Roots as Scripture and Scripture as Roots

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In this episode, RSP co-editor Breann Fallon speaks with Assistant Professor Richard Newton about his new book Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures (Equinox 2020). At issue is the concept, use, and function of “scripture,” particularly through the example of Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots. Newton explains the success of Haley’s best-selling novel about the life of Kunta Kinte and his descendants and the novel’s place in the canonical narrative of America for both Black and White Americans. By examining Roots as a piece of scripture, Newton illustrates the grounding power of the book’s narrative — a wellspring of theology and culture for Americans for almost fifty years. Following an anthropological approach to the study of scripture more broadly, Newton sees the function of scripture as multiple, relying on diverse meanings of the root of the terms, uproot, and route. Drawing attention to Roots as a scriptural text that plays an active role in both power and identity politics, the discussion concludes by turning to the Black Lives Matters movement and the recent use of Haley’s Roots by American politicians.

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