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Black Genealogy After Alex Haley’s Roots

"A lot has been hidden from Black Americans. And so there is always a longing to know who you are and where you come from.”

Haley’s success with the novel and miniseries not only ignited a cultural phenomenon, but also an interest in African American genealogy for social scientists. Like John Hope Franklin’s 1947 masterpiece, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans which detailed the greatness of pre-1600 African civilizations like Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, Haley’s work reclaimed Black people’s African past. Scholars of African American history such as David A. Gerber, Donald R. Wright, and Helen Taylor offered their praises, criticisms and memories of Haley’s work in journal articles. Decades later, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series, African American Lives publicized genealogical DNA testing that could trace African Americans’ ancestors back to locations and ethnic groups in Africa. Since 1976, the Roots phenomenon stirred mixed reviews from academics, but it reconnected Black people of the diaspora back to Africa and nullified sentiments of frustration, anger, and shame in being the descendants of captives and slaves. Roots gave Black people a window to discovering their own origins beyond colonization and slavery and articulate their experiences outside of a eurocentric framework.

Not long after Roots was published, historian David A. Gerber and literature professor Merrill Maguire Skaggs published articles that respectively lauded and critiqued Haley’s novel. In Gerber’s 1977 article, “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Popular Phenomenon,” he defended Roots by arguing that Haley’s book was meant to remind people that we must refer to our past in order to understand the present and create a comprehensive view of our future. However, in Skaggs’ 1978 article, “Roots: A New Black Myth,” she criticized Roots, arguing that the novel cannot recreate the image of Blacks in literature, nor counteract old and negative attitudes about Black Americans because they still survive and have a controlling influence in literature. Although both scholars’ opinions of Roots pitted them against each other, they brought up a valid issue about modern-day stereotypes and stigmas attached to Africa.

Since the fifteenth century, European theatrical plays, poetry, and short stories, histories, and treatises like Jacques de Brézé’s “The Hunt,” William Shakespeare’s Othello, and Leo Africanus’ Geographical Histories of Africa rhetorically positioned Africa as inferior to Europe. These multiple forms of literature equated Africanness with not only “backwardness,” but also “blackness,” leading European and American readers to use their Judeo-Christian understanding of language and imagine Africans as “dirty,” “iniquitous,” “deadly,” and “wicked.” In the travel accounts of European explorers and traders like Richard Ligon, Richard Hakluyt, and John Mandeville they often critiqued African bodies and societies to justify the superiority of “white beauty and intelligence,” European intolerance of African cultures, and the European “civilizing mission” of enslavement of the African. Although Haley’s story was a mixture of fact and fiction, Roots broke apart the “single story” about Africa by challenging racist stereotypes embedded in America’s classical literature and rooted in its modern media.