The African American Experience: Roots and W. E. B. Du Bois

Alex Haley, famous for writing Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), searched for identity by tracing his family history. He spent many years inquiring of every African he met the meaning of a few African words passed down from his ancestor Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in the American south. After many years of researching, Haley found a man who told him the meaning of the words, and it turned out it was the name of a river in The Gambia. Haley went to that village and, to his surprise, felt uncomfortable. He recounts, “Something was amiss, but I didn’t know what it was. Then suddenly it hit me. Everybody else . . . was black. I was brown. I had this traumatic sensation that I was not pure. Never had I felt such a thing in my life” (Anderson 15). Haley had found the place from which he had come, yet did not feel as if he belonged because of the lightness of his skin.

Haley’s story is fascinating to me, partly because of my own interest in family history. Because of his story, I have been on an African American book binge. Does that ever happen to you? Reading only books from a certain genre, author, or time period? I know of friends who have gone through the Holocaust phase. I think that one that tends to occur during adolescence.

Anyway, I have recently watched the miniseries Roots, based on Haley’s book, with my husband. It is timeless. Produced and aired in 1977, the powerful story of Kunta Kinte’s capture into slavery and the ensuing drama of his ancestors and their eventual freedom are captivating. I remember watching the first two parts of the series in seventh grade history. Mr. Stucki showed us the movies as part of our education on slavery, and I doubt if there were anything more powerful than that. I still remember those scenes vividly, and re-watching them recently has only made our nation’s past more terrible and gut wrenching to me. I am also in awe of Levar Burton’s performance as the young Kunta Kinte, Burton’s acting debut, yet he has gone on to do other great work, including Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I love!

I have also recently finished reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. This book, a collection of essays exploring the condition of African American education in our nation following the abolition of slavery, is a fine companion to Roots, especially since it is a foundation for Simon Haley’s life and education in Roots: The Next Generations. As we watched the stories unfold on the screen, my husband would ask, “What are they going to do now? How is that going to work?” Because I had been reading Du Bois, I knew the answers to some of his questions.

How did the slaves deal with their freedom? Once they were free, how did they earn a living? Well, most of them stayed in the same intolerable conditions they had experienced their entire lives. They had no education. They had no land. Some of them had skill, as Tom Harvey is a blacksmith in Roots, but most of them were able to do nothing but continue to work the land. Plantation owners turned to sharecropping, allowing the former slaves to lease or rent the land and work it to live. This usually resulted in free men who became enslaved by debt to their former white masters and free men who now worked just to keep leaky roofs over their heads and paltry meals in their stomachs. The transition after the Civil War was not an easy one.

Of this situation, Du Bois says, “[T]he brains of the race have been knocked out by two hundred and fifty years of assiduous education in submission, carelessness, and stealing. . . . I will not stop to ask whose duty it was, but I insist it was the duty of some one [sic] to see that these working-men were not left alone and unguided, without capital, without land, without skill, without economic organization, without even the bald protection of law, order, and decency” (140). He continues his ideas on the cause of the problem and solutions to fix it, but you can see his passion for the issue and how he became a leader of his time.

W. E. B. du Bois, public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

Watching Roots and reading The Souls of Black Folk have prompted me to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it, but a post on that will come soon.

Here are some other great books that illuminate the African American condition:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women by Alice Walker
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Are there any books you would add? Who are some of your favorite African American authors?


Anderson, Walter. Read with Me: The Power of Reading and How It Transforms Our Lives. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.
Du Bois, W. E. Burghart. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Bookbyte Digital Edition, e-Book file.

29 thoughts on “The African American Experience: Roots and W. E. B. Du Bois

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  1. You must read Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks. She is one of my favorite African American feminist writers and thinkers, and I’ve yet to read any of her work that I didn’t hungrily devour. Bone Black is her memoir and it’s a great starting point for delving into her feminist theory. She’s amazing. I also really enjoyed All About Love, another of her wonderful books.

    bell hooks came to the University of Utah last spring, and it was quite a treat to hear her speak. I was struck by her rawness and honesty. She spoke of the white supremacy that still pervades American culture and provided very real, actionable means of combatting it, all the while fearlessly condemning and unpacking it to an auditorium of mostly white, mostly young people. I love bell hooks!

    1. I wish I had been there! I just put her book on hold at the library, but I was disappointed that my library capitalized her name in their catalogue. Don’t they know that she prefers it otherwise? Shame on them.

  2. Thanks so much for this piece. I have reserved the book at my library now on the basis of your blog as it sounds such an incredible read. I haven’t read much about this era except The Color Purple, which I thought was amazing. I had no idea of the difficulties faced within the black communities themselves as well as during their oppression by the whites.
    I’ve not totally got hooked on one particular author or series (there are ones who I will read though when they come out). I find stories about the Nazi regime interesting and also horrific, and some of the best are in the young adult/child genre, such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I am David, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Rowan the Strange (this takes place in the UK just when the atrocities start occurring in Germany and is one of my all-time favourite books. It’s incredibly moving.).

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it enough to get the book from the library. Which one? Roots or The Souls of Black Folk? I haven’t read Roots, but after watching the miniseries, I really want to. Books are always better than the movies. Well, usually.

  3. I agree, it’s easy to get sucked into a certain genre or hooked on a certain author for awhile. When I get into a science fiction mood I stick with it for awhile, when I’m in a western or medieval mood then I stay with those for awhile, etc.
    This was an interesting post. I like the Uncle Remus folktales and some of the theory behind them.
    God Bless,

  4. I love to know I’m not the only one who gets obsessed with a certain type of book or a particular author. I’ve been through so many phases. I read every novel I could that took place in China. Another time I read everything by Jane Austen and watched the movies based on the books. I did almost nothing else that week. I went through an extremely long historical fiction phase. For a while I read no author besides Willa Cather. Another phase I went through was the “classics” phase, where I wouldn’t read a book unless it was on the classics shelf in the library. It was not my favorite phase, because so many of those books may have been meaningful in their time, but they’re not really very fun to read now (yet I kept on reading my way through the shelves because I was determined to read them all). That’s actually when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. I’m interested to see your post on that book to see if you feel the same way I do.

    1. Some of the classics are hard to get through, but bravo to you for doing so. I find that they are rewarding once you are finished. They really have endured the test of time for a reason. Also, your Willa Cather phase must’ve been awesome. I love her. Did your China phase include Pearl S. Buck? The Good Earth is one of my all-time favorites. I need to reread it!

  5. Like you, I get caught up in “types” of books. I recommend The Color Purple, Ragtime, Their Eyes Were Watching God and pretty much any book by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

  6. Your statement about the free slave shows the result of brainwashing during the slavery. I think these books(Root by Haley and Uncle Tom by Stowe) and the other book like The Narrative by Frederick Douglas etc describe how terrible the historical fact was. But they don’t say anything about what they had on their mind. They don’t say anything about the effort of slaves or African American people to live like a human being, I mean their psychological history. Yes, it was buried in history nobody could say that in those days. I recommend Beloved by Toni Morrison. It descrbies not only the torture of the slavery life but also their thought on their slavery lives.

    Uncle Tom by Stowe shows some of typical ideas about African American by the white.

    And I remember Du Bois mentions the double consciousness in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. It is a quite important concept to understand African American. Because they accept white people’s ideas about themselves. So I think Morrison and other authors like Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison etc try to get over the double consciousness. They try to understand themselves by their own perspective.

    1. I have read Beloved, and all of the other authors you mention. One I particularly like that explores some of what you are describing is Nella Larsen. Try her. She has been “forgotten,” but her work is fantastic.

      1. It is an old posting, so I didn’t expect your reply. So that is why my comment is incomplet and a little lack of enthusiam. But I found your reply this morning early to be happy. I appreciate your faithfulness to commentors. Owing to your review, I ordered Nella Larson yesterday, I am waiting the book. And I am trying to read your article through your publication board.

          1. I’ve read the book and your article long time ago. I found out her insight about the Naxos quite good. Her expression of Naxos school makes me recall one of Morrison’s characters in The Bluest Eye, Geraldine. I had always wondered why Geraldine has that kind of attitude ignoring and disdain to her own race. I think Larson’s work is quite modern. It is true, all of us question ourselves, who am I? And I also thinkg love and religious passion have common thing. Both of them transcend the ego. Sometimes an ecstasy comes from them. But the quicksand, the identity, in this novel is really a trap.

            1. Absolutely a trap! Your observation of this being a modern problem is a good one. It is universal and definitely something we can still relate to. I think a problematic search for identity is especially pertinent to women these days.

  7. But one thing I don’t understand or discontent is about the relationship between the religion and the love. It seems to me Larson tries to say the religion and the love have same power(or passion) to make people dull on the truth. In her case, I mean Larson’s protagonist, two things come together. So the spell is so strong that she just decides to marry so easily. I think i have to think it deeply. Tell me your opinion about Larson’t idea on it.

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