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.