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|Haley's Comet: A Special Introduction By Michael Eric Dyson||Share:|
Haley's Comet: A Special Introduction To Roots
The impact of Roots is deep and far reaching, as the reader is reminded in the 30th Anniversary Edition introduction. Radio host, Michael Eric Dyson, in his introduction, tells us that Black History Week was officially extended to Black History Month—the same year Roots first appeared. Dyson describes the book as "One of the nation's seminal texts. It affected events far beyond its pages and was a literary North Star that guided us through the long midnight of slavery's haunting presence."
Haley's Comet: A Special Introduction
By Michael Eric Dyson
From the very beginning, Alex Haley's Roots counted as much more than a mere book. It tapped deeply into the black American hunger for an African ancestral home that had been savaged by centuries of slavery and racial dislocation. More than the sum of its historical and literary parts—some of which have been rigorously criticized and debunked—Haley's quest for his roots changed the way black folk thought about themselves and how white America viewed them. No longer were we genealogical nomads with little hope of learning the names and identities of the people from whose loins and culture we sprang. Haley wrote black folk into the book of American heritage and gave us the confidence to believe that we could find our forebears even as he shared his own. Kunta and Kizzy—and Chicken George too—became members of our black American family. That's why no flaw or shortcoming in Haley's tome could dim the brilliant light he shed on the black soul. Haley's monumental achievement helped convince the nation that the black story is the American story. He also made it clear that black humanity is a shining beacon that miraculously endured slavery's brutal horrors.
I was a seventeen-year-old boarding school student when Haley's comet of a book hit the nation's racial landscape. It immediately changed the course of our conversations around school and provided a powerful lens onto a period of history that few of us really understood. Until Haley's book, there was little public grappling with the drama of American slavery. Of course, the epochal television series that grew from Haley's text seized us in its thrilling exploration of chattel slavery's vast and vicious evolution. The book and television series also sparked the phenomenon of black self-discovery. For too long, slavery had been an American terror that left the lives of black folk scarred by memories of pain and humiliation. Haley's book brought black folk out of the shadows of shame and ignorance. It also spurred many of us for the first time to speak openly and honestly about the lingering effects of centuries-old oppression. If the black freedom struggle of the '60s had liberated our bodies from the haunting imperatives of white supremacy, Haley's book helped free our minds and spirits from that same force.
Roots also prodded white America to reject the racial amnesia that fed its moral immaturity and its racial irresponsibility. As long as there was no book or image that captured slavery's disfiguring reach, the nation could conduct its business as if all racial problems had been solved when it finally bestowed civil rights on its black citizens. But Haley helped us to resist that seductive lie with a tonic splash of colorful truth: that the nation had yet to successfully negotiate its perilous ties to an institution that built white prosperity while crushing black opportunity. Roots was a soulful reminder that unless we grappled with the past, we would be forever saddled by its deadening liabilities. Since it was published during the nation's blithely romantic celebration of its bicentennial, Haley's book provided a touchstone for alternative history. Haley's book helped conscientious citizens to challenge the self-image of America as an unqualified champion of democracy and freedom.
The true impact of Haley's book is that it started a conversation about black roots that continues to this day. DNA tests to determine black ancestry are more popular than ever. Scientific advance is part of the explanation, but the cultural impetus for such an agenda of racial discovery lies with Haley's inspiring book. It is also fitting that Roots appeared the same year that Black History Week was officially extended to Black History Month. Haley's crowning achievement came along at just the right time to prompt the investigation of black folks' noble and complex contributions to national culture. Haley's Roots sparked curiosity among ordinary citizens by making the intricate relations between race, politics and culture eminently accessible. Long before demands for history from the bottom up became a rallying cry of progressive historians, Haley's book practiced what it preached. And if he made missteps along the way, he nevertheless put millions of us on the right path to racial and historical knowledge that shaped our reckoning with the color line. Few books can claim such an impressive pedigree of influence.
Alex Haley's Roots is unquestionably one of the nation's seminal texts. It affected events far beyond its pages and was a literary North Star that guided us through the long midnight of slavery's haunting presence. Roots is an exercise in the skillful telling of a people's pilgrimage through the quagmire of lost racial links to the solid ground of recovered connections. For that reason alone, it is to be celebrated as a classic of American ambition and black striving. Each generation must make up its own mind about how it will navigate the treacherous waters of our nation's racial sin. And each generation must overcome our social ills through greater knowledge and decisive action. Roots is a stirring reminder that we can achieve these goals only if we look history squarely in the face.