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Alex Haley's 'Roots,' revisited

I am currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots.
 
It is a classic of literature, for many reasons. It is both terrifying and inspiring. It provides a connection to the past that few books have managed.
 
But – from a genealogist’s perspective – does Roots rise to the standards?
 
Alex Haley researched his family history for years prior to the writing of Roots, employing the services of professional genealogists for much of it. The lives in the book are the results of research and family traditions.
 
But Roots is a work of historical fiction. Haley imagined the day-to-day lives of his ancestors. He created events and conversations between his ancestors, interactions with the world-at-large. These were not “true-life” events. By the standards of today’s academic genealogy, Roots would fail miserably. And yet it does teach a valuable lesson even to those of us who practice genealogy under these new standards.
 
Roots explores the world around Haley’s ancestors in a way that many researchers neglect to do. He brought their world to life.
 
Many experiences were shared by those who suffered the “Middle Passage” from Africa to America, and Roots accurately conveys those shared experiences. Records from the era agree.
 
Roots also stresses the importance of family history, and knowing where you came from:
 
After gesturing for the boys to squat in a semicircle about him, the old man began to talk of how he became what he was. He told them how, over years of study from young manhood, every griot had buried deep in his mind the records of the ancestors. “How else could you know of the great deeds of the ancient kings, holy men, hunters, and warriors who came hundreds of rains before us? Have you met them?” asked the old man. “No! The history of our people is carried to future in here.” And he tapped his gray head.
      ...  Upon finishing their manhood training, [the sons of griots] ... would begin studying and traveling with selected elders, hearing over and again the historical names and stories as they had been passed down. And in due time, each young man would know that special part of the forefathers’ history in the finest and fullest detail, just as it had been told to his father and his father’s father. And the day would come when that boy would become a man and have sons to whom he would tell those stories, so that the events of the distant past would forever live.
 

Roots cannot be considered a “genealogy”, according to today’s standards, yet it is an inspiration toward ancestry. After all, as Haley himself stated, “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage. ... Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning no matter what our attainments in life.” This holds true for everyone.

To purchase the 30th Anniversary Edition of RootsRoots: The Saga of an American Family

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