TW: Mentions Of Sexual Violence, Rape
Exploring African oral traditions, American writer Alex Haley published his novel Roots: The Saga of An American Family in 1976 “debuting at number five of The New York Times Bestseller” (“Roots: The Saga of An American Family”).
Alex Haley was a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Roots, a powerful book about slavery in the United States.
Retracing his ancestral ties up to seven generations, Haley narrates the life of 18th century Mandinka man “Kunta Kinte”, captured as an adolescent by “toubobs” (white men) from Juffure (Gambia, West Africa) during the era of the slave trade and sold in a plantation in North America. Elucidating Kunta’s life and subsequently shifting to his daughter’s, the novel makes a triumphant endeavor at discerning the constant psychological battle that Africans had to fight in order to adapt within a society where they were repetitively shoved at the bottom rung of an inter-subjective racial hierarchy.
Moreover, black women’s issues, gender biases influenced by racism, otherwise unfolding discreetly in the shadow of rampant slave atrocities have been illustrated in a very straightforward manner. Haley’s narration reveals an African society entrapped within patriarchal patterns of power structures and revives the racist American landscape of the 18th century.
The power structure in the context of a family is primarily associated with the allocation of authority to different members. In Juffure, power flow was hierarchical and purely patriarchal i.e., while women held a rank of certain influence in the family, men reflected the figure of supreme power. Male perspective often shaped the lives of women.
In Kunta’s family, ‘Omoro’ (father) as the “head” is entitled to the execution of certain essential decisions. During Kunta’s naming ceremony, he engages himself in the task of finding a name for “his” firstborn son. His musings were done “on behalf of himself and Binta” (p2), while Binta (mother) being a woman, doesn’t have a say in the matter. She further accepts this spontaneously as a part of what traditional gender roles conditioned her to do.
Similar to how grandmother Nyo Boto takes pride in being the second wife to the famous ancestor, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, Binta confines her identity as an extension to that of her husband’s (and her sons’). Her existence as a mother and wife is what provides her with enough dignity to receive a plot for cultivating rice according to “how many mouths [she] had to feed with rice” (p5). A women’s entitlement to property or private space such as a separate hut thus could not be associated with her individual identity but her capability to serve a family.
Omoro’s odds of marrying a second wife (which is precise to satisfy his sexual needs while Binta is engaged in Kunta’s care) could jeopardize the only “respectable” position she held. Being brought up in the same society, Kunta often looks at women as objects whose essentiality lies only in their reproductive capability, who can “bear him a son of his own” (p15).
Moreover, women were never offered socio-political representation in decision-making associated with village conflicts even after forming a significant percentage of Juffure’s population. The council of Elders dealing with village disputes was at its core, quite a misogynistic political body. Composed largely of Juffure’s older men, inhabitants were made to sit in a fashion depending on their dominance.
Women were consequently made to sit at the outermost edge during the formal sessions of the council, even behind men who were younger. They were further repetitively stereotyped as members who attended the meeting only “if a case held the promise of some juicy gossip” (p135).
Matrimonial conflicts were indirectly protesting against the husband’s incapability at “owning” his wife’s body.
Men charged that their wives … were unwilling to make love…senior elders usually told the husband to go that day and set any three possessions of his wife’s outside her hut and utter towards these possessions, three times, with witnesses present, the words “I divorce you”. (p138)
Such verdicts from a political body consented to unjustified regulation of a woman’s sexuality. Social constructs such as virginity were extremely essential deliberations in an institution like marriage. A newlywed woman had to constantly prove her “purity” to the ‘alimamo’ (spiritual leader) and her husband through the “bloodiness” of a white cloth failing which the husband had the right to divorce her immediately.
Women also accused men at times however these matters failed to receive a comprehensible verdict. For example, charges by a woman such as “[claiming that] her husband was…inadequate in bed” were constantly framed “serious” as women were expected to unconditionally respect their husbands. They were further prone to obscene trials.
The elders would appoint three old persons…a date and time would be set for them to observe the wife and husband together in his bed…if the two observers voted that the husband performed well, he…could beat the wife and divorce her if he wished too. (p139)
In the course of the slave trade, suppression of women became layered. Primarily, black men like Kunta constantly expected women like Bell-who was quite an anomalous figure for an “ideal” Mandinka woman- to restructure themselves according to African patriarchal customs. Bell, however, suppressed by systemic racism and misogyny, makes endeavors to uplift her status as an individual, especially in proximity of her partner and daughter.
While Kunta repetitively objects to her habits of dancing, smoking, and whatever she does for Kizzy (such as taking her to the church), Bell also confidently articulates (despite Kunta’s slightly violent tendencies of anger) her objection over Kunta’s actions that might entice suspicion from Massa Waller.
Alex Haley and Roots are viewed as essential works on racism, however, the book suffers from a very patriarchal male gaze by the author.
Thus, while both Kunta and Bell “[lacking] institutional power…possess a limited amount of power within their nuclear family unit (Jane Plat, “Power relationship within Roots”)”, Massa Waller, a white man is entitled to enough political and institutional privileges to sell Kizzy to another plantation after she forges a traveling pass for another slave.
Male-dominated hegemonic power not only deteriorated families, such as Kizzy’s bitter separation from her parents, it also regulated and surveyed the lives of both black and white women, gravely aggravating the former’s plight. Incidents of rape and sexual abuse of black women are testimony to the gendered nature of power structures within the racist America of that time.
Massa Lea, who rapes Kizzy and gets her pregnant at a very young age represents how the commodification of black women was extremely normalized in plantations. Miss Malizy further asserts Kizzy’s helplessness
“Honey you jes’ well’s realize you’s a nigger woman. De kind of white man massa is, you either gives in, or he gwine make you wish you had, one way or ‘nother.” (p431)
While white women being the oppressed gender in one context and oppressor in another, “their sexuality was heavily regulated by law as well as by culture. Adultery was considered a greater offense for women than for men, and was punished more harshly.” (J.M. Allain, “Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis”).
Any such relations (even under mutual consent) were determined as a “threat” to the racial order of the society. White women were their partner’s “property” and hence their “purity” remained under strict surveillance.
Overall, even though Haley paints a powerful portrait of Black women’s oppression, the excessive presence of the male gaze in the narrative is suffocating as it steals the very position that could have been given to women in order to vocalize the female perspective and therefore the perspective of the oppressed.
Haley bestows a large part of the voice to the dominating gender. Not only does the shift of perspective occurs principally between men, from Omoro to Kunta, from Massa Lea to Chicken George, but women’s bodies and opinions are also subjected to stereotypes fabricated by the male gaze. Their lives and their thoughts have been limited to wailing about their sons and husbands or exchanging “juicy gossip” among themselves.
Binta’s satisfaction is displayed throughout her presence in the novel however the absence of her own reflections on her societal rank as a mother and wife among oppressive customs robs her emotions of authenticity. Further ahead in the narrative, Kizzy is revealed as a woman devastated over being sexually abused, however, once she gets pregnant, chicken George occupies the narrative.
Kizzy’s introspection over being sold away, then sexually assaulted and the manner in which she’s dealing with the trauma has not been given enough space in the narrative. Contrary to these characters, the author has done justice to Bell by displaying her anomality in Kunta’s notions of a woman, powerfully reflecting protest against a patriarchally rigid mindset.