'Queen': good, but not as deep as 'Roots'

June 15, 1993|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,Staff Writer

The great author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called the race issue the great problem of this country in the 20th century.

Author Alex Haley took that problem and made its history and evolution understandable to even schoolchildren.

His epic, "Roots," brought African-American history to the masses both through the book and the TV miniseries of the same name. The story of his mother's family made the history of a people come alive for the TV generation.

The author, who died earlier this year, has followed up that Pulitzer Prize-winner with a book that while not as riveting as "Roots," deserves a place on the shelf next to it.

Through "Queen" -- also made into a miniseries (which didn't do the book justice) -- the author examines his father's family.

Using extensive research, family anecdotes and his imagination, Haley has crafted characters from his heritage (Irish, American Indian, African) into a wonderfully colorful literary quilt. By the end, while the reader may not sympathize with all the characters, he certainly knows and maybe even understands their motivations.

The saga begins with his great-great-grandfather, James Jackson,in Ireland. As an African-American with an Irish (or possibly Scottish) surname, I found this segment of particular interest. How could this Irishman -- who fought against British discrimination against Irish Catholics, who was forced to emigrate to have a decent life -- engage in the slave trade?

Haley does an excellent job of getting inside the mind of the Irishman and trying to explain life from his point of view. We see him as a young man at first appalled by slavery. Upon settling in Philadelphia, he lives and works around freed blacks and recognizes their humanity. After moving South and becoming an entrepreneur in the then-frontier town of Nashville, Tenn., he accepts the locals' idea that certain jobs were relegated to slaves.

His slave-holding begins with just a couple to clean up around the store. Then Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson, his new-found friend andfuture U.S. president, helps convince him of the need for a personal servant. His slave holdings increase along with his wealth. He finds himself at slave auctions examining teeth, limbs and such, just as he did his racehorses.

But the insidious nature of that most immoral of institutions eventually helps to undermine the Jackson family, just as it did this country.

Jackson's son, Jass, develops a relationship with a slave named Easter that produces Queen, Haley's grandmother. He takes Queen into his home, where she serves as a slave/playmate to her half-sister, Jass' daughter by his wife.

The duplicitous life wears on the families involved. Jass' wife is embittered by her husband's unfaithfulness. Queen lives a schizophrenic existence -- a house slave who could "pass" for white but is cast aside by her white "family" once the slaves are freed.

She endures much of the harshness of post-Civil War life for the freed black. She is raped, forced to witness the lynching of the father of her child, and left unprepared to make a decent living to raise a family. Yet, she manages to raise strong, proud sons who are the first in their black family to be university educated. And one of those sons produced Haley, who told the story to all of America.

A truly American family.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Queen: The Story of an American Family"

Author: Alex Haley and David Stevens.

Publisher: Morrow.

/# Length, price: 670 pages, $25.

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