Read the winning essay from the 2012 Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award!
Published: July 10, 2012
The Writer is pleased to share
"The Roots of Humanity,"
the winning essay from the 2012 Sylvia K. Burack Award. The award competition, which was open to high-school students in grades 11 and 12 in the U.S. and Canada, required a personal essay about a work of fiction, a poem or a play. Olivia Runyon, of Rolla, Mo., was awarded first place for her essay about the book Roots, by Alex Haley.|
The Roots of Humanity
It was summer. Finally, I could fling away the idea of required reading and delve into the piles of books stacking up in my room. Throughout the year, I had hoarded copies of those I was most eager to read, each one of them like an unopened gift. I had forced myself to resist them, but now—now I could finally crack open their spines, breathe in the smell of the unturned pages, and while away my days with long hours of reading. I wiped the dust from the top of each pile while I sifted through my assortment of genres. Near the back of the bookcase, my hands found a thick book with the cover coming off. I pulled it from the depths, careful not to rip the disintegrating paperback. Holding up the book, I read the title: Roots by Alex Haley. I smiled, carried my new found treasure to the front porch, opened the tattered copy, and began to read.
I relished each word of Haley’s personal history, yet I blazed through the pages like wildfire. The story of Kunta Kinte’s life was one I could not forget. I became a part of the story, watching the generations go by until Kunta Kinte was a mere fading memory. I wanted to cry out to them, his own descendants, “How could he be so easily forgotten?” The excellent writing, the characters, the story itself are not only what I took from Alex Haley’s Roots. What I remembered the most were the emotions it pulled from me. From the depths of my being, Roots drew heartbreak, and peace, and delight, and fury, all which I had previously known, and it brought memories of my own life to the surface. We were similar, Kunta Kinte and I. Reading through his life in a few hundred pages, I realized that the book was just as much about my family as Alex Haley’s. It did not matter about the time gap, or the ethnic differences, or the element of fiction. Haley wrote about himself, and me, and about everyone. The book followed lifetimes that made up generations, stepping through time like it was nothing but a curtain. It was a story of the offspring of offspring, each one more removed than the last. It described each one of us, born of our ancestors, which we ourselves will one day all become.
I now began to realize why Roots is such a well-known classic. I understood why the copy my sister loaned me was so well-worn to the point of falling apart. The pages are soft and creased from use because the story speaks to its readers. Perhaps it tells each one something different, but no matter—Roots’ influence runs deep and wide in all of those who open its cover. To me, the book spoke of life in its largest sense. It was a reminder of the difference that perspective can make: that life, my own single life, seems so large while I am in it, but yet it is only a single drop in the pool of generations that have been before and those that are yet to come. I am made up of the lives of my ancestors; their daily living, their dreams and goals, their personalities, and their very beings are what I come from. While they lived, their lives seemed to them as large as mine does now, but slowly they became a part of the past, a memory, just as I will one day become.
Alex Haley’s story is one of truth: the truth that time is fleeting, yet the human spirit is everlasting. Memories fade and disappear from the minds of the living, but the fact that the past was once real can never change. The earth has a memory of its own—one that changes and grows with each life it once held. A full life lived is not diminished by the aging of time, but is enriched like an old wine. Roots made me believe that my existence is important, but not for the reasons I once thought. My life may not be written in a biography, or remembered in history books, but the way I lived my life, my very being, will be carried on through those that come behind me. What is a part of me today will be a part of my descendants tomorrow. My dreams, my character, my life will become a foundation for future generations, and though I may be lost along the way, my life will always be the past that forms the future. Just as Kunta Kinte was a step in time, a single life, so I will slowly become a part of the roots of time with every passing year.
Learn more about Olivia Runyon
A Q&A with The Writer
Olivia, what are you going to be doing this coming fall? If you’re going to school, where are you going?
This fall I will be attending Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.
What will you be studying?
I will be majoring in digital filmmaking, and I also aim to minor in both creative writing and Spanish.
What kind of career are you interested in?
I would like to become a documentary filmmaker.
Have you been published before?
I have never been published. However, I did write a play that was performed by the local middle school a few years ago.
What kinds of writing do you like to do?
I love to write all kinds of things except for scientific articles (although I've done my share throughout school). Mostly, I write fictional stories, but I also greatly enjoy writing poetry, screenplays and essays.
Why did you chose Alex Haley's book Roots to write about for the competition?
At first, I did consider writing on Corrie ten Boom's book The Hiding Place. I knew I wanted to write about something with historical significance because those types of books are always emotional for me. My imagination and visualization can work on a whole different level because they are true events that happened to real people. In the end, I chose Roots because I connected with Haley's interest in his family tree. I have always enjoyed listening to my parents and grandparents tell stories about their lives, and things like looking through my grandpa's old trunk or photo albums of generations long ago continually pull me in. I saw that Alex Haley placed great importance on where and who he came from, and he did an amazing job of writing down that rich past. I’d like to write my own family’s version of Roots.
Do you have any other comments about your essay or about writing?
I am continually amazed at authors' abilities to make stories come so alive for readers by playing upon their human emotions. Some people, including Alex Haley, have truly mastered the art and harnessed the power of words. Someday, I hope to be able to write something that can touch people, inspire them, and perhaps change their lives just as certain authors have touched, inspired and changed me. As long as mankind inhabits this world, there will always be stories worth telling and stories worth hearing. I thrive on doing both.
The Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award is a writing contest for students in grades 11 and 12 in the U.S. and Canada, in memory of Sylvia Burack, the
longtime editor and publisher of The Writer magazine.|
Students submitted a previously unpublished 600- to 800-word personal essay in
response to this prompt: Select a work of fiction, poem or play that has
influenced you. Discuss the work and explain how it affected you.