Alex Haley described Roots as a “symbolic saga of all African-descent people.” Usually, symbols are two dimensional and lack depth of character. This wasn’t the case with Roots. Each character was brought to life, and given individuality, personality and achingly real flaws. Kunte’s stoic dignity and determination made him one of the most admirable characters I’ve ever read, but it also made his repeated failure to escape that much more heartbreaking.
Because the characters are so well-crafted, Roots is incredibly easy to read—except when it’s not. There are no scenes of wild depravity or caricatures of angry white men ruthlessly attacking victimized blacks. The pain is more subtle, and ultimately more hurtful, than that. Every casual (and not so casual) indignity is amplified by the knowledge that it wasn’t the first, won’t be the last and that the Kinte family can’t complain or fight back without fear of punishment (when Kizzy is raped, her new “massa” is confused by her determination to fight him: “Don’t you know I’m your massa now?” he says, as if it’s his natural right).
Roots is, at times, painful to read, but ultimately worthwhile. I’m putting it on my must re-read list.