On the Merits of Spoiler Avoidance

Sometimes the things you don’t know about a book make the reading even more powerful.

Last month, for the first time in a life full of reading, a book made me cry. It served as a powerful argument for the merits of avoiding spoilers.  Side note: if you haven’t read Roots, consider whether you might want to skip this post.  

For many years if not decades, I have heard about the book, movie, and miniseries called Roots. The extent of my knowledge, prior to reading the book, was as follows: (1) it was written by Alex Haley, the same guy who wrote the autobiography of Malcolm X; (2) it has to do with slavery in America; (3) it’s a classic; and (4) Oprah is in one of the film adaptations. 

Of these, #3 was the most immediately relevant to me. When a book is considered a classic, I feel a strong compulsion to read it, so, having acquired it at a used bookstore, I cracked the cover a few weeks ago. 

Roots starts with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man in a Gambian village, in a year uncertain. From context clues, it was plain that these were the days of slavery, which tracked with my elementary understanding of what I was getting into. 

The details of Kinte’s life, and the village where he lived, were told in a very compelling and engaging way. Even though I knew it was coming, I was tremendously upset when he was seized by slavers. The tale of his journey across the ocean was harrowing. 

After narrating his life on two different plantations- our African protagonist had a habit of running away, even against impossible odds- he married and had a daughter. 

The most jarring part of the story happened when his daughter, caught assisting a runaway, was sold south. At that point, the eye of the narrator abandoned Kinte and followed the daughter. She was raped by her new master, and gave birth to his son, who was not acknowledged until the end of the masters life. 

For seven generations, the story continues. Gossip among the slaves marked the independence of America, the slavery debate, and ultimately, the Civil War. There is a particularly thoughtful scene where the master gathered the slaves and explained that they were now free, and could leave if they wanted to. They did. 

Throughout each new generation, a story is told and retold about the African named Kunta Kinte, a few words of his native tongue, and how he crossed the ocean in a slave ship bound for America.  

Despite their freedom, the family confronted profound racism and struggled to make their way. Working against intimidating obstacles, some family members excelled in their fields, one as a cockfighting trainer, another as a blacksmith, a third as a scholar. 

The moment that overcame me was about thirty pages from the end, when the last progeny of the line was born: Alex Haley, the author. 

It turned out, the entire story was true. The final pages recount Haley’s efforts to track down his family’s story from the few details that had been passed down, about the great-great-great-grandfather, an African named Kinte. It tells of Haley traveling to Gambia, to his family’s village, and learning the stories. He confirmed the name of the ship his ancestor boarded as a slave, bound for America. 

Roots is not just a classic, it is an epic achievement in literature. Haley, through fortune and hard work, was able to tell a story about his family that is inaccessible for most. I was truly moved.


Published in: on February 20, 2020 at 2:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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