Welcome to the final week of our Roots discussion, Ch 101 to the end. The book progresses quickly until we find the author, Alex Haley, telling the story. Check out our conversation below.
Shell: Let’s discuss the major events as they happened in this part of the book. I’d like to start with George approaching Lea to ask for permission for Tom to take the blacksmith apprenticeship. How did you feel about George doing this for his son? Did you see this as an opportunity for George to help his son develop a trade that could actually help him in the future? Not trying to jump too far ahead.
Melanie: I think that Chicken George knew exactly what he was doing, and it wasn’t much of a risk. Tom’s skills could bring in money to Master Lea, and if people were coming to Lea’s property to get work done by Tom, it might even prove that Lea wasn’t the poor white man who came from nothing. Chicken George approaches Master Lea right away in this week’s reading, so it’s one of the more distant moments in my memory. It seemed so easy. I knew how important it was, though. We also learn that Chicken George probably had enough money over the years to buy his family’s freedom (Matilda knows exactly how much he’s earned), but Chicken George has spent it all on gifts. If Tom makes money, that will help their quest for freedom. Did you see it another way?
Shell: I am sure Matilda and Kizzy played a part in pushing George to approach Lea about this opportunity for Tom, but I liked that George did something that would actively help the family get to freedom; plus, this would be a much better skill than chicken fighting. I kept wondering why George never thought about buying freedom for his family instead of all those gifts, but he didn’t seem much of a future forward kind of thinker. What you said last week about the relationship between George and Lea, how strange it was because George might have felt because he was born a slave and fathered by his master. . .I just wondered what kind of thoughts and feelings George had. I would have liked to understand more about George’s thoughts, like Kunta. Why did it take him so long to realize that he should have been saving every cent to possibly obtain freedom? George was good at training the chickens, but he seemed content to live the life he’d always lived. Remember when Kunta went off to manhood training and came back, he actively looked for ways to be more responsible and help his family. I saw this as a sign that maybe George was finally taking steps in maturing, and Tom’s apprenticeship could lead to the chance to purchase the family’s freedom. But, unfortunately, the big chicken fight made me so angry with George.
Melanie: Ahhh, I see what you mean. Yes, back when Kunta was a slave on Master Waller’s plantation, he was so disgusted by the American-born slaves who were content with a “massa” who didn’t beat them. George seems to have become the person Kunta despised. However, there’s no reason George would know differently. He wasn’t born into a place that told him you are worthy; you are valuable; you are strong. He was born in a place that said you’re mine. To have any money was rare — slaves’ money was legally their masters’ money — and so I think he felt more like a provider when he bought gifts. However, Matilda tells him years later that he squandered thousands of dollars — and could have bought his family’s freedom. I wondered why she didn’t say something sooner. I agree with you that there’s little introspection from George. In fact, once we move past Kunta, there’s mostly plot, plot, plot. We learn more about Tom, especially his shyness, but I often didn’t know what he was thinking.
But, before we get through all the different generations, we get the big chicken fight. Master Lea bets about eight times what he actually owns (money, property, and slaves combined) and loses everything. Last week, I wrote that there’s no use having hope in a story of slavery, so when Lea lost everything — and George in the bargain — I wasn’t surprised. What were your feelings?
Shell: I was angry because George again squanders his earnings on something as ridiculous as this. But I guess you can’t teach a chicken new tricks? OK, that might have been a little mean. I was so mad when George told Lea he had some money he could use to put up for the fight. I knew it was coming, I could see it, but all I thought about was Matilda and the kids. I am not sure if I were in her shoes I wouldn’t have resented George. Freedom now seems a dismal thought, especially since he’s off to England as part of settling debts. Now George’s family is sold off, and the older slaves (Kizzy, Sarah, Pompey) are separated from those they love. Off to a new plantation and Tom’s narrative is the one we follow.
Melanie: And we don’t even know what happened to Grandmammy Kizzy, Sister Sarah, or Uncle Pompey. Did Master Lea feed them or aid them as they grew weaker? Uncle Pompey had to be carried out into a chair when Lea announced who was going to be sold to settle his debts to the Englishman. That part made me sad, and I hope they didn’t suffer. Once on a new plantation, Tom’s blacksmithing business thrives and he meets Irene, whom he marries. They start having children, and at this point I felt like the book was just racing to get to the end. I can still name off everyone in the seven generations leading down to author Alex Haley, but man. It’s very speedy. What did you think about the pacing?
Shell: I wondered what happened to them, too. I enjoyed watching Tom marry and his business thrive, but it all seemed so fast. I know the book had to come to an end and get us to Haley, but I’m not sure I liked how quickly we made the jump. Even when the book shifted to Haley’s voice, it was somewhat jolting. I didn’t expect that. What about you?
Melanie: I had some idea that eventually Haley would enter the story because the back of my book suggests that he’s writing his own family history. However, because much of the novel has to be fiction, despite all his research and attempts to recreate experiences, when he jumps in, we are shocked because it’s truly meta-fiction. Meta-fiction is when a story reminds you that it is a story. Haley’s voice enters, and you’re acutely aware that you’re reading a story, and the story knows that you’re reading a story. It’s an interesting tool that I enjoy in the hands of Kurt Vonnegut, but I feel that in this case it served to suggest the book is factual. Haley is telling his family’s story, so it must be true. Regardless, once the newly-freed African Americans found their own town, Haley fails to leave space for us to really follow along with their struggles and triumphs. It’s like he focused so much on the suffering that the good times aren’t as worthy of reading. I started to feel bored, to be honest. We don’t get to know Tom’s children. We barely learn about his granddaughter, Bertha, who goes to college and plays piano and marries a professor. None of that is “important” compared to the tragedy of Kunta Kinte being stolen from Gambia. I wish that Haley had written one book for each generation — something shorter, like 200 pages each. He would have a series, and he would also have the space to devote the right amount of time to each generation. Even a short novel about his experiences doing research would have been interesting. Really, this book is about Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, in my opinion.
Shell: I haven’t read any Vonnegut so don’t really have much to say on that. The introduction and the biography touches on how the book was initially sold as nonfiction but that can’t be possible since Haley wasn’t there. I think Haley called it faction. There was even the case about the plagiarism and the question of the authenticity of Haley’s research. I wonder how series books would have worked in marketing when he published this in the 70’s, but I would have loved to finish out the idea of what might have happened to Kunta, Kizzy, and Tom’s children as you mentioned. After all of the suffering it would have been nice to celebrate of what freedom meant to the generations that finally experienced it. The ebook I checked out from my library had some videos with Haley that were interesting. He talked about his early years in the Coast Guard and how he decided to write this book.
Melanie: I’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X probably a dozen times during the years I was teaching, so I am familiar with Haley (though Malcolm had a LOT of control over that manuscript, and the style of writing reads quite differently from Roots). I don’t think a series could have honestly worked; I read that they had started the PBS miniseries of Roots before Haley even finished the end! That might have been part of why it’s so rushed. I think that in the end, my experience of Roots was totally worth it because I got to converse with you. However, the reason I never read Roots in the first place, even though I taught Black Lit to college students for several semesters, was because I’ve had enough of slave narratives. The fictional ones tend to use the same tropes, and I saw those in Roots. I also see them in movies. The actual slaves narratives, such as those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, are so different that I can’t make assumptions. Also, if someone writes a real slave narrative, you have to remember they are very different in two ways: 1) they’re alive and free to tell their story, and 2) they read and write articulately, which was uncommon. What is your overall impression of this reading experience?
Shell: I take slave narratives in doses because it can be emotionally taxing for me. Harriet Jacobs was one of the first reviews I posted on my blog, and that book was one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. As you mentioned, the narrative is different because it’s from the perspective of someone who lived as a slave and what they really encountered.
I’m glad I read this book because it gave me a perspective from someone like Kunta, stolen from his home and enslaved; to think about the generations who come after was interesting. But also I think for many people, Roots represented a large part of American history that hadn’t been discussed. I think for many African-Americans, Roots encouraged them to investigate their own roots, where they come from. Of course it’s probably easier to do that because of technology. I’m glad we read and discussed this together; I always get more from my reading when I can talk through it with someone, so thank you so much for joining me. I buddy read so many books on Instagram (bookstagram) that I was very nervous to take this to the blog, especially with you as a seasoned blogger.
Melanie: Thanks for the kind words, Shell! I think I am forgetting when this saga was released: at a time in American history when people didn’t think all the way back past slavery and over to Africa, and now there are many folks trying to find their roots. I have the luxury of being born in a different time and place, when information is more readily available. There is currently a show on PBS hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about people finding where they are from, and the History Channel re-made the TV version of Roots. It still a narrative very much alive in the collective consciousness of Americans.