A Black Writer's View of Roots
In a newspaper interview Alex Haley recalls a moving incident at an autograph session in a Harlem church. An elderly woman was purchasing several copies of Roots but obviously needed the money to buy shoes. When Haley glanced at her shoes, she looked him in the eye and said: "Son, don't mind. I'm not just buying books. I'm buying our history."
Alex Haley is a historical novelist, a popularizer of history. He may qualify as a genealogist, perhaps, but he is not a social and political historian—no more than is James Michener whose historical sagas, Hawaii, The Source, and Centennial have all been best sellers. And I think Haley was less than responsible when he failed to point this out to the woman. He owed her a disclaimer: that Roots is not her personal history, but the history of his ancestors seen through his eyes. He should have told her that if she wants her history, she'll have to write it herself. And if she wants a history of Negroes she should read John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom, or Herbert G. Gutman's The Negro Family in Slavery and Freedom, or Eugene D. Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll, or Ira Berlin's Slaves Without Masters, and many more.
But no, Mr. Haley goes from one media interview and college lecture to another leaving the impression that he has given Negroes a great gift of history and racial identity. Americans of all races seem to have gulped down the dramatization of the novel as history as carelessly as they take "Final Days" as the factual account of the Watergate crisis, or "The Adams Chronicles" as the history of the young American nation. But the worst case of the Roots fever are among those Negroes who have accepted the collective racial identity presented in Roots as a substitute for their own self-identity and those whites who feel compelled to apologize for the sins of their ancestors.
A black psychologist appearing on a panel analyzing Roots said: "Roots gave blacks roots from which to make a personal evaluation [of their identity]." To which I say: not this black. Eric Severeid said the audience for Roots had been waiting for it for 300 years. To which I say: not this black. Haley has himself called the "rootlessness" of Americans an "affliction," and his philosophy is expressed with conviction by the character Kizzy when she tells her son, Chicken George, why she would not marry the slave Sam: "Sam ain't like us. Nobody ever told him where he come from so he didn't have no idea where he ought to be going." To which I say: not so for this rootless black.
Apparently Alex Haley has a compelling need to base his self-identity on his cultural and racial ancestors. Thus, for this and other reasons, he has written an account of his family's history and of the social times during which they lived. It is Alex Haley's story but it is not my story. Mine is the story of a singular, autonomous, unattached individual and so far it covers only 35 years. It is not my father's story which extends back over 60 years; it is not my mother's story which ended when I was nine; it isn't even my sister's story who is only three years younger than me. I share certain aspects of my story with members of my family, peers and others but its sum total belongs to me alone.
Unlike Alex Haley and other nationally- racially- or ethnically-determined people, I stand not at the end of a tradition but in the midst of an exciting life-process that is my own. The social history of my ancestors does not flow through my psyche as a domesticated animal carrying the instincts of its ancestors in its genes. I am a person and persons are self-determined individuals—even when they deny the fact and behave contrary to it. I am not some sociological construct that has stepped out of the last chapter of Alex Haley's novel. I am me—myself—and I. There has been no one like me in existence before and there will be no one like me in the future. I am the sculptor of my soul's spirit; I am the carpenter of my self-esteem; and that is my pride.
I make this statement not to deny my racial affiliation or my cultural history of the racial group of which I am a member, but to assert my own identity and individuality. I have been told that my ancestors were African, Indian, Irish and English. It's an interesting bit of information about my biological heritage but it says nothing about who I am. It would be interesting to know the life and times of those people but knowing about them has no bearing on my life and times. Knowing whether a great grandmother was raped or a great grandfather lynched isn't going to help me achieve harmonious relations with the descendants of my ancestors' persecutors, if, indeed, there were any persecutors.
I accept that wretched chapter of American history smeared, most likely, by the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors, but it cannot teach me how to deal with the present. I am not a slave, but a free individual. My white friends and associates are not my oppressors but also free and independent individuals. When we face each other we do not confront the souls of our ancestors. When we share our lives and times we do not consult the life and times of our forefathers. We are ourselves and it is ourselves that we present to one another—the selves each of us has created. Our love and comradeship are not a contrived vignette of "race relations" in microcosm. We are not involved in some sociological game of racial appreciation. We are involved in friendship—that precious commodity of interpersonal relations that can be achieved only between individuals of like minds, values and purposes.
I once met a Polish-American possessing a hyphenated psyche whose identity was so thoroughly shaped by his Polish affiliation that I simply could not communicate with him. He was not himself but a Pole and saw his group in terms of "us" versus the rest of the world. He spoke of how he and I had something in common because we are minorities. But we had nothing in common and what separated us was not our ethnic categories, but the significance each of us places on those categories. He lives his life as a member of a minority. I live my life as a minority of one. I am always myself, period.
Unlike this Pole enslaved by his "Polishness," and unlike Alex Haley entranced by his "blackness," I am determined by my free will—my knowledge, my values, my perception of reality and how I deal with it. And this is as it should be. Entailed in man's identity is the natural imperative that he shape his identity. And when he doesn't he goes against his nature. Slavery is immoral because it is unnatural; and collective identity is irrational because it is unnatural. Both defile man's natural identity and negate the laws of reality. The only answer to slavery and discrimination is individualism, not Kunta Kinte's tribalism, not Alex Haley's familism.
In the end, it was not the tribalism of Kunta Kinte that enabled Haley's family to triumph over slavery but the ingenuity, skill, tenacity, courage and sense of humor of Chicken George—an individual. And this is how it has always been. Individuals have kept man civilized—not races, tribes, nations, or families. But in their rush to stalk the graveyards of their genealogical past, Americans take flight from the present and from themselves, abandoning this hard-won moment in modern times to the primitivism of whatever ethnic gang manages to impose its will on the rest of us. It happens today when individuals are sacrificed to quotas and thus shaming everything the slaves—and white abolitionists—struggled so hard for.
Anne Wortham is a free lance writer and research librarian in the newspaper syndication industry. This is an expanded version of an article distributed by TV Key, Inc., and is published here with their permission.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Black Writer's View of Roots".