Autobiography was far and away the most accessible entrée into Malcolm’s thoughts. Not surprisingly it’s been written about a fair bit as a result. Interest in The Autobiography seemed to increase following the great success of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), which formally presented itself as an adaptation of Haley’s book. Later in the 1990s, Harold Bloom produced a book in his Bloom’s Reviews series on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011)—discusses The Autobiography‘s creation in great detail.

But the popular success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X pales in comparison to that enjoyed by Roots, Haley’s story of his family’s history starting with Kunta Kinte, a Mandingo from the village of Juffure in what is now the Gambia, who was kidnapped into slavery in 1767 and eventually became Haley’s great great great great great grandfather.

An enormous bestseller when it was first published in August 1976, Roots achieved a truly extraordinary level of cultural salience when ABC’s television adaption of the book aired on eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Everything about the show was unconventional: its focus on black characters, its involved and often brutal exploration of the institution of slavery, and its presentation on eight consecutive nights (rather than appearing once a week, as earlier miniseries like Rich Man, Poor Man had done). To nearly everyone’s surprise, including its network and its producers, Roots attracted enormous audiences that grew in size over the course of the week. By the time the show concluded on Sunday, January 30, the eight episodes of Roots were each among the thirteen most watched television shows of all time; the others on the list included three Super Bowls and, ironically, Gone With the Wind, whichNBC had shown in two parts in 1976 to record audiences. Gone With the Wind parts I and II were, following Roots, the second and third most watched shows of all time. The finale of Roots would edge out Scarlett and Rhett, becoming the single most watched tv broadcast in US history. An estimated 36,380,000 households and 100,000,000 people tuned in to Roots that Sunday evening, which represented a 51.1% rating and a 71% share. In other words, 51.1% of televisions – and 71% of those in use — were tuned to the final episode of Roots.[1]

Unsurprisingly given this enormous viewership, public attention on Roots did not end on January 30. The show was discussed in schools across the country.[2] Hundreds of colleges and universities built courses around the book and the miniseries.   Interest in genealogy exploded, especially, but not only, among African Americans (Haley himself had made a point of paying for someone to research Johnny Carson’s family, so that he could present a family tree to his host as a surprise when the author appeared on the Tonight Show). Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for the book later in 1977.

Today, Roots is still a familiar work, at least to Americans in their thirties or older. To those of us who were kids when it first aired, the miniseries’ images of slavery were formative. The book remains in print and seems to continue to be read (it has close to three hundred reviews on Amazon.com).

I mention all of this because, given its enormous popularity and cultural significance at the time, Roots has received surprisingly little scholarly attention.[3] Some of this inattention can be attributed to problematic aspects of the book itself. Almost from the moment it appeared in print, scholars began to question aspects of the story Roots tells. Initially, historians complained about some background details in the narrative: Virginia plantations growing cotton as their primary crop in the 1760s or characters talking about Lincoln’s beard in the 1850s (when the future President was clean shaven). But by 1977, questions had emerged about Haley’s genealogy itself, especially his connection to – and portrait of – the book’s most striking and significant character, Kunta Kinte. Haley was also accused of plagiarism by at least three other authors, one of whom – Harold Courlander – eventually settled with Haley for half a million dollars and the admission some some of passages in Roots had been pilfered from Courlander’s novel The African (though Haley admitted to far fewer than Courlander had claimed or, apparently, than may have been taken). Though Haley always referred to the book as something between fiction and non-fiction (he called it “faction,” a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction”), those questioning the veracity of Roots were often left unsatisfied by Haley’s admissions. And though the book was clearly not a work of history and did not even need to be a work of simple nonfiction, the essential truth of elements of the narrative, especially Haley’s relationship to Kunta Kinte, seemed very important both to the author and to critics who questioned it.[4]

But Roots‘s troubled literary status, while a serious issue, is certainly no good explanation for scholars not paying more attention to the book. We historians seem to have been particularly inattentive. As readers of this blog know, the last several years have produced a steady stream of books that engage the history of the Seventies in fascinating new ways that include serious considerations of both intellectual and cultural history (Roots is, of course, relevant to both). But these books are surprisingly silent about Roots. Roots goes unmentioned in Bruce Shulman’s The Seventies, Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade, Robert Self’s All in the Family, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, and Jim Livingston’s The World Turned Inside Out. An exception to this rule is Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture, which discusses Roots as the paradigmatic example of the way in which “African Americans took the language of race—with all its stigmas, its social disadvantages, its pains and injuries—and reshaped it as a point of pride” (116-7).

As my thinking about, and working on, Roots suggests, I’m convinced that we ought to be paying more attention to this book, its television adaptation, and the cultural phenomena that blossomed around them in 1976 and 1977. But I remain puzzled that more scholars have not already done so.


[1] In the decades since Roots, the list of most watched t.v. broadcasts in America has been entirely taken over by Super Bowls, which apparently now account for the top twenty-one most watched broadcasts of all time. But among non-Super Bowl broadcasts, the Roots finale is still in third place, behind the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas (1980).

[2] I was in 6th grade at Longfellow School in Berkeley at the time. The school organized a special assembly at which the show was discussed at some length.

[3] Some of the few articles devoted to Roots discuss the lack of scholarly attention the book has received at some length. See, for example, two pieces by David Chioni Moore, “Routes,” Transition, No. 64 (1994), pp. 4-21 and “Revisiting a Silenced Giant: Alex Haley’s Roots – A Bibliographic Essay, and a Research Report on the Haley Archives at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 22, no. 2 (1996), pp. 195-249.

[4] There is still no good biography of Haley. Haley had designated the singer and activist Anne Romaine, who had worked at the Alex Haley Museum in Henning, Tennessee, to be his official biographer in the early 1980s. But before she could complete her work, she died suddenly of a burst appendix in 1995, just three years after Haley himself passed away. For those interested in the controversies over Roots and Haley’s reactions to them Adam Henig’s short book / long essay Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey, which was published earlier this year as an Amazon e-book is a solid place to start.

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a wonderful post—mainly because, frankly, I’d never thought about the absence of “Roots” from those books before. I think this may raise a larger question, as well: how do we conceptualize African American history and culture in this era? Scholars such as Mark Anthony Neal, Nelson George, and Zandria Robinson have developed the idea of a “Post-Soul” Black American culture, or a culture shaped by the experiences of African Americans after the Civil Rights Movement ended. It’s something that’s still being developed as an idea, but for the purposes of this post, thinking about how such an idea fits into larger 1970s and 1980s narratives is important.

    I should probably get some sleep because I really want to think more about this question. Thanks for the post–something that we should certainly consider more of! (And it also begs the question: are there other big cultural or intellectual products/events those books are missing? And if so, why?)

    • Thanks, Robert. Any suggests for particular places to turn for interesting articulations of the “Post Soul” idea by those scholars?

      • Best places have to be Nelson George’s book “Post-Soul Nation”, which develops the idea; and Zandria Robinson’s “This Ain’t Chicago”, where she takes the idea and combines it with scholarship about place, identity, and the American South. For her, “Post-Soul” narratives take on a particularly intriguing meaning in a place like Memphis, a location that isn’t quite “Old” or “New” South in her estimation, but something stuck in between.

  2. It is strange that scholars have not paid more attention to Roots… I think that many who might be inclined struggle with the reservations that Herbert Gutman expressed about the story’s narrative as an allegory of individualism’s triumph over solidarism.

    It is probably worth thinking about the work of Gordon Parks (from which the visual language of Roots seems to have borrowed a great deal), including his masterpiece, Leadbelly (1975) which had been anticipated to have been a huge hit and then was more or less suppressed by Paramount’s new leadership when Gulf + Western took over. Left magazines like Cineaste reported on this at the time as a new doubling down on Hollywood racism (the crest of the blaxploitation wave, of course, was not helping matters much).

    A final note–it may also be useful to compare with the TV miniseries Holocaust (1978), the airing of which in Germany, according to Miriam Hansen’s Cinema and Experience, led to a major resurgence in interest in German Jewish history among Germans, including new scholarly interest in Germany’s radical and Yiddishist history–thus, according to Hansen, the Frankfurt School began to seem to many younger Germans, retrospectively, as “Jewish,” only after this particular TV event.

  3. Interesting…there was a bit of discussion around Roots when Django Unchained and then 12 Years a Slave came out, how both movies transcend Roots in different ways–one as a fantasy of vengeance, the other in its realism–as depictions of slavery. Ever the provocateur, Tarantino suggested Django was more “real” than Roots.

    In Playing the Race Card, Linda Williams has a chapter on the Roots phenomenon, where she traces the “loss of respect among leaders, intellectuals, and scholars, many of whom are resentful of a Reader’s Digest’s writer who became a folk hero on the basis of a lie” (237). Beyond the historical accuracy, the aesthetics of Roots, its melodramatic register–which Williams also writes about in connection to US sentimentalism around race, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the center–is an important element in the quick dismissal of the novel and the film.

    • Absolutely agree about the book’s “melodramatic register.”

      In fact, the comparison with Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was made by a number of commentators at the time, including Meg Greenfield, who defended Roots in Newsweek in February 1977 by arguing that it was like Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

      “There is an emotional truth . . . that seems to me to transcend the untruths of characterization of both Lucy and Kunta Kinte, their implausible idealized aspects. And in the current controversy over the fidelity of ‘Roots’ to history and nature, I think the book’s defenders ought to stipulate as much. ‘Roots’ is romantic and melodramatic, its characters are in many ways unconvincing and unreal. But none of that disturbs its larger human truth.”

      Of course, to many other critics, sentimentalism and melodrama were strikes against both books.

      (And whatever one thinks of sentimentalism and melodrama in discourses about slavery and race, scholars of the nineteenth century today generally pay much more attention to Stowe’s bestseller than we scholars of the late twentieth century have paid to Haley’s.)

  4. A recent take is Matthew Frye Jacobson’s _Roots Too_, that places the work in relationship to the ethnic revival of the 1970s, and is in line with Jacobson’s other work on race and ethnicity discourse.

  5. Just to clarify: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that historians ought to like Roots, but rather that we ought to study it….and incorporate it and the enormous response to it (the “Roots phenomenon,” as it was called almost immediately) into our general narratives about ’70s thought and culture.

  6. Following up on Kurt’s linking Roots to the miniseries Holocaust, part of the “Roots phenomenon” was surely the more general explosion of the miniseries in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps some of the lack of scholarly interest in Roots has to do with the way its genre tied it to The Thornbirds or Shogun or so on in the memories of scholars who lived through that period. The Linda Williams quote Khalil cites above seems to me to point, in its reference to Reader’s Digest, not so much in the direction of Harriet Beecher Stowe (though that was obviously there as well) but to James Michener and James Clavell and Herman Wouk.

    • Roots was not the first miniseries, or even the first successful one. Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), for example, had preceded it. But I’m sure the extraordinary popularity of Roots, though never matched by future miniseries, encouraged the genre. I do think that most of the later miniseries reproduced ABC’s innovation with Roots of running the episodes of the miniseries on consecutive nights rather than once a week for several weeks (as NBC had done with Rich Man, Poor Man). Miniseries became a way for networks to boost their ratings during sweeps weeks.

      Though Haley referred to Roots as “faction,” as I note above, he seemed to avoid the word “historical novel” (which would have linked him to the Micheners and Clavells). And even reviewers sympathetic to that genre often noted that Haley didn’t seem well versed in it.

      The Reader’s Digest connection is a very interesting one. Haley seemed to have constant money problems during the years in which he was writing Roots and he was eager to establish a relationship with some magazine that could provide him with additional funds for research (in addition to his publisher’s advance) in exchange for publishing a condensed version of the book, as The Saturday Evening Post had done with the Malcolm book. Though he and his agent considered turning to a number of other journals, including The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Life, Look, and The New Yorker eventually, they went with Reader’s Digest, for whom Haley had written in the past. The relationship worked out very well for both Haley and the magazine, which ended up bankrolling Haley’s globetrotting research trips.

      Each of the journals Haley had considered, of course, had a particular set of cultural meanings, Reader’s Digest being arguably the lowest middlebrow of them all. I think the phrase “Reader’s Digest author” has a whole series of connotations. One might also accurately refer to Haley as a “Playboy magazine author.” (that magazine had given Haley his first journalistic break when it asked him in the early ’60s to interview Miles Davis; he would go on to conduct a number of celebrity interviews for Playboy). But “Playboy magazine author” has an entirely different set of pejorative connotations from “Reader’s Digest author.” Bottom line: I find the cultural politics of Haley, his book, and its reception fascinating.

      • Ben,
        I wasn’t highlighting the Reader’s Digest/middlebrow angle or connecting Haley to Michener/Clavell to try to disparage him or suggest Haley and Roots anything other than fascinating. I take your point about the predecessors–although Rich Man, Poor Man and its predecessor, QBVII, were by Irwin Shaw and Leon Uris, respectively, authors I consider in the same vein as Michener/Clavell.

        I guess the impetus behind my point in connecting Haley to this genre (which I wouldn’t just call historical fiction, although I also certainly take your point that Haley didn’t see Roots as generically similar to Michener, et al.) is simply that *I* find that genre fascinating, and have found some of the work that has taken up these post-WWII sagas fascinating. I believe both Amy Kaplan and Melani McAlister have written about Uris’s Exodus and Christina Klein has some really excellent material on Michener in Cold War Orientalism. I’ve used a novel by Irving Wallace briefly in my dissertation and plan to write a little about Howard Fast. I think there’s a ton to be gleaned from these writers and their reception, and while I totally understand the important ways Haley diverged from them, my attempt to connect them was definitely meant as no slight.

      • Andy,

        I didn’t take you to be highlighting the Reader’s Digest / middlebrow angle. I did take Linda Williams in that quote to have done so (perhaps unfairly, as I’ve yet to read her chapter on Roots).

        I’m also fascinated by the Uris / Clavell / Mitchener genre. And I do think its relationship to Roots is interesting…in part because, so far, I’ve run across few, if any, critics who draw it. I certainly didn’t take your attempt to connect them as a slight. As I say above, Haley seemed extremely resistant to even classifying Roots as a historical novel, let alone as an example of this particular subgenre; my guess is that he might have seen the comparison as a slight. At any rate, I haven’t done much thinking at all about Shaw, Uris, Mitchener, Clavell and their ilk, though I think they definitely deserve more attention.

  7. I think this is a wonderful examination of the somewhat paradoxical relationship that Alex Haley and Roots has held with academia. I read in footnote four that no extensive biography (or perhaps one that rigorous in its research) has been produced. Definitely true, though I know of one forthcoming biography that promises to be definitive. The historian is Robert J. Norrell of the University of Tennessee. I remember him telling me about his biography of Haley during a dinner I had with him a few months back. Also, there is a forthcoming volume on Roots’ impact on American popular culture that features a collection of essays from both scholarly perspectives, and those from pop culture, genealogy, etc. I’m actually contributing a piece to it about Margaret Walker, one of the three individuals who leveled a lawsuit against him for plagiarism (she lost, which seems to be one reason why everyone seems to know quite a bit about Courlander, but nothing about her). I think the edited volume is slated for a 2015 release. In essence, I think this essay raises an apt point. It seems that most things written about Haley are politically charged, largely following Courlander’s condemnation of Haley, or following those who defend Roots’ cultural importance, regardless of its ethical shortcomings. Though, perhaps the tide might soon be shifting…

    • That’s all terrific to hear. I’ll look forward to both the edited volume and the biography. One thing I’d add: as much as Courlander’s (apparently quite accurate) plagiarism charges have hurt Roots’ academic reputation, I think the charges of incompetent research, that began with Mark Ottoway’s exposé on Haley’s Gambian sources, which was published in 1977 in the Times of London, and were deepened by later criticisms by genealogists of the quality of Haley’s research into his family’s early American generations, have been even more harmful to academic perceptions of the book.

      • Absolutely. Attempts to discredit Haley have been largely personal, in nature, and quite a few of them politically charged. While Academics are not free from such quibbling, I imagine they try to refrain from engaging in debates that appear to focus on judgements of an individual’s character (plagiarism accusations tend to bring the murkier components of debate to the forefront). I think it is interesting that Courlander seems to have largely overshadowed Ottoway as the one who “exposed” Roots. Courlander does remark that Roots largely enjoyed the protection of the media, and in certain cases even Courlander’s exposé is largely unknown to many in the general public (though I am cautious in generalizing), and even a few noteworthy academics I’ve spoken with are surprised that Haley was sued. I have to imagine that the rising popularity of scholarship that investigates the intersections between history and “collective memory” might find Roots a pretty ripe territory for investigation. I’m hoping to get an article out soon that looks into the responsibility of Roots in reviving the marital tradition of jumping the broom in African American weddings. I imagine if people begin seeing the scholarship they might follow suit. It certainly helps that Haley’s papers at the University of Tennesse are pretty extensive.

  8. I wonder if the lack of scholarship is a simple function of the discrediting of Haley’s story? Even if that’s true, the popularity of the book and TV series alone seem overripe for analysis. That popularity seems like it could be linked to the general increased attention to diversity (and eventually multiculturalism) in the 1970s. Then again, perhaps Roots benefited from increased scholarly attention to the institution of slavery in the 1970s:

    Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross (1975) and The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (1976), Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), John W. Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972), Ann Lane’s collection, The Debate Over Slavery, Stanley Elkins and His Critics (1971, over Elkin’s 1959 book). And, speaking of Elkins, Kenneth Stampp’s 1956 book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.

    In addition to those two factors (increased attention to slavery and diversity), there’s the history of “black family life” delivered in the Moynihan Report (1965). – TL

    • And that popularity, I think, needs to be examined in light of political and intellectual debates going on in the late 1970s about race in American society. I don’t know exactly what it all means yet–perhaps I’ll even take a crack at it down the road on the blog or elsewhere–but seeing all these books (including Roots) coming out about race while, at the same time, liberals and moderates within the Democratic Party are debating about the future of such things as Affirmative Action and fighting poverty strikes me as intriguing, at the least. I know that Jonathan Scott Holloway’s “Jim Crow Wisdom” also has a wonderful discussion about “Roots” and experiencing the miniseries in the 1970s.

      One more thing: reading some periodicals and journals from the Carter years, i.e. 1977-1981, I’m struck by the discussions revolving around the return of the Ku Klux Klan and, at least among many civil rights activists and liberals, a feeling that racial antagonism was on the rise during the era.

    • Reviews, especially but not exclusively those by scholars, of the book Roots in 1976 and ’77 frequently mentioned the recent historiography of slavery. Gutman’s The Black Family appeared at almost exactly the same time as Haley’s book. On a number of occasions, the two were the subject of joint reviews. Some of the more lukewarm reviews of Roots by scholars in general interest publications encouraged readers to read Gutman, Genovese, and (less frequently) Fogel and Engerman, if they liked Roots. I’ve even come across one review that recommended Stampp.

  9. I am embarrassed that I had forgotten a fascinating public history dimension, to this discussion–my in-laws live in Annapolis, so I have many times seen the Kunta Kinte statue by the harbor, without inquiring into its origins or exceptionality. Apparently, it is the only statue of its kind in the US. Would love to know more about how/when it was proposed, funded, created.

    http://www.kuntakinte.com/memorialvisit.html

  10. This has been a great discussion with knowledgeable contributions from everybody. Do any of the contributors think the scholarly neglect of Roots was due in part to scholarly neglect (until now) of many cultural events and objects of the 1970s itself? That is, if Roots had been written and a t.v. series created in, say, 1969, or 1984, would it have received the recognition academically it deserved? I believe Roots was a very powerful example of something that has survived and even intensified and increased to this day: the interest in ancestry and belonging more generally. So it had great influence outside the academy and in the general public.

    • That’s a good question.

      But first, I want to commend Dr. Alpers for a well written post about a “neglected” historical figure, Alex Haley. I, too, was shocked at how little had been published about one of the nation’s most popular writers of the latter half of the 20th century.

      Although it isn’t conclusive, the lack of scholarly material on Haley, I believe, has less to do with their not being interest in him (trust me, Haley is a fascinating figure to study), but, rather, limited access to his material. His papers are NOT available to the public (their under lock and key, thanks to the family estate), but Anne Romaine’s papers are available, as Alpers noted. And fortunately, she kept everything, including audio interviews, correspondence, legal documents, contracts, etc. It’s far from complete, though.
      Only Haley’s personal papers (hopefully) could answer all the questions we have about what went wrong when he tried to write Roots.

      Great discussion and if you’re interested in learning more about Haley and his downward spiral following the publication of Roots, check out my eBook (aptly titled), Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey (paperback available in August), goo.gl/m88h0x.

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