Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Lasting Impact of Alex Haley’s “Roots”
Alex Haley’s landmark book began in Reader’s Digest, where he worked as a senior editor. Its impact is still being felt today.
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I first heard of Alex Haley sometime around 1967, when I was a student in high school. My brother, Paul, who was a student at the School of Dentistry at West Virginia University, called to tell me that this man had given a dazzling lecture on campus, and he was so excited that he wanted to share the experience with me. The lecture was part of a book the author would be publishing based on stories he had heard from his aunt. He was on the circuit, he told his audience, trying to raise enough money to complete it.
“It’s one word,” Paul said of the book’s title. “I can’t remember what the word is, but it’s bad, man! You are gonna eat this up.”
I said, “Well, what’s the word?”
“I can’t remember,” he said, “but I’ll remember.”
A couple of days later, he called me back and said, “It’s Roots!”
I thought, “Oh, man: Roots!” My mind began racing. Roots! What a brilliant title. I had been interested in my own roots since I was 9 years old, when I interviewed my parents and drew up my first family tree on the very day after we buried my father’s father.
So when I read the Reader’s Digest excerpts of Roots in 1974, I was mesmerized—that’s the only word for it. In 1977, the television adaptation premiered, and I became part of the biggest audience for a miniseries in the history of the medium at that time. Starting with that phone call from my big brother, I had a serious bout of envy toward Alex Haley. I wanted to be like him: I wanted to reverse the Middle Passage and find out where my ancestors were from in Africa, the motherland.
The hunger to know who we are and where we came from
Frederick Douglass, in his 1855 book, My Bondage and My Freedom, says, “Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves.” In the first chapter of his slave narrative, published a decade earlier, he tells us twice within a few paragraphs of the “whisper” that his father was also his master, but he didn’t know for sure, and that haunted him.
One of the last train trips he made was to a descendant of his master to see if his master’s records had any mention of his birth. Because the other thing that haunted him was that he didn’t know his birthday. Slaves, Douglass writes, could only approximate the dates of their birth with the cycles of the seasons: “planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, springtime, or fall-time.” He tells us that not knowing was a source of trauma and that it would remain so for the rest of his life.
The fact that most fundamental genealogical information was systematically withheld from our people has, I think, produced an understandably inordinate compulsion among African Americans to find out not just from whence we descend in Africa but also details on our family tree on this side of the ocean. Alex Haley, writing in the pages of this magazine, called it “a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we came from.” By then, Roots had sold over one million copies in hardcover. With his phenomenally successful book, Alex Haley seemed to be answering Frederick Douglass: No, Fred, genealogical trees do flourish under slavery. You just have to know how to look for them.
An idea for a show
My PBS series, Finding Your Roots, which I named in homage to the title of Alex Haley’s book, can trace its own roots to that family tree I crafted with my parents’ help back in July 1960 and to a letter I received 40 years later from a brilliant African American geneticist named Dr. Rick Kittles. “Dear Dr. Gates,” he wrote, “have you ever watched Alex Haley’s Roots?”
I thought, “What kind of idiot does this guy think I am? Everybody’s watched Roots!” Dr. Kittles went on, explaining that scientists can now do, in a test tube in a laboratory, what Alex Haley purported to do in Roots and that we could trace an African American’s African ethnic origins on his mother’s mother’s line, or the father’s father’s line, through DNA. He was looking for volunteers. So, I picked up the phone, called his laboratory, and said, “You’ve got the right man.”
Three years after Dr. Kittles tested my DNA (at that time, they had to take blood; now, of course, you just spit into a test tube), I got the idea for the show, which from its beginning in 2012 was a huge hit. It had the same energy as Roots; it was Roots for the 21st century. Thanks to advances in DNA analysis, a journey that once took 12 years—that’s how long Alex Haley spent working on the book—could now be traversed in a matter of hours or days. When he was on his long and lonely journey, he could not have imagined that he was walking around with the secret to his genealogical identity “written” in his genome. It turns out we just had to turn inward instead of standing at the Statue of Liberty and trying to figure out which way Africa sits far across the ocean.
So how would Alex Haley, who died in 1992, feel about this revolutionary technology? I think he would have greeted it with glee. He was a good and generous man. He was a profound humanist. He had a lot of light in his eyes; I met him only a couple of times, but I’ll never forget what an honor it was. And he loved learning. With Roots, I think he followed all the clues as diligently as he could, and he reached his conclusions in good faith. Many scholars have questioned his research since the book was published, but its importance as a phenomenon lay beyond its quote-unquote historical accuracy. The book is a landmark in American history, a signal accomplishment as a profound act of the imagination.
We are a nation of immigrants
Roots continues to be important because we are a nation of immigrants. Even Native Americans came here from somewhere else; they walked across the Bering Strait some 15,000 years ago. Our African ancestors, of course, did not emigrate here willingly—after all, none of our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower—and as enslaved human beings, they were unwilling immigrants, but immigrants nonetheless.
That’s one of the recurring truths in Finding Your Roots, and I think it was also the message of Alex Haley’s Roots: African Americans are immigrants too. We have ancestors with names and birth dates tracing deep into the American past—names and dates that slavery sought to rob—and now the tools exist to help us find them. And through our DNA, we can begin to understand the depth and complexity not only of our African ethnic roots but of our European and Native American roots as well.
Alex Haley stood on the shoulders of Frederick Douglass, who searched so desperately for his roots until the very end of his life. And today, all of us who embark on the exhilarating path in search of our roots stand on the shoulders of an intrepid author named Alex Haley.
Next, see how Reader’s Digest saved the lives of these readers.
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He’s the host of Finding Your Roots on PBS.