I have vivid memories of my early childhood on my grandparents’ dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. My great-grandmother sat with me on the stairs and read stories to me by the hour. Uncle Trix—short for Trigve—took me on long walks, and Grandpa let me drive his tractor or watch him milk the cows. My family is Scandinavian.

When I was in grade school I read all the books I could find about the Norwegian immigrants who settled the middle west—the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They became wheat growers and dairy farmers, like my grandfather, and those books helped me understand the struggles my forebears had had with the angry winters and parched summers. Because of them I better understood what life must have been like for my mother and her sister and parents, who had lived in a one-room house until they saved enough money to buy a farm.

When I became an adult, the novels of Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset (the Nobel prize-winning Norwegian novelist) brought me even closer to my heritage. And Ingmar Bergman’s film The Emigrants, starring the powerful Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, provided me with visual images to attach to the facts I’d read and heard.

The stories of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother linked me with the past. I knew that part of the Kolderup family still lived in Norway. I knew that they had left Denmark for Norway centuries earlier, and that some of them had left Norway for this country. That gave me a strong sense of identity, something that every child needs. Traditions, family distinctives or peculiarities, personal history—these all help to form a child’s image of himself, of who he is and where he belongs, of why he’s a little bit special and a little bit like every other person. Without that kind of cultural—one could almost call it spiritual—foundation, it’s hard for someone to decide where he’s going and why. Before he can decide that he needs to know where he came from.

Until Alex Haley wrote Roots, black Americans had little that told their story. Slavery. Yes, they knew about that. Africa. Yes, they’d heard about it. But what did they really know? What did we? A few bare sentences in a sterile history book did little to convey the rich culture of many African tribes. Haley explores his ancestor’s culture—how Kunta learned to read and write Arabic, his strict Muslim training and deep religious faith that never left him, and the complex, years-long training for manhood (for some comments on what his culture meant, see the editorial “Knowing About a Powerful Name,” February 18 issue, page 36). The textbooks I studied perpetuated the stereotype of an African continent filled with illiterate, ignorant people living like jungle animals. White people brought education, Christianity, civilization, culture—and, oh yes, made a few Africans into slaves along the way. A terrible thing, slavery, I learned. It dehumanized people. Just how deeply I never knew until I read Haley’s description of the voyage of a slave ship. Here is one detail of the multi-faceted agony:

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“The stinging bites, then the itching of the body lice, steadily grew worse. In the filth, the lice as well as the fleas had multiplied by the thousands until they swarmed all over the hold.… [Kunta’s] free hand scratched steadily wherever his shackled hand couldn’t reach. He kept having thoughts of springing up and running away; then, a moment later, his eyes would fill with tears of frustration, anger would rise in him, and he would fight it all back down until he felt again some kind of calm. The worst thing was that he couldn’t move anywhere; he felt he wanted to bite through his chains. He decided that he must keep himself focused upon something, anything to occupy his mind or his hands, or else he would go mad—as some men in the hold seemed to have done already, judging from the things they cried out” (p. 159).

Yes, slavery was terrible, we agreed in the classroom. But in the hallways of my nearly all-white high school, my friends and I ignored the few black students, and finally they went into another school system where there were more black students to be shunned by whites.—But that kind of behavior is all over, isn’t it?—Ask the next black person you see.

Or ask Haley. He was fortunate. He had a strong family who made sure that he knew where he had come from. Both his parents attended college. His father did it through hard work and the generous help of a white man he met while working as a Pullman porter during the summer; eventually he became a college professor. Haley after two years in college enlisted in the U. S. Coast Guard as a messboy, where, he says, he “stumbled onto the long road that has taken me finally to the writing of this Roots.” He spent twenty years in the Coast Guard, and partly to relieve boredom at sea began writing. After World War II the Coast Guard created a new rating for him—journalist. He retired after twenty years, and a few years later his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published.

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Twelve years ago Haley saw with what seemed to him a mystical clarity how the story of his family traced back to its African roots could provide the sense of identity and pride that is lacking among many black people, despite the Afro-American movement of the late sixties. Haley wanted Roots to be more than just his story; it was to be the story of every black American, “for all of us today to know who we are.”

Roots is being called a media phenomenon. More than a million hardcover copies—priced at $12.50—are in print. Supermarkets and drug and discount stores, which usually sell only paperbacks, are selling Roots. This is an impressive sales figure for a hardcover book. But it represents only a small fraction of the total audience: 80 million watched the final episode of the eight on TV.

The real significance of Roots lies not in the fact that it could change the programming of television or in the millions of dollars Haley is making or in the almost cultishness with which people are talking and writing about the book. Roots is essentially a spiritual story, and its importance lies there. Christ said that to know the truth brings freedom, and Haley has told blacks and whites the truth about a tragic part of our culture that has not yet been excised.

Never before have we heard the tale of a slave ship told with such power or sensitivity. Nor have we understood what the word cargo meant to millions of black men and women—Negroes listed alphabetically along with spices, bananas, iron. And the families. How could black slaves know their roots when parents and children were so often cruelly separated? What mother could not feel Bell’s anguish when her daughter is sold and sent south? And what woman would not feel Kizzy’s shame and hatred at being raped and used by her white massa? As white people, we do not want to know these things. But to understand the black experience we must. A friend of mine said he hadn’t bothered to watch the series—“after all, it’s only fiction, and anyway I know all about the slave trade.” The dialogue in Roots may be fiction, but the story is truth. Haley explains it this way: “By far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place.” Twelve years of intensive research gives him the right to expect our trust in his book of “faction” (what he calls it, a combination of fact and fiction). And the fact remains, comfortable white people do not know what it was like.

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Howard O. Jones, a black evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, agrees. For the first time, he said, the real identity and roots of black Americans were written about by someone from the inside. “We’ve kept the past hidden. Haley for the first time revealed the brutality and cruelty that was our past. It has caused black Americans, particularly the youth, to be proud of their roots and of the culture from whose loins they sprang.” And it has helped blacks realize how much progress has been made, even though, Jones insists, we still have a long way to go.

As Jones travels for the Graham team, he still finds evidence of racism. He’s constantly shifting gears between white and black people. “Sometimes I feel absolutely schizophrenic when I get home,” he explains. And he mourns the fact that while blacks and white have gotten together in many areas, particularly sports, the Christian Church lags far behind. The Church, he adds, needs to confront the past, and Haley has made it possible. Jones hopes that Roots, which he urges all white Christians to read, will help to build the bridges we need as Christians to cross our racial barriers.

William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, too, found Roots a profoundly moving experience for him as a black and an evangelical. Pannell wants the white Christian community to see that the Roots story is not just a hundred years old but continues today. “White evangelicals, for some hidden reason, have found it convenient to block out the black experience. Haley has proclaimed the message that we’ve been trying to get across for years,” he explains. While urging white Christians to listen to that message, Pannell warns against a blanket condemnation of all white people during that period. “Somewhere a white Christian may not have laid his neck on the block for social justice, but he did preach the Gospel.”

That Gospel pervades Roots. Although Kunta Kinte was Muslim, he married a Christian who raised their daughter in the Christian faith. What kept the family filled with hope was not only their knowledge of where Kunta came from—their physical heritage—but also their understanding of where they belonged spiritually. Haley’s ancestors firmly believed that God guided them from slavery into freedom.

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“With all their houses, barns, sheds, and fences built by 1874, the family—led by Matilda—turned their attention to an enterprise they considered no less important to their welfare: building a church to replace the makeshift bush arbors that had been serving as their place of worship.” Haley tells us that the church took nearly a year to build and used most of the family’s savings. The first Sunday service was so crowded that people had to sit on the lawns. Matilda says to her husband, Chicken George, “ ‘I won’t never forget dis day, George. We done come a long way since you first come courtin’ me wid dat derby hat o’ yours. Our fam’ly done growed up an’ had chilluns of dey own, an’ de Lawd seen fit to keep us all togedder. De onliest thing I wish is you Mammy Kizzy could be here to see it wid us.’ Eyes brimming, Chicken George looked back at her. ‘She lookin’, baby. She sho is!’ ” (p. 652).

Roots is not a religious history of Alex Haley’s family. But the Christian faith of his ancestors pervades the book; it is an integral part of their lives. Church and camp meetings, weekly prayer groups, and Bible studies are seen not as something tacked on to their lives but as an outgrowth of the slaves’ deep religious fervor. These slaves knew who they were: they were children of God and of Kunta Kinte.

Haley tells us that his mother often seemed embarrassed by references to her parents’ slave past. His grandmother’s reaction was, “If you don’t care who and where you come from, well, I does.” And along with an almost liturgical reminder of the African and his arrival in America came these words, “Thanks to Jesus, or we wouldn’t be here tellin’ it.”

The providence of God pervades the book, just as it pervades the brief account of how Haley came to write Roots (the complete story will be told in his next book, Search, which he says is the more important and exciting story). His only surviving relative who remembered those slave days exclaimed when Haley told her about his search, “You go ’head boy! Yo sweet grandma an all of ’em—dey up dere watchin’ you!” Shortly after that she died. Haley thought that “it had been her job to get me to Africa, then she went to join the others up there watchin’.”

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Since the success of the television series Haley has more specifically given the credit for Roots to God. He told Newsweek magazine that “God works in mysterious ways and maybe I’m a conduit for him.” To the National Press Club, in speaking of the uncanny coincidences that happened over and over as he searched for the clues of his saga, he explained that “God does these kinds of things.” About the phenomenal success of the television program he said, “I would soberly and somberly ascribe it to God himself. There is no man, no committee of men or women who could sit down with whatever media expertise and predictably create a program or an event of any kind of comparable, spontaneous national response.”

If, as he and other black Christians say, the success of Roots comes from God, we need to listen to its message. We cannot merely give the book a passing nod because of its current popularity. Nor should we be content with having seen all or part of the television series. Read the book; there’s more in it than could be put on film. Haley’s saga should move us to examine our racial attitudes and work to put our white selves into that dank hole of slavery. How strong would my self-image be if my ancestors had been thought too feeble-minded to learn anything but the most elementary of tasks? How strong would yours?

Alex Haley’s father died before the book was published. “So Dad has joined the others up there,” Haley concludes his story. “I feel that they do watch and guide, and I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.” Blacks now know more about their heritage; so do whites. That knowledge should bring us closer together.

In The Rain

my rage in the rain

deliberately stomping

through puddles

to wet my childish way

muttering bitterly

in my beard, letting

frustration with circumstances

sour my love

and violate my heart

and when the current of grace

rose in my heart,

the appeal to mercy,

the shame

that I at first resisted

and shut my mouth

on the words

that call out to the one source

of ease and forgiveness,

ah, mercy


my rage in the rain

mirage in the rain

marriage in the rain


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