Marxist Bulletin No 5 Revised

Behind the “Roots” Craze



A Black Horatio Alger Story

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 147, 4 March 1977

One hundred thirty million viewers, courses in almost 300 colleges, 1,400,000 copies in print, crowed a recent Doubleday ad. They were talking, of course, about Roots. Twelve years ago, professional journalist Alex Haley set out to create a novel based on his research into the oral and written histories of his own family. By the time the saga was dramatized and transmitted to the largest television audience in U.S. history, it had become more than just the popularization of some interesting (if not wholly accurate) research. Roots had become something of a social phenomenon.

The furor over Roots was not just the usual public relations hoopla, though there is plenty of that (New York’s Mayor Beame and no less than twenty mayors in the South proclaimed “Roots Week” and the Texas legislature voted Haley an “honorary Texan”). Nor was it simply that Roots made effective use of the tested clichés of popular culture: a heady mixture of violence and suggested sex focused through the lens of the best known melodramatic techniques of soap opera. No, Roots struck a nerve.

The current intensity of the Roots craze will be short lived, but the television series and book have tapped an authentic, widespread and seething reservoir of social passion. The passion is in the first instance over the subject: the brutal history of chattel slavery in America, the resurrection of an ancient form of labor for the enrichment of the commercial capitalists and textile lords of Europe and the masters of New World plantations. There is no more explosive subject in the U.S. than this. Only Gone With the Wind with its “magnolia, moonlight and banjos” version of the antebellum South has come close to equaling the audience which sat riveted before TV sets to follow the generational saga of a black family from West Africa to Tennessee.

Unlike Gone With the Wind, Roots is sympathetic to the victims of slavery, and seeks to view through their eyes the anguish of human beings who have become property. Even the sentimentalized, one-dimensional characterizations of Roots challenge the racist ideology of slavery: that blacks are subhuman and therefore do not feel as deeply or with as much complexity as their white masters. By presenting slave characters of obvious human worth and dignity uprooted, degraded, punished beyond human endurance, Roots breaks with the debasing “Sambo” traditions of ignorant but happy “darkies” stumbling into paint buckets and singing in the rain.

It is this psychological identification with the slaves which in part explains the impact of Roots. For over 100 pages (or two and a half hours on screen) the audience has followed the story of the hero, Kunta Kinte, as he grew to young manhood in his idyllic African homeland. It would be an unusually callous viewer or reader who could thrust aside the vivid image of young Kinte amid the blood, vomit, feces of the sick, starving, terrified blacks who lie shackled on the slave ship. It is one thing to know that it was far from uncommon for a third of the kidnapped Africans to die on board the ships carrying them to captivity. It is another to see it happen.

“There is no arguing with pictures,” said Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is certainly the moral precursor of Roots. Published in 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin made an equally sensational entrance into public life. And like Roots, it was passionate in its partisanship of the slaves. It presented an upside-down moral universe in which the victims were infinitely good and the slaveholders the personification of evil. It was a weapon in the service of the abolitionist movement.

But that was 1851. The book’s political purpose was clear, its political imperatives unmistakable to its friends and foes. Moved by the personalized indictment of slavery as an institution, the reader was meant to work for its abolition. But what is the political point of Roots in 1977? Is it intended as a model for struggle against the continuing oppression of black people in the U.S.? No, Roots is a testament to liberal accommodationism and a declaration of personal escapism. It is a sentimental American success story and a celebration of the usefulness of the themes of black nationalism to the racist status quo.


The media responded to this media event with white guilt and “black pride,” while the fake-radicals scurried along behind. The SWP’s Militant, for instance, dubbed Roots “one big consciousness raiser” and thinks that perhaps its creators fooled themselves: “Certainly it wasn’t in the minds of [ABC’s] board of directors to encourage black pride or militancy. But I’m afraid that they may have succeeded in doing exactly that.” And the Militant recounts this anecdote to illustrate what the SWP means by “consciousness”:

“A young brother stopping in a coffee shop before work said, ‘I tell you one thing, those white folks better not mess with me today. I just might have to stomp one’.”

The Militant approvingly reports a racial incident at a mostly black high school in which black youth, chanting “Roots, Roots, Roots,” scuffled with whites. The SWP looks hopefully to Roots to “increase Black pride.”

But the clue to the political meaning of Roots is precisely the incorporation of themes generally associated with cultural nationalism into the liberal melting pot of cultural pluralism. That is what the fuss is all about. That is why Haley “dedicated Roots as a birthday offering to my country.”

The New York Times (February 2) showed that it understood the real political thrust of Roots better than the Militant when it tried to pass Roots off as perhaps “the most significant civil rights event since the Selma to-Montgomery march of 1965.” But Roots is not a “civil rights event.” It poses no perspective for social action of any sort. It prescribes the search for black “roots” as a substitute for struggle.

Roots flows directly from the failure of the liberal civil rights movement to provide anything more than the token gains which are coming under increasing attack under the pressure of a worsening economic situation. Now more than ever black people are being told that nothing can be done to alleviate their miserable oppression. Carter’s government is not even making promises about the amelioration of the actual conditions of ghetto life. Instead of jobs, housing and social services, the blacks are being offered “black pride.” This is Jimmy Carter’s formula for a successful election and a moral America, applied to blacks.

The “black pride” which is being cynically pushed as an ersatz program is a diversion from struggle. Marxists’ quarrel with the idea of “black pride” is not with the individual’s feelings of dignity and self-worth that come from understanding. The internalization by blacks as well as whites of the racist stereotypes is a most pernicious effect of racism; Marxists solidarize with every genuine effort to expose the racist ideology which presents oppression as “natural” and even just. But it is through participation and leadership in social struggle against that oppression--not in nostalgic individual escapism--that black people will find their source of pride.

Cultural Nationalism in the Service of Liberalism

Roots was hailed by black capitalist politician Barbara Jordan:

“Everything converged--the right time, the right story and the right form. The country, I feel, was ready for it. At some other time I don’t feel it would have had that kind of widespread acceptance and attention--specifically in the 60s. Then it might have spawned resentments and apprehensions the country couldn’t have taken. But with things quiet, and with race relations moving along at a rate that’s acceptable to most Americans, we were ready to take in the full story of who we are and how we got that way.”
--Time, 14 February

The contrast with the 1960’s--a period of significant black militancy--is important. For Jordan, the Roots phenomenon heralds not only a general acceptance of that liberal capitalism which she represents in Congress, but the opportunity for black liberalism and cultural nationalism to get back together on the terrain of demoralization.

In the 1960’s it was not so easy to see that liberal integrationists and black nationalists were offering only different varieties of bourgeois ideology. The widespread black nationalist mood of a decade ago was a response to the manifest failure of the liberal-pacifist civil rights movement. Many young blacks, recoiling from the blatant accommodationism of liberal gradualism, identified militancy with separatism and racial solidarity. Black nationalist and vicarious “back to Africa” sentiment was an illusory “solution” born of hopelessness in the face of the evident bankruptcy of integration struggles. But what was once a kind of political statement soon became simply a matter of style.

At the outset, mainstream liberals accepted the nationalists’ identification of dashikis and African names with ghetto revolts and quivered with apprehensions that blacks in their mass might break from the traditional liberal organizations. But the usual techniques--tokenistic handouts combined with a virtual cop manhunt against black militants like the Panthers--prevailed. Soon it was not unusual to see the head of a government poverty program dressed like an African, administering the crumbs of capitalism to the impoverished ghetto population.

Roots closes the book on the apparent war between black nationalism and liberalism. Cultural nationalism, in its most vicarious and backward-looking form, has been rendered not only manageable but fully respectable. Roots is the pop-culture counterpart of cultural nationalism’s smooth slide from radical rhetoric to tool of the poverty pimps and black elected officials.

The Romance of African Heritage

Roots treats the elements of “African identity” formerly associated with radical nationalism and black separatism as a sort of romantic genesis myth. The political and imaginative core of both the book and the TV series is the life and legacy of Kunta Kinte, the African warrior who represents resistance to slavery and whose memory sustains his descendants.

Kunta Kinte’s “black pride” is based on the sense of tribal identity and “manhood” instilled in the ordered and idyllic world of his native Africa. He refuses to abandon his heritage: the Mandinka language, the Muslim religion, the customs he learned in Africa. The American-born blacks who are his fellow slaves are rootless and broken; he despairs of teaching them “why he refused to surrender his name or his heritage.” When his daughter is born, he insists that she be given the Mandinka name Kizzy rather than “bear some toubob [white man’s] name, which would be nothing but the first step toward a lifetime of self-contempt.”

The proud African warrior refuses to accommodate. Confronted with the hideous reality of enslavement, he tries four times to escape. When he is recaptured the fourth time, the whites take horrible revenge by chopping off half his foot with an axe. Now crippled, he will never be able to escape. From this point on in Roots, resistance to the slave regime becomes symbolic rather than a matter of organized rebellion or even overt acts of individual resistance. It is the symbol of resistance, captured in a few African words and transmitted from generation to generation, which becomes the subject of Roots.

After the failure of his last attempt to escape, Kunta Kinte determines to pass on his heritage. He marries and has a child. He teaches her some Mandinka words and tells her stories of her ancestors. Kizzy in turn, as mother and grandmother, retells these bits and pieces of Africa to her family.

The TV script even invents some scenes to highlight the importance of the African tradition in resisting the degrading effects of slavery. A character who was not in the book, Kizzy’s suitor Sam, is refused because “Sam wasn’t like us. Nobody ever told him where he come from. So he didn’t have a dream of where he ought to be goin’.”

Haley has become the target of several black historians (notably Willie Lee Rose, New York Review of Books, 11 November 1976) for inaccuracies and anachronisms in his portrayal of the Mandinka village of Juffure (as well as of the antebellum South). But it is the ideal which is intended--a Garden of Eden world ritualized around the cult of manhood. Roots is not even myth, but romance: a deliberate idealization of the past to escape an unbearable present.

The Legacy of Slavery

There is some truth in the image of a rebellious African taken into slavery. Compared to blacks born into slavery in the U.S., those slaves transported directly from Africa prior to 1808 (when the slave traffic to the U.S. was officially closed) were quite “troublesome.” They spearheaded the earliest slave revolts; the significant uprisings of the nineteenth century (led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner) were organized by freedmen or skilled craftsmen whose daily work brought them into contact with free laborers. Haley’s acceptance of the centrality of the African heritage engages the old debate over the effects of slavery on the consciousness of blacks.

The relative absence of organized large-scale slave revolts in the U.S.--compared for instance with the massive 1791 rebellion which overthrew slavery in Haiti--precipitated a heated controversy among radical academics in the 1960’s. The CP’s Herbert Aptheker sought--mainly by redefining the category of “revolt”--to demonstrate a presumably “hidden history” of black resistance. Aptheker’s antagonists, spearheaded by Eugene Genovese, advanced a plethora of factors to account for American slaves’ relative quiescence--among them the overwhelming military superiority of the white American state power, the small size of most American plantations, the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Africans who became the slave population and their systematic deculturalization, etc.

Underlying the 1960’s heat over a historical dispute was the closer-to-home ideological battle over resistance vs. accommodation, posed in terms of separatism vs. integration. The black nationalists saw the pacifist liberalism they hated as a carryover from slavery. They argued that it was in giving up their African heritage and aspiring to equality in white-ruled America that blacks had gone wrong. Dumping their “slave names,” they accused the black liberals of accommodation to white “Eurocentric” culture and demanded “black history.” This debate ended as liberals and ex-militants clasped hands over the academic tokenism of Black Studies departments.

The radical nationalists who rejected “Uncle Tom” and proclaimed an unbroken tradition of black resistance reaching back to slave times were making a fundamental mistake. The line between accommodation and survival in a militarily hopeless situation is not so easy to draw. If, faced by overwhelming odds against them, most blacks could express their seething hatred of slavery only by sabotage, malingering, petty theft, attempted escape, etc., this is a historical fact of previous centuries and not a prescription for the future.

Roots does more than acknowledge the blacks’ need to accommodate to survive. It embraces it. Following the slave revolt led by Nat Turner, Kunta Kinte’s grandson “Chicken George” and his master “both hoped fervently that there would be no more black uprisings.” But the real highpoint of black resistance to slavery is the one which is left out of Roots almost entirely: the civil war, in which 200,000 blacks joined the Union army, despite its vicious racism, and took up arms against the slave South.

An All-American Success Story

Roots incorporates cultural nationalism into the “American dream.” In the old Horatio Alger stories, even the poorest among the downtrodden can become rich through the work ethic and the beneficent workings of divine providence and capitalism. It is an old theme: the good are rewarded and the evil punished. In Alger stories the moral differential can be easily measured by an accountant. The moral implication of a fair market is clear enough: if you work hard, keep your wits about you and are decent you will succeed. So people who have prospered are obviously good folks, and there are some obvious implications about the poor.

Roots is a Horatio Alger myth on two levels. First, there is the token--Alex Haley, the former marine cook and struggling writer who is making a fortune. But the example of an individual black who goes from rags to riches is not likely to have much social impact among the black masses of Harlem and Watts. The myth of upward mobility has little credibility among the black masses, and Haley’s life story is an obvious exception to the general rule.

But as a family saga, Roots can make a similar pitch and get away with it. Haley wants Roots to become “all of our stories.” He himself says he identifies most with “Chicken George”--after his grandfather, Kunta Kinte, the most important character in the book. “Chicken George” becomes a trainer of gamecocks, a sporting man and entrepreneur. He conceives of the project of accumulating--through the crumbs which trickle down to him from his master’s high-stakes cockfighting ventures--enough money to buy himself and his family out of slavery.

Still a slave, “Chicken George” is sent to England to train birds for a lord. When he arrives back at his own plantation with money in his pocket, he finds that his family has been sold. His son Tom takes over as the patriarch, struggling to reunite the family. Tom manages to get his master to apprentice him to a blacksmith and uses the proceeds from his tireless skilled work to reunite the partially scattered family.

After emancipation, “Chicken George” and Tom move the family to Tennessee. When Tom finds that he will not be permitted to own a shop, he sets up as a traveling blacksmith and he prospers. His daughter marries a hard-working manager of a lumber company owned by an incompetent drunk. His probity and sobriety are rewarded; he eventually takes over the company. The final link in the chain is this man’s grandson, Alex Haley.

The route to success in Roots is entirely personal and familial. This presumably inspirational saga is an almost perfect contrast to the real life of a real black hero, Frederick Douglass, as he describes it in his autobiography. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the story of the development of social consciousness. Douglass learned to read by applying a simple rule of survival: the slave and the master had opposite social interests. So when Douglass heard his master give instructions that under no conditions must a slave be taught to read, Douglass set out to learn to read.

And when he learned to read, Douglass began to teach other slaves to read. He was committed not only to free himself, but to a social movement against the system of slavery. After escaping to the North, Douglass became a leader of the abolition movement. Rather than seeking to recover a lost African heritage, he learned to absorb the master’s culture in order to change society. For him, historical identity meant not an inquiry into his genealogical antecedents but social struggle in the present and for the future.

It is ironic that Haley’s real literary achievement is not the maudlin if sometimes powerful Roots but his collaboration on the gripping and socially important Autobiography of Malcolm X--a work which, like that of Frederick Douglass, starts from personal experience as the raw material from which to generalize a social vision.

Malcolm X was a contradictory figure who personified the break with Martin Luther King-style liberalism, arguing for an African-separatist ideology and black self-defense. When he was gunned down on 20 February 1965 as he addressed a public meeting, he had broken from the religious obscurantism of the Black Muslims and was moving away from black separatist ideology. Had he lived, Malcolm X might have had enormous impact on the development of political consciousness among blacks. But for Haley, “Malcolm died tragically, but perhaps if there was a right time to go, for him, that was probably it” (Penthouse, December 1976). Haley’s spitting on the example of Malcolm X is of a piece with Roots.

Rootlessness and Roots

For all its promises, Roots provides no real historic identification for American blacks. White and black liberals are saying to ghetto blacks that the rediscovery of an African heritage can make them “real Americans.” The trouble, they presumably believe, is that blacks have had no Mayflower. But a “Mayflower tradition” is of use perhaps only to that tiny minority of blacks who, like Alex Haley, “make it” as individuals.

This is why the Roots-fed interest in genealogy is primarily a fad. It is no more helpful in the fight against racial oppression than the dashikis were in the 1960’s. Lineage is important in feudal societies in defining an individual’s position in the society. For the owners of private property in bourgeois society, genealogy is a matter of some legal as well as ideological importance. But for the virtually propertyless black masses, it has no point and is certainly not a form of struggle against the white-dominated status quo. At best it is a hobby, bearing approximately the same relation to the fight for black freedom as stamp collecting does to internationalism.

The longing for an African heritage in Roots is artificial but the nostalgia for rural Tennessee rings truer. Near the end of the book, “Chicken George” tells his family:

“de lan’ where we goin’ so black an’ rich, you plant a pig’s tail an’ a hog’ll grow … you can’t hardly sleep nights for de watermelons grown’ so fas’ dey cracks open like firecrackers! I’m tellin’ you it’s possums layin’ under ‘simmon trees too fat to move, wid de ’simmon sugar drippin’ down on ‘em thick as ‘lasses...!”

More than any other group in the U.S. the black masses have indeed been uprooted--not only from Africa, but from their roots in the rural South. But this same rootlessness has made them potentially a vanguard element of the future American socialist revolution. Twice severed from his roots, the urban black worker is a motor force of an integrated proletarian revolution.

Certainly the Roots phenomenon shows a longing for historic identification. But that identification cannot center on nostalgia for the past. It may well be that for the Haley family, the mythologized memory of their African warrior ancestor and a few words of his language were a consolation in time of deep trouble and an effective source of “black pride” as a survival mechanism against the internalization of racist ideology. But what was perhaps a source of resistance in 1850 becomes a buttress for reaction in 1977. With the economic integration of the blacks into capitalism’s factories, their future is bound up decisively with their white class brothers’. U.S. blacks, more than any other group in this country, have truly “nothing to lose but their chains.”


Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X

Developing a Social Conscience

I began, with the commencement of the year, to prepare myself for a final struggle, which should decide my fate one way or the other. My tendency was upward. I was fast approaching manhood, and year after year had passed, and I was still a slave. These thoughts roused me--I must do something. I therefore resolved that 1835 should not pass without witnessing an attempt, on my part, to secure my liberty. But I was not willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow-slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination. I therefore, though with great prudence, commenced early to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition, and to imbue their minds with thoughts of freedom. I bent myself to devising ways and means for our escape, and meanwhile strove, on all fitting occasions, to impress them with the gross fraud and inhumanity of slavery. I went first to Henry, next to John, then to the others. I found, in them all, warm hearts and noble spirits. They were ready to hear, and ready to act when a feasible plan should be proposed. This was what I wanted. I talked to them of our want of manhood, if we submitted to our enslavement without at least one noble effort to be free. We met often, and consulted frequently, and told our hopes and fears, recounted the difficulties, real and imagined, which we should be called on to meet. At times we were almost disposed to give up, and try to content ourselves with our wretched lot; at others, we were firm and unbending in our determination to go....

We now began to feel a degree of safety, and to prepare ourselves for the duties and responsibilities of a life of freedom. On the morning after our arrival at New Bedford, while at the breakfast-table, the question arose as to what name I should be called by. The name given me by my mother was, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” I, however, had dispensed with the two middle names long before I left Maryland so that I was generally known by the name of “Frederick Bailey.” I started from Baltimore bearing the name of “Stanley.” When 1 got to New York, 1 again changed my name to “Frederick Johnson,” and thought that would be the last change. But when I got to New Bedford, I found it necessary again to change my name. The reason of this necessity was, that there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, it was already quite difficult to distinguish between them. I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of “Frederick.” I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the “Lady of the Lake,” and at once suggested that my name be “Douglass.” From that time until now I have been called “Frederick Douglass”; and as I am more widely known by that name than by either of the others, I shall continue to use it as my own.
--Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass [autobiographical]

I think that an objective reader may see how in the society to which I was exposed as a black youth here in America, for me to wind up in a prison was really just about inevitable. It happens to so many thousands of black youth....

I think, I hope, that the objective reader, in following my life--the life of only one ghetto-created Negro--may gain a better picture and understanding than he has previously had of the black ghettoes which are shaping the lives and the thinking of almost all of the 22 million Negroes who live in America.
--The Autobiography of Malcolm X
--Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 148, 11 March 1977


“Roots”: Romanticizing an Individual Heritage

Then, under the moon and the stars, Kunta raised the baby upward, turning the blanketed bundle in his hands so that the baby’s right ear touched against his lips. And then slowly and distinctly, in Mandinka, he whispered three times into the tiny ear, “Your name is Kizzy. Your name is Kizzy. Your name is Kizzy.” It was done, as it had been done with all of the Kinte ancestors, as it had been done with himself, as it would have been done with this infant had she been born in her ancestral homeland. She had become the first person to know who she was....

Even beyond what she had hoped, George seemed to be building up his own image of his gran’ pappy, and--to the limits of her endurance--Kizzy tried to help it along with tales from her own rich store of memories. “Boy, I wish you could o’heared ‘im singin’ some o’dem African songs to me when we be ridin’ in de masse’s buggy, an’ I was a l’il gal, right roun’ de age you is now.”… She said to George, “Yo’ gran’ pappy like to tell me things in de African tongue. Like he call a fiddle a ko, or he call a river Kamby Bolongo, whole lotsa different, funny-soundin’ words like dat.” She thought how much it would please her pappy, wherever he was, for his grandson also to know the African words.
--Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family



Posted: 26 March 2006