Deep Roots

updated 02/24/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1992 01:00AM

Omoro then walked out before all of the assembled people of the village. Moving to his wife's side, he lifted up the infant and, as all watched, whispered three times into his son's ear the name he had chosen for him....

The tan-tang drum resounded again; and now Omoro whispered the name into the ear of Binta, and Binta smiled with pride and pleasure. Then Omoro whispered the name to the ara-fang, who stood before the villagers.

"The first child of Omoro and Binta Kinte is named Kunta!"

—Roots
Alex Haley

IN THE EARLY '70S, WHILE ALEX HALEY was exploring his African heritage, he chose to tackle his saga on its own savage terms. He flew to Africa, then sailed back to America on a freighter, sleeping at night on a wooden bunk so that he could envision the terror of lying there, as he once said, "in chains, in filth, hearing the cries of 139 other men screaming, babbling, praying and dying around you."

Haley was beset by modern horrors as well. His book, which had taken an enormous emotional toll on him, was long overdue, and he was in debt. On his fourth night at sea, he later recalled, he stood in the stern of the ship and thought, "All I have to do is step over this railing and drop into the sea, and I'd be out of my misery forever." Then, he continued, "I heard voices—Kunta, Kizzy, Chicken George and my grandmother—telling me, 'No, you must go on and finish it.' "

So Haley, who died of cardiac arrest last week at age 70, did indeed go on and complete Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The classic account of the slave's odyssey sold more than 1.5 million copies, won a special Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most closely watched TV dramas in history. For eight days in 1977 more than 100 million Americans watched the haunting ABC miniseries that bore brutal witness to the trail of Haley's ancestors from Africa to the plantations of the South to the hard-won opportunities of postbellum America. "What he did with Roots was set an example, in race relations and family awareness, of what America should be," said actor Moses Gunn, who played Kintango in Roots. Adds Louis Gossett Jr., Roots' Fiddler: "He was a special man chosen at birth to have those ancestors and that family and to write that book. Not many men have walked their path of destiny."

The son of educators, Haley was born in Ithaca, N.Y., then moved to Henning, Tenn., as a boy. He joined the Coast Guard in 1939 and spent 20 years in the service, during which he began writing. In the 1960s his articles appeared in various major magazines, and he gained prominence by coauthoring The Autobiography of Malcolm X before the activist was gunned down in 1965.

Haley then went on to spend nine years researching and writing Roots. The book's success was slightly tarnished by two plagiarism suits (one dismissed, one settled out of court) and some questions about Haley's blending of fact and fiction. Still, few works in the post—World War II era can match the searing impact Roots had on a racially troubled land.

A fixture on the lecture circuit since Roots, Haley conceded that his sense of literary mission had impinged on his domestic life. (He married three times and had three children.) Still, he left his children—and millions of Americans, black and white—with a profound sense of family continuity that transcended racial strife. Said his son, William, last week: "I think the important thing about my dad is that he was about family. When you get down to what Roots was, it's something that we all share—that oneness that we're all about."

MARK GOODMAN
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles and RHODA DONKIN JONES in Seattle

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