ROOTS by Alex Haley | Review first published Sept. 26, 1976


I cannot guess what Alex Haley’s countrymen will make of his birthday present to us during this election and bicentennial year. One is tempted to say that it could scarcely have come at a more awkward time — what with the conventions, the exhibition of candidates, the dubious state of this particular and perhaps increasingly dubious union, and the American attempt, hopelessly and predictably schizophrenic, of preventing total disaster, for white people and for the West, in South Africa. There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it.

What most significantly fills this void, or threatens to, is the presence, in America, of the world’s first genuine black Westerner. Created here in pain and darkness, remnant of slaughter, his hour may, at last, and in mysterious, unprecedented ways, have begun to strike. Certainly a bell is tolling now for all that the Western peoples imagined would last forever. This electoral contest, taking place in an arena which is, presently, at the very center of the troubled world, seems to have invested the black vote with a power, and exhibits toward it a respect, which the black vote has never, in the memory of the living, had before. This has not happened before now for the very simple reason that, until now, Americans were able to prevent it from happening. They cannot prevent it now simply because — they cannot; it is not because the Americans have seen a great light. They need the moral authority of their former slaves, who are the only people in the world who know anything about them and who may be, indeed, the only people in the world who really care anything about them.

In any event, and no matter how diversely, and with what contradictions, the black vote is cast in the 24 years left of this century’s life, the impact of the visible, overt, black presence on the political machinery of this country alters, forever, the weight and the meaning of the black presence in the world.

This means that the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility — which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new — and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which means that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now.

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