Roots by Alex Haley – Week 1

A little daring, a bit nervous but most certainly looking forward to the discussion of Roots by Alex Haley, Chapters 1-20 with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. If you have read the book before and would like to leave some spoiler free comments for us, I’d certainly appreciate that. Since this is our first time reading the book I don’t want to us to discover something before we get a chance to read it.

Did you find it hard to stop or are you ready to read full speed ahead? I think with a book like this, as much as we might be tempted to, a paced approach will allow us to get the most out of each discussion.  Feel free to answer any of the questions, I just marked a few things that stood out to me to generate some conversation.

The book begins in 1750 with the birth of Omoro and Binta Kinte’s first son, Kunta, named after his honored grandfather who is thought to have saved the village of Juffure from a famine. We get a sense of the Mandinka people and traditions while we watch young Kunta grow up.

Questions

Names are important from which a sense of pride and purpose are derived.  How does the naming ceremony and Omoro’s declaration of his son’s name set the tone of the story? 

Tradition and culture are essential in this book, especially as Haley explores his family origins.  Omoro doesn’t take another wife while Binta nurses Kunta although it’s custom for Moslem husband’s (as mentioned in the book). Why do you think Omoro does not?  

Women worked hard and didn’t receive any help with rice harvesting but women are to help the men pick cotton. They carry, birth and nurse children (no modern medicine) all without complaint or praise.  Discuss the Mandinka women of then with the modern woman of today.  Do you note any similarities or differences? 

Griots, or story tellers, are another important aspect of Mandinka tradition.  What important lessons has Kunta learned to this point? How does what he learn from his father, Toumani, and Nyo Boto affect him?

Here are a few:

“So the crocodile was right. It is the way of the world for goodness is often repaid with badness.”

“The more blackness a woman has, the more beautiful she is.  Someday you will understand.” 

Even a worse danger than lions and panthers were toubob and their black slatee helpers…” 

“He [Kunta] never told them why he asked them both so many questions, but it seemed as if they knew. In fact, they seemed to act as if they had begun to regard Kunta as an older person, since he had taken on more responsibility with his little brother.” 

“What are slaves? Why are some people slaves and others not?”  

“The things I’m going to tell you now, you must hear with more than your ears—for not to do what I say can mean your being stolen away forever!”

Finally, as Kunta and his father leave their village to help his uncles setup their new village, Kunta’s manhood training begins. What are some of the things Kunta learns on this journey? Specifically, when they reach the abandoned village of older men.  

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6 thoughts on “Roots by Alex Haley – Week 1

  1. Grab the Lapels says:

    When I first started reading, I had a hard time getting going. Alex Haley is a journalist by trade, and his writing reflects that of a journalist. Everything seems factual instead of literary. It is only when he has named his first son and held him up to the stars that I saw something poetic in the writing. However, I got used to Haley’s style and am now enjoying myself, though I notice that I tend to read more slowly than I might another book.

    Also, I feel doubly reassured that Malcolm X really did control his own autobiography. Notice that Malcolm’s book is called The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Haley, as a journalist, questioned Malcolm over many very late night sessions and wrote the entire book. Malcolm went over the book with a comb, changing words such as “kids” to “children” because kids are baby goats, not people, he said. When I would teach Malcolm’s book to college students, many remained unconvinced that Malcolm was really represented in the book as he would be in a true autobiography. However, comparing the autobiography and this book, I’d say it’s safe to say Malcolm’s book is written in Malcolm’s tone, diction, and style and that Roots is an entirely different work by a different type of writer altogether.

    I felt saddened when I read that Omoro may take another wife because Binta was breastfeeding. As a white western woman, it sounds to me like Omoro’s carnal pleasures come before Binta’s mothering. However, it’s possible that the culture felt that a man having relations with a breastfeeding woman was coming between mother and child. Or it could be some totally different reason such as the tribe viewed it as improper.

    I’m thrown off by all the words that Haley uses that I don’t know. Toubob makes sense eventually, but I’m sure there are parts earlier in the book when it was used and missed the meaning. There are some other words that I think mean religious person, doctor, and drummer, but I’m not totally sure. I know there are plenty of conversations about how it’s not the job of the author to interpret another language for the reader. in fact, some authors are no longer italicizing non-English words in books written primarily as English. They see it as “othering” a language and won’t do it anymore. Haley does not italicize unfamiliar words, either.

    My main focus as I read through chapter 20 is the way children emulate their elders, whether that be someone 2 years older or 20 years older. They play fight, play hunt, play cook, and have several indicators of growth. Boys are naked, then given small responsibilities (keep birds away from the crops), then clothed, then given weapons, then undergo manhood training. There are several small indicators of growth that make the child was to be a good citizen in his community. I was thinking about how much we lack that in western society. My mom ordered pizza and put up a banner the day I got my first period, was was both embarrassing and important because I knew she wanted me to feel celebratory. Then I got my license, then I graduated high school. There aren’t many small steps in between, though. I felt like I was languishing at times. I felt like I wasn’t sure who I was. I was telling another blogger today that when I was growing up there was no “in between” with clothes. You either had cartoon characters on your clothes, or you shopped in your mom’s section. Now, I see clothes for kids, tweens, teens, young women, women, etc. It’s AMAZING that even the clothing industry honors these small steps.

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    • booksbythecup says:

      I’m glad it didn’t take you too long to start enjoying the book. I haven’t read The Autobiography of Malcolm X yet but it’s on my list as one I’d like to take my time with too so it will be interesting to see if I notice a difference in how the books are written. I’ll have to discuss that one with you via email when the time comes.

      The vocabulary is something that was tricky, especially if I’m listening. Since I’m reading this on my Kindle, if I missed something like alimamo or kafo, I could search for it earlier in the book to understand what the terms meant. Haley does give an indication of what the terms me usually when it’s first introduced. I’ve heard the term toubob before in other books so I knew what that meant but Haley indirectly tells you what it means. It would be nice to have a list in the book with definitions for quick reference. I read a graphic novel last year, Aya: Life in Yop City and it had that in the back, which helped a lot.

      Children emulating their elders! I’m glad you bring that up. One thing I noticed is that children receive training and it’s usually from the whole village or community, it’s something everyone has a share in. Being especially close to my grandmother because I spent a lot of time under her care as a child, I couldn’t help but think of how some things I view as fundamental elements to being raised to be a responsible person have been lost especially on the new generation of young children today. Chores, respect, a sense of pride and responsibility seem grossly lacking today.

      “But however hard they were playing, the children never failed to pay every adult the respect their mothers had taught them to show always toward their elders.” [Ch 7]

      “When disagreements occurred among them, as they often did—sometime fanning into exchanges of harsh words and finger-snapping—Kunta would always turn and walk away, thus displaying the dignity and self-command that his mother had taught him were the proudest traits of the Mandinka tribe.” [Ch 7]

      Thanks for discussing the first week with me. I wasn’t sure if I had too much or not enough for us to chat about. Any suggestions for next week, maybe I come up with a couple discussion points and then you have a few you’d like to leave for me when you respond? I’m open to suggestions. 😊

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I’m happy to email you suggestions for discussion, too. Whatever you’d like to do; I’m just here for the ride! I can’t think of any questions for you now since I’ve read a bunch more and can’t separate the first week of reading from the second in my head. I don’t want to spoil anything for you.

        One thing that I learned in a college class called “Adolescent Development” is that in the United States, it is virtually impossible for children to truly learn from their parents how to raise their own children. Technology, science, and culture change so fast in the U.S. that something a grandparent lived by when they were parents would be seen as dangerous or counter to the latest evidence today. Isn’t that weird?? Even something like sun screen–you’re not supposed to put regular sun screen on babies. Our culture changes, too. Many people have that racist elderly relative who has no idea how society is trying to be more inclusive.

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