Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley

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What happens in Roots: The Saga of an American Family?

In Roots, Haley mixes historical and fictional accounts to tell the story of an American family. Beginning in the 1800s, when the family's African ancestors lived, the novel moves through the Middle Passage, the horrors of slavery, the centuries of oppression to reach the present day.

  • Kunta grows up in a village in Gambia. Kunta is later captured by slave traders, taken to Annapolis Maryland, and sold into slavery.

  • Kunta's daughter, Kizzy, helps another slave escape. She's sold to a man who repeatedly rapes her. Eventually, she bears a son, Chicken George.

  • The narrative speeds through the lives of Chicken George's descendants to reach Alex Haley, the author, who has been writing the saga of his own family.

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Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2,716 words.)