Ethiopia: African American Literature in ‘Roots’, ‘Beloved’ and Other Comparisons

‘Roots: The Saga of American Family’ was written in 1976 by Alex Haley and tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in Africa and then transported to North America. The novel follows the lives and struggles of his descendants in the US down to the author himself. The publication of the book was followed by its television serial adaptation that create a cultural storm both among the black and white populations leading to the record sales and instant fame and glory to the author. The novel on the New York Times was in best-selling list for forty-six week and as number one for twenty-two weeks.

On the other hand, the contemporary novel ‘Amricanha’ by a Nigerian young female writer called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a continuation of the black American literary tradition in the sense that both books deal with race, ethnicity, being black in America and the conflicting destinies of their characters. Although both Roots and Americanah are written by black writers of African descent, they are at the same time different as far as the setting, time, locations and characters as well as their thematic focus are concerned.

While Roots deals with being black in slave-owning America, Americanha deals with being a member of the African or black Diaspora in the US long after the abolishing of slavery and the assumption of freedom by descendants of the former slaves. The two books therefore serve as points of reference if not comparison as to how the America of slavery has changed and changed the lives of its former slaves almost two hundred years after the abolishment of slavery or how the black Diaspora in America are faring in the 21st century that has seen the election of a black American president and success and failures of black assimilation in American white society and after the birth of a new protest movement known as Black Lives Matter.

According to Wikipedia, African American literature is defined as the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. It all started in the 18th century when slavery was at its worst and the plight of slaves books ported to American southern states found expressions in the pages by writers who escaped slavery and managed to register the history and lives of their black compatriots. The stories were known as “slave narratives” and were accounts by people who escaped from slavery about their journey to freedom and ways they claimed their freedom.

The second major period in African literature and the arts is known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ which consisted of a period of flowering of arts and literature black or African immigrants who left the southern states and went up to the north where they assimilated with the predominantly white population. This was known as the Great Migration.

Modern African American literature is therefore the descendant of slave narratives of born in the southern US and the creative contributions of black writers after the Harlem Renaissance which was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theatre, politics and scholarship based in New York city in the 1920s. The evolution of African American literature from the days of slavery from the Harlem Renaissance to the present has gone through various stages of changes and maturity both in thematic orientation and narrative techniques. A case in point might for instance be a comparison between the subject matters of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ and Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’.

While Haley’s narrative in Roots is about the fate of former slaves from Africa, tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ deals with the aftermath of slavery and so-called non-racial America where the ghost of slavery is haunting many of the descendants of former slaves. As such, there is a thematic unity between Roots and Beloved in the sense that they both tell the same story with different perspectives. While Alex Haley gives us a raw account of the early days of slavery in America, Tony Morrison’s account in ‘Beloved’ takes place in a later period.

‘Beloved is the story of period of slavery. It is the story of a black woman called Margaret Garner, who had escaped slavery but has been pursued by slave hunters and faces a return to slavery. It was at this time that she kills her two-year old daughter and was captured before she could kill herself. The dead baby (i.e. Beloved) return as a ghost to haunt her mother and the family. The story was told in a surrealistic style which is different from Alex Haley’s realistic style of narrative.

The lives and struggles of Diaspora Africans have long become the subjects or major themes in modern black literature in America as well as Africa. A number of African authors have addressed this issue in their works and a stream of new writings has marked a resurgence of a major black Diaspora literature almost two hundred years after the American Civil War. This tradition is still continuing as made evident by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose third novel (2013) ‘Americanha’ which is an exploration of a young Nigerian encountering race in America.

‘Americanha’ is in a sense an autobiographical novel based on the author’s experiences when she was a college student in the US. “Adichie was not accustomed to being identified by the color of her skin, which only began to happen when she arrives in the United States. As a black African in America, Adichie was confronted with what it meant to be a person of color America. Race as an idea became something that she had to navigate. She then wrote about her experience in the novel.”

According to the above description, we can say that there is an organic link between the three novels, that is to say, ‘Roots’, ‘Beloved’ and ‘Americanha’ all of them dealing with racism and exploring the implications of being black in America. The novels are not united by their themes but also through their conclusions. America might have changed as a country but it has little changed as a nation built on slavery and slave labor and black oppression. America might be multicultural and multiracial but this does not change the fact that she is also racist, the majority of black Americans still shouldering the heavy weight of racism which has not changed even after a black American president entered the White House.

Alex Haley’s America is a nascent slave owning and slave trading nation whose economy was being supported by slaves who labored day and night in cotton plantations in the southern United States, in order to feed the growing textile industry with raw materials and labor. The former slaves who migrate to the north during the Great northern migration too labored in the nascent industrial centers where the car and railway industries required massive infusion of cheap black labor for their growth. In ‘Beloved’ Tony Morrison is not dealing with modern slavery but with the kind of slavery around the time Haley wrote his famous ‘Roots’. In this was Adichie is the author who has dealt with the modern face of American society based on racial prejudices and direct or indirect racist profiling. Adichie’s novel is set in the America of ‘Black Lives Matter’, when African Americans are gunned down in daylight police brutality and racial injustice, oppression and exploitation.

The emergence of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a stark reality as to the issue of race taking unprecedented importance in American political discourse although many supporters of the racist establishment look at this phenomenon as communist, Leftist or alien conspiracies. The importance of Adichie is not only that she has laid bare the earliest features of racism America. She has also sent a clarion call for joint struggle against the system that harbors and reproduces the same racist mentalities and behaviors in a society where the majority of Americans are opposed to racism and the political and economic alienation of black people in almost all walks of life.

Although Americanha is a novel about Nigeria and its educated middle class, the fact that the major characters immigrate to the US and UK and observe and experience the prominence of race force them to acknowledge that racism is still going strong in Western societies. The implicit message might also be a warning to Africans to look at the so-called American Dream critically and celebrate their won blackness or and African roots at the same time that they are fighting against the system.

Adichie does not make a bold call to Africans in the Western Diaspora return to the roots or go back to Africa as Marcus Garvey and his comrades did back in the 1920s and 30s. Her call might be subtle and by giving us a stark or literary description of modern racism, she is warning us that the struggle should continue until the end of racism as an institution and as an idea wherever it is found. Like the dead child in Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, racism is going to haunt us akin a ghost born more than two hundred years ago.


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