Roots: The Saga of an American Family

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Roots: The Saga of an American Family

by Alex Haley


A fictionalized biography spanning more than two centuries (1750-1976) and set mainly in the Gambia (West Africa), Virginia, and North Carolina; published in 1976.


Alex Haley traces some 225 years of his family’s history—from his ancestors in Africa, through the trials of American slavery, to his own adulthood in the year of the American bicentennial.

Events in History at the Time of the Biography

The Biography in Focus

For More Information

Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1921, Alex Haley was raised in Henning, Tennessee, by his maternal grandmother. Haley heard stories during his childhood about his heritage from his grandmother and from other elderly female relatives. As a young adult he joined the Coast Guard, and when he left the service he landed a job writing biographical stories for Reader’s Digest, a journal that would eventually sponsor some of the research and travel that made Roots possible.

Events in History at the Time of the Biography

Life in Juffure

Roots begins with the mid-eighteenth century birth of Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, in the small village of Juffure in the Gambia, a land in West Africa. The Gambia stretches along a narrow fertile belt (295 miles in length and between 15 and 30 miles wide) on both sides of the Gambia River. In modern times the continent’s smallest nation, the Gambia abuts the Atlantic Ocean on the west, while its other three sides border Senegal. Juffure is situated more than 100 miles upstream from the mouth of the Gambia River. Daily life for residents in Juffure had, by the time when Haley visited there in the 1970s, changed little since 1750; lack of modern conveniences such as telephone service and electricity had preserved traditional ways of life there more easily than in cities, although items such as Western-style clothing and portable radios were not uncommon.

Gambians are comprised of three ethnic groups: Mandingo, Fula, and Wolof. Peanuts grown for export provide almost all of the country’s income. Ninety percent of Gambians are practicing Muslims. Many still live in huts made from a material called banco, which is a mixture of straw and sun-dried clay and is similar to adobe brick. Silk-cotton tree branches form the roof beams, the roof itself being thatched from long grasses and millet straw. The most common food staple is couscous, which the women of the village pound with mortars; the men still paddle pirogues (dugout canoes) to work in the distant couscous and cotton fields.

Oral tradition

Roots is based on the oral tradition that Haley’s family handed down through seven generations. He heard the history of his ancestors from his grandmother and his cousin, who “had talked the family narrative on the . . . front porch” (Haley, Roots, p. 670). Correlating what he had been told with the facts he found in libraries and other repositories of official data, Haley discovered how accurate the information was that his relatives had passed down to him. Later, on a trip to the Gambia inspired by his research into his family’s past, Haley met an elder from the village of Juffure who told the story of Haley’s ancestors through many centuries, up until the time when a man named Kunta Kinte, whom Haley knows is his great-great-great-great grandfather, disappeared one day when slave-gathering ships were in the area.

In the West African culture of which the villagers of Juffure are part, history is passed from generation to generation orally instead of in written form; men called griots fill the role of both storyteller and historian and are able to recount the tales of generations long past: “The griot is musician, poet, historian, and paid publicity agent—working on a fee basis or annual salary…. He is the village’s memory, its newspaper” (Vollmer, p. 8). Although they had no “official” function in the black American community, Haley’s grandmother and the other old women from whom he learned of his ancestry were themselves American griots, keeping alive the old stories that one day enabled Haley to rediscover the African branch of his family.

Haley’s insistence throughout Roots on writing the speech patterns of his ancestors in dialect is another reflection of his debt to the African oral tradition. Most of the information in the novel is transmitted not through standard narration but through conversations among the characters, who, in effect, are replicating the griot’s role. In the 1960s and 1970s, this attention on the part of African American writers to the oral tradition was part of a general cultural movement in which blacks in the United States looked to the land of their ancestors for literary and social influence.

The civil rights era

The civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, during which Alex Haley was researching and writing Roots, had its beginnings i n the massive migration undertaken by hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks to the industrial cities of the North beginning around 1910. Disillusioned with the strict segregation laws in the South and in search of better employment, African Americans moved to and settled their own communities in such cities as Chicago and New York. The “Harlem Renaissance,” a movement of the 1920s in which black New York artists broke new ground in music, literature, and the visual arts, served to consolidate feelings of community among African Americans and helped inspire the more radical political outcry of later decades.


In the acknowledgements section at the beginning of Roots, Alex Haley states how greatly he is indebted to the tribal storytellers, the griots, who made it possible for him to know his own history: “I acknowledge immense debt to the griots of Africa—where today it is rightly said that when a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground” (Roots, p. viii).

In 1964, about the time that Haley started to research his family history, the contemporary civil rights movement was finally scoring some successes. Nonviolent protests, undertaken by both blacks and sympathetic whites, won the support of the federal government and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places. More civil rights efforts followed—the Mississippi Summer Project (1964) to register black voters and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama (1965) to protest local opposition to registering black voters. After the march, pressed by President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which permitted federal officials to register black voters in areas where local authorities were obstructing this process.

Despite these gains and other apparent victories—James Meredith forced the University of Mississippi to enroll a black student (1966) and Thurgood Marshall became the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1967)—advancement did not match the governmental promises of the decade. Black activism split into two factions, with one committed to continuing the nonviolent protest of Martin Luther King, and the other turning to more radical means of securing power. A leader of this second group was Malcolm X, whom Alex Haley helped to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X (also covered in Literature and Its Times), one of the most influential black autobiographies ever written. During the time that Haley was working with him, Malcolm X became interested in re-establishing ties to Africa as a means of securing the civil rights of African Americans; with the political clout of African nations behind the struggle of American blacks, Malcolm felt that the cause would be that much stronger.

Links to Africa

Haley states that the research for Roots, which was published in 1976, took him twelve years; the mid-1960s era in which he began the project was a time when some African Americans were forging links with the continent of their forebears. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a political action group for young black Americans, was invited to Africa by the government of Guinea. Members of the group toured Guinea, Ghana, Liberia, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt, meeting with foreign leaders, diplomats, and Malcolm X, who was in Africa on a public relations mission. Upon their return, the students drafted a set of proposals, including one to establish an African Bureau within the SNCC, which would bring foreign pressure from Africa and elsewhere to bear upon American governments—both federal and state—unwilling to take the necessary measures to ensure black citizens their full rights.

As black Americans became more politically conscious, they also began focusing more on their African heritage. An increasing number studied African culture, history, art, and languages, and wore African-style clothes and hairdos. This identification with the continent was also expressed in the African American literature of the time. For example, Clarence Reed’s work “Song from the Wasteland” and Jon Eckel’s poem


(Events in bold print are mentioned in Roots)

1619: Twenty Africans first arrive in Virginia as indentured servants, who would be freed after a requisite number of years of service.

1766-1767: The British ship Lord Ligonier sails from the Gambia with a cargo of slaves (including Kunta Kinkte) and African goods.

1774-1804: All Northern states abolish slavery.

1775: In one American Revolution incident, Lord Dunmore (English governor of Virginia) offers to free all slaves who join the English cause.

1776: Declaration of Independence signed.

1791: Slave rebellion establishes nation of Haiti.

1793: Invention of cotton gin increases demand for slave labor in South; cotton replaces tobacco as main crop.

1800: Gabriel Prosser Rebellion is attempted in Richmond, Virginia.

1800-1860: Price of slaves quadruples at slave markets.

1804: The Underground Railroad, abolitionist activity helping slaves reach the North or Canada, begins in earnest.

1808: It becomes illegal to import African slaves into America.

1822: Denmark Vesey Rebellion is attempted in Charleston, North Carolina.

1830s: Abolitionist movement begins in North.

1831: Nat Turner’s Rebellion occurs in Southampton Co., Virginia.

1859: John Brown and militant force seizes U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry. Virginia, in an-tislavery protest.

1861-1865: American Civil War is fought —the Northerners are victorious; Thirteenth Amendment is ratified, freeing all slaves.

1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson the U.S. Supreme Court rules that racial segregation is legal under the Constitution, provided facilities for blacks and whites are equal.

1914-1918: World War I draws thousands of black Americans to Northern industrial cities and into the armed forces; Haley’s father, Simon, fights in France.

1939: Alex Haley joins Coast Guard; World War II begins in Europe.

1954-1955: In Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court reverses Plessy v. Ferguson; civil rights movement gains adherents in bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

1976: Publication of Rootsin year of American Bicentennial.

“Home Is Where the Soul Is” both focus on Africa. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is concerned with African American folklore and the “quest for the family roots,” which in turn, “is linked to the search for Afro American cultural heritage” (Bruck and Karrer, p. 290). Morrison and other African American writers—for example, Ernest Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (also covered in Literature and Its Times)—also turned to oral tradition in their works, replicating the patterns of black speech. Published in 1976, Roots contributed to the literary trends of the day.

Nation of Islam

In Roots, Kunta Kinte is Haley’s only Islamic ancestor, and his master allows him to retain his religion, an action atypical of most plantation owners. Generally, masters and preachers urged slaves to embrace Christianity. Slaveowners often expressed the view that slavery had been ordained by God as a moral means of introducing Christianity to Africans. In fact, the insistence on spreading Christianity among the slaves served another, less noble, purpose: Christianity was used to “bind the slave to the will of the master in the name of Jesus Christ” (Earl, p. 38). Not surprisingly, then, for many the religion of the slaveowners became a symbol of the repression suffered by black Americans.


Kunta Kinte (b.1750) + Bell


Kizzy (b, 1790) + (Master Tom Lea)


Chicken George (b.1806) + Matilda


Tom (b, 1833) + Irene


Cynthia (b, 1863/4?) + Will Parker


Bertha (b. 1895) + Simon Haley


Alex Haley (b. 1921)

In the 1960s, a growing number of black Americans turned away from Christianity and embraced the religion of Islam. Founded in the 1930s, the organization of African American Muslims called the Nation of Islam experienced tremendous growth later under the influence of Malcolm X. Haley himself does not practice Islam, although in his newly discovered “hometown” of Juffure he is taken to the village mosque and prays with the other men. The book thus opens and closes with Haley’s ancestral religion.

The Biography in Focus

The plot

In 1750 a boy is born in the village of Juffure, located four days upriver from the coast of the Gambia in West Africa. The infant is given the name Kunta Kinte. Kunta spends the first seventeen years of his life in Juffure, where he is surrounded by his parents, grandmother, three brothers and the extended family of the tribe. During his youth, he is taught African tribal customs and rituals as he receives an African education, which includes lessons in hunting and the Islamic religion.

One day when Kunta is seventeen, he goes downstream to chop wood to make a drum. Here he is captured by slave traders who put him on a ship headed for the American colonies. The male slaves are beaten, made to lay naked on wooden boards, and shackled together in pairs. Many die on the voyage from ill treatment and from dysentery. Kunta arrives in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1767, and is purchased by “Massa” John Waller, who owns a plantation in Spotsyl-vania County, Virginia. Kunta cannot reconcile himself to his fate and tries to run away several times. On his fourth attempt, he is caught by professional slave-hunters and is given the choice of punishment: castration or amputation of one of his feet. He chooses the latter. “Massa” John’s brother, Dr. William Waller, is appalled by the inhumane action of his brother. He helps Kunta recover and then buys him, assigning him to tend the vegetable garden, a relatively easy job for the maimed man.

On Dr. Waller’s plantation, Kunta Kinte meets and marries a slave woman named Bell and they have a daughter named Kizzy in 1790. Kizzy grows up hearing about her father’s life and his African heritage. When she is sixteen, she helps a young male slave, with whom she is in love, run away. The Underground Railroad, a network of safe places where runaway slaves can rest as they flee northward, has been launched in earnest by then; Kizzy’s young man has heard that certain white people will help him escape. Unfortunately he is caught and she admits to the crime of having drawn him an escape map. Dr. Waller punishes Kizzy by selling her on the slave market, separating the family forever.

Kizzy is bought by Tom Lea, a violent man who owns a small plantation in North Carolina. He rapes her and in 1806 she bears him a son named George. George grows up listening to his mother’s stories of his grandfather, Kunta Kinte. Like his father/master, George enjoys chicken fighting and earns the nickname “Chicken George”; Tom Lea and his son develop a fairly close relationship over the years, and George accompanies him on his gambling junkets. In 1827 Chicken George marries Matilda, who bears him eight children. With the birth of each child, Chicken George gathers his family around the slave cabin and tells them the story of Kunta Kinte. Shortly after the birth of George and Matilda’s third son in 1831, Master Lea learns of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in which revolting slaves murdered 55 whites, and in his fury he rifles through the meager belongings of every one of his slaves, destroying what little they have in his search for concealed weapons. Shortly thereafter, Matilda and Chicken George decide to scrape and save to buy the freedom of the entire family.

When George and Matilda’s fourth son, Tom, is apprenticed as a teenager to a blacksmith on another plantation, he comes into contact with news from the North. At Thanksgiving dinner, he tells his family about former slaves who had bought their freedom, and of the improved lives of free blacks in the North. In particular he tells them about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, blacks who gave public lectures about the evils of slavery, lectures attended by white people opposed to slavery. Chicken George tells Tom about his plan to buy the freedom of the family, and Tom agrees to help by saving all his earnings for the next fifteen years.

In 1856 Tom Lea goes bankrupt, having lost a bet on his chickens. To pay his debt to an English lord, Lea sends Chicken George to England with the victorious Englishman. Matilda and her children are meanwhile sold to the kindly “Massa” Murray, who owns a tobacco plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina. Tom, Matilda’s and George’s fourth son, becomes a blacksmith and in 1857 marries a half-Indian slave named Irene. Because white men patronize Tom’s smithy, he frequently hears news about what is happening in the nation. The Civil War is approaching, and rumors of war abound. One day, Chicken George arrives back unexpectedly; he has just received his freedom and the family is reunited. However, the euphoria does not last long—the sheriff discovers that George is free and informs Murray of a North Carolina law that a free black can remain only sixty days in the state, or face re-enslavement. Everyone is unwilling for the only free member of their family to be re-enslaved, so Chicken George leaves once again.

In 1860, the Murray slaves hear that Lincoln has been elected president and, shortly thereafter, that North Carolina has seceded from the Union. On April 12, 1861, war breaks out between the North and South, and the slaves begin a long anxious period of waiting to see which side will emerge victorious. In 1863 they hear that Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in rebel territory, and they rejoice. Over the next months, however, it becomes obvious that the Proclamation will not have much effect upon their lives, and it is not until 1865, when the South surrenders, that they actually achieve liberation. The Mur-rays offer to partition the plantation and let their former slaves sharecrop. They accept the arrangement for a time. Chicken George again returns, bearing news that Henning, Tennessee, is a hospitable place, and the family moves there.

The family prospers in their new home, and Tom and Irene’s good fortune is capped when their youngest daughter, Cynthia, marries a promising young lumber company owner. In 1895, Cynthia and Will have a daughter named Bertha, who grows up to marry Simon Haley in 1920. Alex Haley is born in 1921. The long tale of this child’s roots ends with the death of his father, Simon.


Haley’s search for his roots was inspired by a visit to the British Museum in London, where he saw the famous Rosetta Stone, a mysterious ancient text from Africa. On the stone are three separate inscriptions: one in Greek, one in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and one in a cursive version of the hieroglyphics. Surmising that the three passages were translations of one another, linguists used the well-known Greek passage to crack the “code” of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which had previously been unknown.

Black autobiography

The autobiography has been a favored form of literary expression in African American culture; slave narratives of the nineteenth century—such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (both covered in Literature and Its Times) helped establish this powerful literary tradition. Roots, though a fictionalized account, fits into this genre. The roots sought in the work are those of the writer, who in his effort to unearth his family’s history also attempts to deepen his self-knowledge. In this last respect, the work achieves similarities with efforts of other minority groups during the 1960s and 1970s to discover themselves, to better establish their own identities through an examination of their heritage. It builds on an already well-established genre, the African American biography.

The trials of Kunta Kinte form the first part of Roots, just as the slave narrative marks the first epoch of black biography and autobiography. Meant to be a social document, and to convey the horrors of slavery to white Northerners insulated from seeing it firsthand, the classic slave narrative takes the moral high ground against slavery, appealing to the Christian goodness of the white readership and condemning the slaveowner for betraying the virtues he claims to possess.

A secondary movement in black writing, arising at the turn of the twentieth century, explores the contradictions of living in a society that had officially abolished slavery but remained virulently racist. Prime examples of this second generation of black autobiography include Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945; also covered in Literature and Its Times), and Chester Himes’s The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976).

The mid-1960s brought yet another wave of black autobiography, as black activists told the story of the civil rights movement and the more militant branches of black activism. Most influential among this generation of black autobiographies are James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965; also covered in Literature and Its Times), both of which helped prompt other black Americans to write their own stories, as Haley did his.


According to Alex Haley, Roots was directly inspired by his family’s oral history, which led him on a twelve-year search to uncover its details. Haley is quoted as saying, “To the best of my knowledge and my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is either from my African or American families’ carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents” (Roots, p. 686). In a New York Times interview on September 26, 1976, Haley wanted to call his book a “faction,” a term that has been defined as a literary social document resulting from intense research that presents facts in history through fictional dialogue.


Though critics found literary and historical flaws in Roots, they praised it as the “most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma” (Bryfonski, p. 206). Some questioned Haley’s accuracy; according to the historians Mills and Mills, for example, “those same plantation records, wills, and census cited by Mr. Haley not only fail to document his story, but they contradict each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro American lineage in Roots!” (Mills and Mills, p. 6). In an article in the New York Times (April 10, 1977), Haley conceded that Roots has dozens of errors; his purpose, though, was not to write a history but a work of fiction based upon factual events. Other critics faulted the limited treatment of Haley’s more recent ancestors—113 of the book’s 120 chapters deal with pre-Reconstruction events, and little attention is paid to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, Roots was roundly commended. A review in Library Journal asserted, “A brief review cannot do justice to the power of this book” (Samudio, p. 489). Haley received special citations from both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize committees for his work.

Roots was transformed into an acclaimed and widely seen twelve-hour television miniseries broadcast in 1977. This greatly enhanced the book’s reputation and by the end of that year, 2 million copies had been sold. Its popularity among blacks was connected to a mutual concern at the time. As Haley explained, many of them were searching, as he had been, for a cultural history with which to identify.

For More Information

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International, 1943.

Bruck, Peter, and Wolfgang Karrer, eds. The Afro-American Novel since I960. Amsterdam: B. R. Gruner, 1982.

Bryfonski, Dedria, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990. New York: New York University Press, 1991

Earl, Riggins R. Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind. New York: Orbis, 1993.

Haley, Alex. Roots. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Henige, David P. The Chronology of Oral Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Mills, Gary B., and Elizabeth Shoun Mills. “Roots and the New ‘Faction’.” Virginia Magazine 89, no. 1 (January 1981): 1-26.

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981

Samudio, Josephine, ed. Booh Review Digest. Vol. 72. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1977.

Vollmer, Jurgen. Black Genesis: African Roots. New York: St. Martin’s, 1980.