Roots is, in Alex Haley’s words, a “novelized amalgam” of documented historical and fictionalized events. Haley’s artistic intent, that his family’s narrative should serve as a symbolic saga for all Americans of African descent, pervades the novel on all levels. With the exception of the last three chapters, the novel is told from an omniscient, third-person perspective.
In the spring of 1750 in Juffure, The Gambia, a son is born to Omoro Kinte and his second wife, Binta. The child is named Kunta. As a member of the old and highly esteemed Kinte family, Kunta is schooled in the customs and traditions befitting a future Mandinka warrior. Throughout his childhood, Kunta is taught to avoid and fear the “toubob,” white men who capture African people for evil purposes.
Despite these tribal caveats, Kunta is captured by white slave traders in 1767 while searching for a tree section to make a drum. Along with 140 Africans of various tribes, Kunta is shipped as cargo on the Lord Ligonier. Pestilence, filth, depravity, and cruelty fill this episode, serving as a controlling metaphor for the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. The captives unsuccessfully stage a revolt, resulting in the deaths of many. Kunta admires the courage of these dead, for they died as warriors. He, as a survivor, dreads what is to come, for he instinctively knows that his eventual fate will be worse than the ocean voyage.
In Annapolis, Maryland, Kunta is sold to John Waller and given the name “Toby.” Appalled by the toubob and their pagan ways, Kunta attempts to escape four times. After his last attempt, he is apprehended by two slave catchers. Given the choice of castration or foot amputation, Kunta chooses the latter. John Waller’s brother William, a physician, is outraged at the mutilation and buys Kunta.
Kunta, through the ministrations of William Waller’s cook, Bell, recovers from this last ordeal. After a lengthy courtship, he “jumps de broom” (the slave equivalent of the marriage ceremony) with Bell. A daughter is born to the couple. Kunta gives her the Mandinka name of “Kizzy,” meaning “you stay put.” Now crippled and unable to run away, Kunta is entrusted with driving Dr. Waller on his calls, which enables him to hear news of the outside world. Of particular interest to Kunta are the accounts of Toussaint Louverture’s revolt in Haiti, which he sees as paralleling his own struggle for freedom, especially when Napoleon Bonaparte captures Toussaint.
Kunta persists in keeping alive his dream of freedom and his pride in his African heritage, both of which he passes on to Kizzy. A clever child, Kizzy is entranced by her father’s African tales and learns many Mandinka words. At the age of sixteen, she is sold to the dissolute Tom Lea as punishment for aiding another slave to escape.
Lea rapes Kizzy repeatedly for several months, eventually fathering a son, George. Kizzy, a devoted mother, regards her son as the descendant of “the African,” not as the son of Tom Lea. She instills in her son both her pride in their African heritage and Kunta Kinte’s dream of freedom.
As George grows to manhood, he exhibits traits of both parents. Like Tom Lea, he loves cockfighting and carousing. The rakish George becomes such an accomplished trainer of gamecocks that he earns the sobriquet of “Chicken George.” From Kizzy he has inherited the desire to be free, and he is determined to buy himself and his family. When Lea loses Chicken George in a bet with an Englishman, he promises Chicken George his manumission papers upon his return.
Years later, Chicken George returns and is grudgingly freed by Lea. Kizzy has died during his absence, but Chicken George seeks to reunite his family, whom Lea had sold to the Murrays. When he finds the family, Chicken George gathers them around and relates the family narrative.
After the Civil War, the family moves to Henning, Tennessee. Upon Chicken George’s death, Tom Murray, his son, asserts his position as patriarch and emphasizes the importance of the family and the oral tradition to his children. Both of these ideas are perpetuated by Tom’s daughter, Cynthia, and other female members of the Murray family. Cynthia’s daughter Bertha, who evinces little interest in the family narrative, goes away to college, where she meets and marries Simon Alexander Haley.
While Haley is a graduate student at Cornell, their first son is born, Alexander Haley. At this point, the novel abruptly shifts to Haley’s first-person narrative, which recounts the death of his mother and the summers he and his brothers spent at Grandma Cynthia’s house listening to the “graying ladies” tell the story of “the African Kin-tay” who called a guitar a “ko” and the river “Kamby Bolongo.” In the final two chapters, Haley details the research and writing of Roots, addressing the fact/fiction elements of the novel.
Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family became a best-seller almost as soon as it came out in 1976, and its popularity continued through its presentation as a television miniseries. As Haley intended, Roots became a saga of all African Americans. Additionally, the story of the search for and finding of ancestral roots struck a universal chord. Despite persistent questions of genealogical and historical accuracy, Roots accomplishes an insightful rendition of African American experience: the rhythms of African village life, the terror of captivity and drawn-out horror of crossing the Atlantic, the rage of a free man thrust into slavery, and the cruel ironies involved in surviving slave life in America. Only briefly does the book describe life after the Civil War, but the twentieth century account of Haley’s recovery of his African ancestor satisfactorily completes Kunta Kinte’s odyssey and gives the saga symbolic wholeness.
Kunta, who is of the Mandinka tribe, grows up in the Muslim village of Juffure in Gambia, West Africa, under the tutelage of his mother Binta, father Omoro, and village elders. He matures through prescribed stages of increasing responsibility to young manhood. He thus has a secure sense of who he is when he is surprised outside the village and captured by slavers. Haley vividly conveys Kunta’s fury and fear at being chained and taken he knows not where for an end he cannot imagine. He survives the terrible trip across the Atlantic. He and the surviving captives are sold in America, but Kunta still knows who he is and that he is not a slave. In his rage he thinks only of escape. Only after several attempts fail and his foot is chopped off does he submit. He answers to the slave name “Toby”; he marries Bell, and they have Kizzy. Her name and a few words are the only African heritage he can bequeath. Gradually he learns that his fellow slaves are not defined by their condition. He recognizes their human dignity and that, like him, they are slaves only on the surface.
Kunta’s story breaks off when Kizzy is sold away from her family. The African, however, has passed on to her and to later generations his own unshakable identity. His courage enables his descendants to know themselves as human beings unjustly deprived of freedom and to reject from within the cruel slave identity imposed by others.
The family chronicle arrives quickly at young Alex, who, hearing from his grandmother about “the African,” is inspired years later to search until the family story comes back to him in an African storyteller’s recitation.
American slavery sought to wipe out an African’s name, identity, language, and history, so Haley’s saga is triumphant and exciting, the recovery of an identity against all odds. Roots figuratively restores the stolen heritage of all African Americans.