Kunta Kinte dominates the novel, within the narrative of his life story and within the context of the influence his story exerts over his descendants. Kunta is the only fully developed character in the novel. All others are on the periphery of the family narrative or are secondary characters, such as Chicken George, Kizzy, and Tom Murray. Characters such as Bell (Kunta’s wife) and the fiddler (his friend) are one-dimensional. Their sole purpose is to provide points of view that differ from Kunta’s.
For example, Bell represents the docility of the born slave. A strong, mature woman who loves her husband, she nevertheless is constantly disturbed by Kunta’s Africanisms. She takes umbrage when Kunta remarks that she looks like a Mandinka woman. “What fool stuff you talkin’ ’bout? . . . Don’ know how come white folks keep on emptyin’ out boatloads a you Africa niggers!” Like most slaves, Bell has severed any ties or reminders of her African heritage. Furthermore, she regards Kunta’s adherence to Mandinka practices as dangerous, always fearing what the massa’s reaction might be, and with good reason. Bell’s two daughters from a previous marriage were sold. Ever obedient, ever wary, Bell fears the breakup of her new family.
The fiddler represents the talented, enterprising, yet naïve slave who offers a decided contrast to Kunta, who hates and distrusts all toubob. The fiddler’s story reinforces Kunta’s negativity. Essentially cheated out of his right to buy himself, the fiddler dies a broken and embittered old man. The knowledge of white treachery crushes his exuberance, whereas Kunta continues to resist and live.
Because he is the predominant character in the novel, his tale underscores the theme of freedom and the search for dignity. It is through Kunta’s eyes that readers are drawn into the horrors of the slave ship, witness the strangeness of the New World, and encounter the dilemma facing a devout Muslim in a Christian slave culture. Particularly repugnant to Kunta is the American—black and white—penchant for eating pork, considered to be a filthy and profane practice for a Muslim.
By making Kunta the driver for Dr. Waller, Haley is able to expose popular misconceptions about historical personages. For example, on his travels to other plantations, Kunta learns Thomas Jefferson’s real views on the slavery issue: “I heared Massa Jefferson say slavery jes’ bad for white folks as for us’ns, an’ he ’gree wid Massa Hamilton it’s jes’ too much nachel diff’rence. . . . Dey say Massa Jefferson want to see us sot free, but not stickin’ roun’ dis country takin’ po’ white folks’ jobs—he favor shippin’ us back to Africa, gradual, widout big fuss an’ mess.”
The abrupt intrusion of Haley as the first-person narrator at the end of the novel serves a dual purpose. First, it allows Haley to outline explicitly the overarching agenda that permeates Roots. Second, the almost journalistic style employed validates the novel’s historical authenticity and importance.
Kunta Kinte (KEWN-tah KIHN-tay), “the African,” progenitor of the American line of Haley’s family. Kunta, a member of the highly respected Kinte clan of the Mandinka people of Gambia, is captured at the age of seventeen, transported to Annapolis, Maryland, and subsequently sold into slavery. A man of immense courage and spiritual fortitude (he remains a devout Muslim in Christianized America), he never relinquishes his dream of returning to his homeland. He instills in his daughter Kizzy a strong sense of self-worth and dignity, as well as the desire to be free. Kunta teaches his young daughter the Mandinka words of ko (a kora is a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) and Kamby Bolongo (the Gambia River), which eventually is transmitted orally down through seven generations.
Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta and Bell. She keeps her father’s dream alive, even after she is sold to the wretched Tom Lea. After being raped by Lea, she gives birth to their son, whom Lea names George after “the hardest-working nigger I ever saw.” Despite her baby’s sordid conception, light skin, and undignified naming, Kizzy resolves to see him only as the grandson of Kunta Kinte. She perpetuates the dreams and teachings of her father in the rearing of her son.
Chicken George, Kizzy’s clever and resourceful son. Chicken George earns his unusual moniker while successfully serving as Massa Leas’s gamecocker. Although he shares some of the vices of his white father, he never forgets the teachings of Kizzy, especially the importance of knowing who he is and who his people are. He is the first of Kunta Kinte’s descendants to become free.
Tom Murray, the son of Chicken George. A stolid, forthright man, Tom fervently believes in the traditions passed on in the family narrative. He expresses his concern with racial purity and pride, refusing to allow his daughter Elizabeth to marry the “high yaller” John Tolan.
Cynthia Murray Palmer
Cynthia Murray Palmer, the daughter of Tom Murray and grandmother of Alex Haley. After her husband’s death, she invites the female Murrays to spend summers with her in Henning, Tennessee. These “graying ladies” retire after dinner to the front porch and retell the family narrative. Over her daughter Bertha’s objections to “all that old-time slavery stuff,” Cynthia persists in maintaining the oral tradition. The porch talk leaves an indelible impression on Cynthia’s young grandson.
Georgia Anderson, the sole survivor of the “graying ladies” who perpetuated the family narrative on Cynthia Palmer’s porch. Characterized as a cherished, yet feisty, member of the community, the elderly Cousin Georgia encourages Haley on his quest to discover the ancestral roots. Almost mystically, Cousin Georgia dies within the very hour that Haley enters Juffure to meet with the griot.
Alex Haley, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Kunta Kinte. A professional writer, Haley spent twelve years researching and writing the family narrative passed down from Kunta Kinte.