69 pages 2 hours read

Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1976

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Summary and Study Guide


Roots is a 1976 historical fiction novel by Alex Haley. Haley served in the United States Coast Guard during World War II and as a military journalist after the war. Prior to writing Roots, Haley interviewed famous Black Americans and ghostwrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has remained a bestselling work since its publication in 1965. In Roots, Haley combines his journalistic experience with Black America and his family’s oral history, bolstered with research on real-world events and people, including his family members. As historical fiction, the novel is not a faithful account of events of the past, but a dramatization of those events. Nonetheless, Haley produces a story of struggle, persistence, and achievement across seven generations of his own family, exploring The Brutality of the Slave Trade and Its Enduring Legacy, The Crossroads Between Oral and Written History, and Black and Familial Identity in the Wake of the Slave Trade, which generated a significant interest in genealogical research, African culture and heritage, and the possibility of creating similar family histories for other Black American families.

Haley received the Pulitzer Prize for Roots in 1977, as well as the Springarn Medal, awarded by the NAACP. Roots was a New York Times bestseller upon publication in 1976, remaining in the number one slot for 22 weeks. It was adapted into a miniseries that aired on ABC in 1977. This adaptation led to a sequel series and a spinoff film, and in 2016, The History Channel aired a remake of the original series.

This guide refers to the 1977 Dell Books First Printing edition of the text.

Content Warning: This work contains graphic depictions of enslavement, including violence, sexual assault, and death associated with slavery. The source material contains frequent use of racial slurs and racist language, which are reproduced in this guide only through quoted material.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with the birth of Kunta Kinte, following his childhood in the village of Juffure, in The Gambia, West Africa. Kunta learns his role in the village and begins taking on responsibility, going to school, and completing manhood training. In later adolescence, he serves as a sentry for the village. Throughout his childhood, Kunta develops as a man in the Mandinka ethnic group, following the tenets of Islam and learning written Arabic and spoken Mandinka. The Kinte family, known for travelling, descended from Kairaba Kunta Kinte, Kunta’s grandfather, a well-known marabout, or holy man. As he is planning a long-distance trip to his family’s birthplace in Old Mali, Kunta goes to chop wood for a drum and is kidnapped by a group of white and Black men.

The kidnappers confine him in the hold of a ship. In the hold, Kunta survives inhumane conditions, as he is packed tightly with other men and has no ability to clean himself or move. The captured men are periodically brought on deck to be cleaned; there, Kunta finds that African women have been captured, as well, and the crew is abusing them. Many of the captured men and crew members die during the voyage, and most of the people on board develop dysentery, furthering the already-unsanitary conditions. When the ship arrives in America, Kunta and the remaining men are sold at auction, and Kunta is purchased by John Waller.

After a series of attempted escapes from his enslaver, half of Kunta’s foot is cut off by “pattyrollers,” white men hired to catch escaped enslaved persons. Following Kunta’s sale to William Waller, John’s brother, Kunta becomes a gardener on a new plantation. Kunta meets Fiddler, Bell, and the gardener at William Waller’s plantation, all of whom become his friends and family. Kunta struggles to assimilate into the Black American culture he sees around him, as he is disgusted by the seeming acquiescence of the enslaved people to their circumstances. Eventually, Kunta and Bell marry, and they have a daughter, Kizzy. Through Bell and Kizzy, Kunta learns that the enslaved Black people around him are trying to survive their situations, and they are just as angry as he is.

As Kizzy grows up, Kunta instills his knowledge from Africa in her, but she is largely involved with Waller’s niece, Anne, who treats Kizzy as a kind of toy. When Kizzy becomes a teenager, Anne ceases to visit, and Kizzy gets in trouble for writing a travel pass for her boyfriend, Noah, using skills Anne taught her. Waller sells Kizzy to Tom Lea, who repeatedly rapes her. Kizzy gets pregnant and has a son, George, who is commonly known to be Lea’s son.

George is flamboyant and popular and soon takes up a position as an apprentice to Uncle Mingo, Lea’s champion gamecock trainer. As George ages, he becomes an expert trainer, replacing Mingo even before his death. George marries Matilda, and they have eight children on Lea’s plantation. When Lea bets more money than he has on a competition, George is lost in the bet and forced to train gamecocks in England for five years. While George is gone, Lea sells the remaining enslaved people on his plantation, largely George’s family, to a man named Murray.

At Murray’s plantation, George’s fourth son, Tom, uses his skill as a blacksmith to earn a living for himself, saving with Matilda to try to buy the family’s freedom. During their time on the plantation, Tom meets a woman, Irene, at a nearby plantation, and the two get married and begin having children. George comes back to find his family and takes the documents that free him from Lea. However, George is forced to leave the state or else become re-enslaved. After George leaves, the southern states begin to secede from the Union, marking the beginning of the Civil War.

After the war, Tom and the Kinte family are free, and George returns to lead them to Henning, Tennessee, where they set up in town. Tom becomes a blacksmith with a portable shop, and his children soon marry and have children of their own. His daughter, Cynthia, marries Will Palmer, the owner of a lumber company, and they have a daughter, Bertha George. Bertha meets Simon Alexander Haley, who becomes an agricultural professor, and they have three sons: Alex, George, and Julius. Alex Haley is their first son and the author of the novel, and he concludes the novel by explaining the process that led him to write the book, as well as the research he performed in preparation.