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Roots and genes

The appeal of genetic ancestry testing cannot be understood without also understanding the backdrop of the specific example of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family(1976). Now known to be fiction based on fact, Roots was published in the 200th year of the United States to great fanfare and with tremendous critical and commercial success. Christened as ‘the most astounding cultural event of the American Bicentennial’ by the Civil War historian Willie Lee Rose (who would also take Haley to task in The New York Review of Books for sloppy historical research), the book’s first print run of 200,000 copies sold out upon publication. Millions of copies have been sold in the intervening decades the world over.

Roots, for which Haley received a Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of Haley’s colourful genealogy, which he traces back to The Gambia. The story is framed as the author’s ‘epic quest’: his prodigious efforts across years and continents to uncover his family’s past. In 1977, when Haley’s work was adapted for television, the story of his ancestors’ trials, tribulations and resilience held the country in rapt attention for eight days. The Roots miniseries had even higher audience numbers than the inaugural broadcast of Gone With the Wind six months earlier (until then the most watched show on TV), and one that was, notably, also concerned with the formative role of slavery in US history.

Haley’s story came under scrutiny soon after it began to circulate, and was criticised for historical inaccuracies. He was accused of plagiarism on several occasions; one case would result in a settlement so large that it was effectively an admission of guilt. But these accusations did not present an obstacle to the story’s power, and the narrative remains a commanding cultural symbol, national script and racial allegory. In her exhaustive essay on the book and the TV show, the British literary critic Helen Taylor described their significance this way:

The impact of Haley and Roots has been profound. For African Americans, deprived for centuries of their ancestral homes and families, enslaved and exploited, denied basic human and civil rights… this book… offered a fresh perspective on their history, community and genealogy.

Taylor suggests that there has been a surprising public reticence surrounding accusations that Haley’s work was marred. She ventures several reasons for these ‘surprising silences’, including the fact that Haley was ensconced in elite networks. To borrow a contemporary phrasing, Roots was simply too big to fail. This was also the case because Haley’s account of the Middle Passage, in which millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic as part of the slave trade, and its consequences became an urtext, a primary narrative source of African diasporic reconciliation for a generation of Americans. The story provided a narrative about slavery and its afterlives on the 200th anniversary of a nation that had never fully acknowledged its past. In place of a presidential apology for slavery, or a national discussion on racism, or the promise of reparations, we had Roots. ...

Read entire article at Aeon