“Roots” as Scripture and Scripture as Roots
Podcast with Richard Newton (5 October 2020).
Interviewed by Breann Fallon
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/roots-as-scripture-and-scripture-as-roots/
Alex Haley, Roots, Scripture, Race, Identity, American history
Breann Fallon (BF) 0:06
It’s Bre Fallon here, and I am joined today by Assistant Professor Richard Newton. Dr. Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He received his PhD in critical comparative scriptures from Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Newton’s areas of interest include theory and method in the study of religion, African American History, New Testament in western imagination, American cultural politics and pedagogy in religious studies. His research explores how people create scriptures and how these productions operate in the formation of identities and cultural boundaries. In addition to an array of book chapters and online essays Dr. Newton has published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Religion, Compass, and Religion and Theology, just to name a few. His new book Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures has been published as part of the Culture on the Edge book series edited by Steven Ramey, published by Equinox, and this book casts Alex Haley’s Roots as a case study in the dynamics of scriptures and identity politics, critical implications for the study of race, religion, and media. You can learn more about his research and pedagogy at his social media professional development site, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture and Teaching. Welcome, Richard.
Richard Newton (RN) 1:34
Thanks for having me.
I’m very excited to talk about your new book today. I was just confessing to you before we hit the record button that, as an Australian, I had never heard of this book Roots by Alex Halley or Haley?
So, tell us a bit about a bit about the book and why it’s the center of your new book.
Well, I think the place to start is to recognize that the importance of anything called “scripture” doesn’t really rely upon the text being read. And so for me, it’s actually quite a treat to talk to someone who’s not familiar with Alex Haley’s Roots because much like someone would think of like the Gideon Bible or something along those lines, there’s power in the presence of the text or in the idea of the text, and the legacy that extends beyond the text itself. So, for those who aren’t familiar with Alex Haley’s Roots, the best way to probably present it is to say that it was sort of a social media phenomena before social media. So, in 1976, which was kind of the United States Bicentennial year. Its birthday, if you will. Alex Haley, an African American author, who was famous for The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley—he sort of worked with Malcolm X on writing and codifying that autobiography—Alex Haley presented his family story in this large saga form. And the way the story goes is that Alex Haley, you know, a mid-20th century African American—or Black American at the time, I should say—was able to trace his family’s origins through oral history and archival research to the African who landed on the, in the British colonies in the United—in the contemporary United States and was able to connect Kunta Kinte, was his name, to his ancestral line and could sort of trace it over the span of multiple generations—over you know, a couple hundred years. And so his story of how he traced it, and who these people are, and what most importantly, how they led to his family being one of prominence and success in the United States became a story that was paradigm-changing for how Americans and many others thought about history, family history, race, and origins. And so, whether one has read Roots or not, Roots has likely impacted modern sensibilities about how we trace where we come from, and how that relates to who we are.
And in terms of how this book was received at the time, it sort of made quite a splash. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, I mean, I think just by the numbers, Alex Haley’s Roots was just a phenomenon that really was unheard of, especially for literature and then television, revolving around Black peoples. So, Alex Haley’s book came out in the sort of the fourth quarter of 1976, and it was the top selling book, save for [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, which was on the Watergate scandal in the United States. So, in a couple of months, this book rose to that level of prominence that it was like the number two book in the country. It went on to live—to win a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize citation, and many other sort of honorifics, and very quickly was made into a television miniseries that was must see television in the United States that came out in January 1977 over the course of a week, and the viewing numbers of it were record-breaking for decades, really. I mean, the numbers of people who tuned in to watch this miniseries that revolved around Black people in the story of enslavement and emancipation and the telling of American history from the perspective of Black peoples, the numbers rivaled the Super Bowl. So, you know, if football American football is the sort of penultimate television event in the United States, Alex Haley’s Roots was right there with it for decades. And so, this is—this is the kind of thing that now would have hashtags on social media following it and all the like, but you know in 1976 that looked like sellout bookstores. It looked like people—families crowded over televisions watching each installment of the miniseries. It was water cooler talk at the workplace the next day. People are having conversations not only about Roots (miniseries), but where were people’s families during the moments discussed in Roots, whether it was, you know, the Civil War or Jim Crow or enslavement or the American Revolution, and how did your family participate in this or not? This is the sort of conversation that Roots reoriented, and if you have a sort of sense of history needing to be decolonized—I know previous guests have discussed—Alex Haley’s Roots was a big part of that movement in the popular imagination and not just the academy.
How has the academy treated Roots up until this point? Because in your book, you take quite a different methodological approach to the analysis of the book. But up until now, it’s sort of been treated in a certain way.
Yeah, Roots has been—it’s been the source of love and hate and the academy. And I think one could say the same of a lot of the subject matters that scholars of religion discuss, right? Like everyone wants to talk about religion, but no one wants to talk about religion in a deep way. I think the same as happened with Alex Haley’s Roots insofar as Roots was a very popular culture phenomena, like it was, I mean, it’s a 700-800-page book. But people bought it, and people read it. And people have often thought of American history alongside with Roots and using the language of roots to discuss it. And in so doing, though, it’s kind of a rival to a lot of histories that come out of the academy. So, interestingly enough, literary critics and professional historians really decried Roots upon its release, and all throughout it was kind of seen as too low brow to be discussed with any seriousness in the academy. I would say over the last 10 years, I mean, even when I was writing this as part of my dissertation and even doctoral research prior to there’s very little work done, and then only recently has there—have there been a few books in different fields, media studies, history for sure. Where these books have on Roots have sort of come back into the public view, into the academic—the academy rather. And so that’s been really interesting to see, like, why are people thinking about this, and part of it is probably a postmodern turn. Also, we’re in an era where popular phenomena of yesteryear are being rebooted. So, Roots has actually been remade in recent memory of just last few years and was also wildly successful and debuted on the History Channel, of all channels. And so that’s brought a lot of academic attention back to this story that changed, as publisher said in 1976, the book that changed America.
In terms of the book and how it was received, you write in the introduction to your work that Roots is so enmeshed in the canonical narrative of America. And part of the stance you take is this idea of Roots as a scripture. And I was wondering if we could go down that route telling us about this concept of this text as a scriptural form?
Yeah, and I suppose that it’s likely provocative to call a book like one that you’ve never heard of, for instance, or don’t have much experience with—and maybe many listeners don’t have much experience with—to call it a scripture, especially since it’s not associated with any particular world religion, right. And that’s how we often think of these terms. For me, the way that I want to deploy that term is to think about text and identity formation, like cultural texts, and then how we make sense of the world around us and position ourselves in relationship to other people, to other ideas, to institutions, and the like. And so, the way that I’ve been framing scriptures in this book and other research is that scriptures refers to this cultural text that people seem to read, but that also seem to read people back. Like what is this impulse in which people feel like if they pull out a book, they pull up a, you know, sacrosanct story, that that’s going to be the trump card that defines how people should be read and seen and how things actually are in the world? And that scriptural impulse is what I’m sort of thinking about here with Roots. And in fact, that roots metaphor that Alex Haley’s playing with in the title of his book, I think it goes to that point, like when we talk about the root of a problem, or the root of a matter, we’re talking about that sort of isolated, single je ne sais quoi that defines something against everything else, you know, that defines a language game and [Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s terms. And I think scriptures are a presentation of that. Scriptures are the instances of that codified into material or whatever media and done so with such gusto and success that we forget that they are created and invented by human beings.
And you sort of turn this concept on its head, you say, you know, we need to think about Roots as a sort of scripture, scripture as roots, which is this concept you’ve just talked about, which is this idea of, of the codifying of sort of human existence. In terms of analyzing scriptures, in general, how do you think we should be going about that, anthropologically, so to speak?
Yeah. And I think that the anthropological piece for me is the most important as sort subtitle sort of denotes and that’s really building on the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, actually, who wrote a book called What is Scripture: A Comparative Approach, in which he tried to take the sort of scriptural texts of the world religions, and use them as an opportunity to think about the phenomena of scriptures in the category of scriptures and bring some more sort of analytical teeth to it. And I think the biggest takeaway for me from his work is that he said that he suggested that scholars should think about scriptures not in ontological terms—as in scriptures are a thing, an object—but rather that they’re relational that there’s an anthropology, the scriptures. And so I’ve taken that, building on the work of Vincent Wimbush and James Watts and many others who’ve been working on this category, and I’ve tried to run with it toward developing a model of an anthropology of scriptures, in which we look at developing a sort of theoretical grammar and vocabulary for talking about the work that people do with scriptures. So, if we use the term “roots,” right, and we grant the idea that I said that oftentimes people think of scriptures in this sort of ontological root-book way, that it’s just a thing. It just exists in and of itself on its own, sui generis, if you will. Let’s read ascribe that in terms of the anthropology where we think about it really in light of what people do with, in, and around it. And the way that I’ve tried to parse this out is by thinking about scriptures, yes as roots and the sort of vehicle for rootedness, but also let’s look at the dynamics and processes that come with it. So people use scriptures to uproot, right, they uproot other people—like I’m going to pull out this text, I’m going to reference this, I’m going to draw upon this narrative to show that I am superior to you and you are wrong, incorrect, out of place. And so, we can uproot or displace others with scriptures. We can route, like r-o-u-t-e, or we can, you know, save roots if you prefer this sense, we’re kind of in this liminal space, right? Where we’re working through trying to make sense of the world, you win some, you lose some, and then the text is present with us. It’s ever-present with us as we work through it, because we’re committed to the text in this kind of canonical relationship to draw upon J.Z. Smith, right? The sacred persistence of the canon is that we continue to keep coming back to it and working ourselves out through it. I would say that’s routing—r-o-u-t-i-n-g. And then we also can take root to that if we’re successful in life, if we are able to meet our ends with the help of this text, that it becomes natural, right? It becomes naturalized. We become complacent and can take root in our social situation. And so, I’ve wondered to what extent can we use that kind of model of uproot and routing and taking root to chart what is happening with people’s identification with cultural texts? And that’s what I mean by a sort of anthropology of scriptures. And while Alex Haley’s Roots for me as a case study or a model of how these politics work, I think we could apply that same model to any number of cultural texts—religious/non-religious, ancient/modern, sacred/profane, you name it—to think about the ways that we identify ourselves and each other.
So in terms of—actually, before we jump into how Alex Haley’s Roots “roots, uproots, and routes,” if we want to go that way, I’m just wondering, are we in this sense, not desacralizing, but are we removing scriptures from the notion of sacredness in this understanding of how they can be analyzed anthropologically?
Yeah, I mean, to me, I suppose I am. I don’t even think I would apply the term like methodologically atheistic or agnostic because I don’t think we need to even go there yet. Let’s talk about questions of theology and sacredness when we take, as an example, the wide human creativity that we can see and things like cultural texts that, like, if we’re going to redescribe, how human beings do what they do, they are so amazingly creative, that we need not draw upon a deus ex machina to help answer those questions. And so, I don’t know if I need to take out the sacred, as much as there’s a lot of work to be done before we ever get to questions of the sacred when it comes to thinking about what human beings can do. Because the reality is, right is that even though we could say, “oh, all sorts of people have scriptures,” and in fact that you look at any number of textbooks, in religious studies, especially, and you’ll see the sort of comparison of “well, what’s this religion’s scripture, what’s that religion’s scripture?” And we know all well and good that people from religion to religion, and even within religions, disagree about the data that we’re charting there. But they do recognize the sort of power and politics around those texts. And I’m interested in parsing and analyzing and redescribing all the work that’s going on there, right—the operational acts of identification, to reference Jean François Bayart, rather than identity as some static fixed thing. I want to look at what people are doing with these texts, and with each other, and the power and politics that come with that, before we ever get to looking at whether one’s claims about how the world actually is, is verifiably true or something. So, I don’t think I have to get to the issues of the sacred to appreciate what human beings are doing in my analysis and sort of inventory of these works. Does that make sense?
It definitely makes sense. Is what we’re talking about the way that scriptures really play into identity politics before we get to the notion of the sacred? And in terms of Roots, there is a sort of a dual conversation in terms of how two different groups are responding to that book. We have the Black community and we have the white community. So, can you talk about the way Roots “roots, uproots, and routes” to different communities in terms of identity politics?
Yeah, and I think that’s the that’s the story. You know, when we think about scriptures—and Michel de Certeau talked about this in terms of “scriptural economy,” that within a shared space, social actors are working to determine you know, the notion of value and how much value one thing or one person has—but then also he said in relationship to the scriptural economies, the real thing to watch for is revolution, in which the terms upon which we understand value change, like scriptural revolution being the new paradigm that’s introduced when, let’s say a new text comes on the scene, right, a new cultural text becomes “the word.” And with Roots, this is precisely what happens. In, let’s say, prior to 1976. And this during this sort of post-Civil Rights movement, sociologist of religion, Michael Eric Dyson said that you had this sort of malaise, after the Civil Rights Movement about the laws had changed, about the role, place, and value of Black people in the United States. But people’s hearts had not changed. And if the laws and the sort of new movements ushered in by Civil Rights, great changed laws in jurisprudence, Roots changed the hearts of Americans to reconcile or make sense of how Black people get fit into that historical mosaic. And this is how that worked: Alex Haley basically said that, in order to become American, truly American, you have to know who you are where you came from, to be great in this country.
Black people, for the most part, were not able to tap into that kind of rhetoric because they had no history in the eyes of all the gatekeepers of history in the United States, the literati, you know, professional scholars, you name it, right? It was sort of conventional wisdom, that there is kind of a blank space in the history books about how Black people come on the scene because of slavery. There is no even real past beyond slavery. And if there is, it’s all savagery. I mean, this is the kind of way that textbooks and the logics of history work. I even talked about in the book how in the 1990s and early 2000s—even on my own birth certificate, this was true—in the state of Texas, race was listed with scientific racist terms. Like I would be listed and my parents were listed as “negroids.” It’s only in the late like, the last 10 years that that was changed after a lot of Civil Rights litigation. So, this just goes to show sort of the ways in which racism is really enmeshed in how we make sense of the world, not just in this country but in modernity. What Alex Haley did that was say, here’s an, here’s an alternative narrative. I know where I came from. And my family has been extremely successful. My dad was a professor, my mom was an accomplished pianist. I was a journalist, I, you know, have been able to write the story of Black people for audiences who are reading mass media publications, and you’re able to see the sort of brilliance and genius of Black culture through my pen. I can show you with that same pen that I do have a past and that my history book extends all the way back to the Gambia, where I descended from a man named Kunta Kinte, who loves freedom so much that when he was enslaved and African brought to the United States, he ran three times tried to run three times, and then the third time, the slave master chopped off his foot. But he continued to endure and persevere because he realized that there was hope if he could start an African tribe in the new world, that there could be hope. And so he passed along the knowledge of his Mandinka people, and in some extent, to some extent, his upbringing as a Muslim, to future generations who pass it on orally, all the way down to Alex Haley, who was able to record this story after talking with family members and looking at research in museums and archives from all across the world, and conferring with an African oral storyteller named—called Agrio, that he could chronicle this history. And this would be the new story of American triumph. This would be the manifest destiny that if people knew their roots and knew that America was greater than what the current history books said, but what Haley was writing as truth and fact and history, then there’s a new paradigm for all of us to take hold on—we can root ourselves in that new kind of knowledge that actually creates space for white people and black people alike, because everyone comes from somewhere, according to Alex Haley, and this is how we work it out. We deal with uproot, we route around for a while, but eventually, if we can find truth, we can find our history, if we can find our roots, we can take root in this place called America and have the American dream, just like all those people who may have done wrong to us, but we can join them. And that’s the power of scriptures. I mean, that’s the power of colonialism, too, isn’t it, right? Like that, that the story of oppression can become your own story if you work it enough. And Alex Haley sort of presents a new paradigm for that.
So, I guess in a sense, Alex Haley, almost sort of defines national identity, genealogy, and roots—would you say that’s what the book does?
Genealogy and roots as vehicles for knowledge have a sort of truth about what [Haley] would call “Black uplift.” That no matter what, if you work hard and do your best, and use the tools and resources before you and work for the American dream, then you too can be American. I think he understood his hist—he understood history and writing as being especially powerful tools and writing one’s own story. And if this is unfamiliar to listeners today, I would say there’s two ways that you can kind of see how powerful this sort of narrative is. And the one is to look at the rap lyrics of Kendrick Lamar or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, right, the television show, or Black Panther, The Lion King, all of these stories have allusions to Roots. In fact, were made possible because of the kind of media sensation Roots was. The other way to look at this is to see this Broadway play Hamilton, that’s also been really powerful in the United States is now I know making waves internationally—this sort of notion of this founding father of American history, who writes his way into the story of this country that’s coming through revolution and becoming something greater than the sum of its colonial parts. I mean, this is this sort of idea that one can write one’s history and write oneself into greatness really is a telltale signs of the kind of identity politics that happened with, in, and around scriptures.
I think it’s important to pick up on something you just raised, which is the relevance of Roots today. You sort of mentioned Kendrick Lamar and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and I wonder if we can tie this to the Black Lives Matter movement that’s currently going on around the world?
Yeah, I mean, the, the there was no way for me to write this book without not thinking about the context in which I was coming up and what was happening around me, and you know that the strange thing about writing a book, right, when you press send or you press, you know write down the last period, history continues, right, and it only you hope becomes more relevant. And you gain more insights through the reflection that comes after you drop the pen or turn off the computer. And so, the movement continues, the work continues. And what I would say about the Black Lives Matter movement and Roots is that this idea that America is a project that needs tending is what we see in Civil Rights Movement and in the Black Lives Matter movement. And there’s a question as to how to go about doing that work. So, the techniques and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement, some would say, today won’t work any longer because we are a victim of the Civil Rights movement success. Martin Luther King Jr., who was persona non grata, who was set up by American intelligence agencies, you know, like all sorts of things were done by the United States government to discredit King and so many other Civil Rights movements. He now has a holiday in this country, and people who voted against the Civil Rights movement, when it’s Martin Luther King’s birthday will champion, you know, King by parroting a few lines, that the Civil Rights movement so often has become a slogan, a tagline. And the Black Lives Matter movement is sort of a response to say, look, we haven’t arrived, we the dream has not been realized.
There’s so much work that has to be done because people are still dying here on account of how they are racialized, how racism works in this country, because it—racism is alive and well. And Roots, I think, it steps into the story insofar as it creates a vocabulary for people to draw upon, right, this notion of the roots of the movement. We see this being used when Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who took a knee rather than standing up for the national anthem in this country and received a lot of slack and hate and threats. You know, you can see him wearing a shirt, a Kunta Kinte shirt, you know, with the name of the sort of ancestral figure noted in Roots. Hip hop artists are drawing upon Kunta Kinte, and the story of Kunta Kinte, and the strength of Kunta Kinte as something was channeling, conjuring siphoning for the work of the movement today. And in the reboot of Roots, you get a much more active look at Black people’s role in the writing of American history. And I’ve been writing in the fact that they fought back against the power. Women are given a voice that wasn’t even seen in be original. I mean, they’re, they’re sly, they’re cutting, they’re strategic, they are working to dismantle the system so that Black lives can matter. There [inaudible], but also in the world of the viewers. And so, this is a—Roots has a place in the Black Lives Matter movement, um, insofar as it is a resource to make sense of the world and also to critique the world and critique narratives that have—that are no longer serving us well.
In terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, sort of becoming more prominent as you were writing the book, did that have any impact on how you saw Roots as some form of scripture, scriptural texts—the fact that it was so exceedingly relevant still in this in this movement?
I think the way that Roots became more relevant to me through the rise of the movement, and this is really between the time of my dissertat—completing my dissertation and then sort of scrapping the dissertation, writing the book, right? Um, the thing that I’ve realized was that Roots was successful, but only so successful. And I talk about the way in which Roots has been used, and some would say appropriated, but I would just say, right, scripturalized by audiences that might find themselves on different sides of the color line, different sides of the politics of identity, different sides of a congressional aisle. And it was in its success to be a medium for anyone to choose and use and deputized into their arguments, but also in the fact that we’re still having some of the same conversations about civil rights, that I realized that part of understanding the anthropology of scriptures is looking at the way in which Roots must be tended by human beings. That it’s never, you know, I think sometimes people want to say, “Oh, you studied Roots because of the super successful book.” And that’s not why I studied Roots. I studied Roots because it’s a book that people continue to find the need to tend.
So, even though Roots was written in 1976, you still have people talking about Roots, and genealogy has never been more popular. In fact, now we don’t just look at archives, we look at DNA, right? And we send off, you know, vials of spit to see where we came from and who we are and what that might mean for us. I mean, that’s weird, right? Like, we should stop and say how weird that is. It’s that same impulse though, that we see when people go to a book to try to make sense of who they are and where they come from. That’s also weird too. But we do it and it makes the world go round. It uproots others it helps us route through the world strange worlds at that and it helps us take roots in new worlds, and that scriptural impulse I think became even clear to me, as the Black Lives Matter movement was this—arose in this moment of bewilderment for so many people who are like, why isn’t America working the way that I was told in school and elsewhere? And I mean, now we’re seeing that in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined when I finished the first draft of this book, as you see this sort of uprising that’s happening all over the country and all over the world.
Now, there’s one thing that I just want to quickly touch on before we wrap up, which is this idea that you just raised about Roots has continually tended to, continually sort of raised in particular moments, and you do mention in the book the way it’s raised by politicians. You open the book with the fact that Senator Lamar Alexander references a quote from Roots, which is “find the good and praise it.” Can we just finish off by talking about politicians drawing on the text?
Yeah, it’s uh so I start off the book talking about how Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Republican senator from Tennessee, who understood himself to be a friend Alex Haley, who was also from Tennessee, uses this during a time when he’s supposed to help inaugurate President Barack Obama, Democrat, African American, into the White House. And so, in his ceremony he talks about, this is a moment to find the good and praise it no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, you know that we can transfer power from one official to another. That’s the American spirit and we need to uplift that above party politics. Interestingly enough, I mean, I think that’s a—there’s, there are a couple ways one can read that but I think even more poignantly, now we see the way that Roots is operating as a tool for damage control, and one could say there was operating as damage control there for a white republican senator to have to put on a happy face while a political opponent who’s African American is rising into the White House. Once again, let’s use Roots to help us get there. Another instance in which this happened was when a governor of Virginia very recently was caught—not caught, it’s the wrong word—but he was found to have worn blackface earlier in his youth. And so what did PR team say he was going to do? He was going to read Roots—I kid you not. They said he’s going to read Roots and Ta-Nehisi Coates in order to understand how race works in this country. This is 2019—2019 when this happens. It’s amazing to see the way that Roots continues to be sourced, resourced, tended, appealed to, to work out issues when things are rough, especially along racial lines. And this is, this is how scriptures work. You don’t have to read them, but it’s nice to know they’re there and can be called upon when necessary.
Well, we have to wrap up there, Richard. But my goodness, that was so fascinating. And I just want to give the title of the book again for everybody. Richard’s upcoming book is Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures, published by Equinox as part of the Culture on the Edge book series. But thank you again so much, Richard, for chatting to me today.
Thank you very much. It was a treat.
Richard Newton and Breann Fallon. 2020. “‘Roots’ as Scripture and Scripture as Roots”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 5 October 2020. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 5 October 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/roots-as-scripture-and-scripture-as-roots/
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