Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

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8.8/10 Alchetron

Language  English
Originally published  17 August 1976
Publisher  Doubleday
4.4/5 Goodreads

Country  United States
Publication date  17 August 1976
Author  Alex Haley
Genre  Fiction

Media type  Print (Hardback, paperback)
Pages  704 pp (First edition, hardback)
ISBN  0-385-03787-2 (First edition, hardback)
Awards  Pulitzer Prize Special Citations and Awards
Adaptations  Roots (2016), Roots (1977)
Similar  Works by Alex Haley, Slavery books, African Americans books

Roots: The Saga of an American Family is a novel written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the United States, and later follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley. The release of the novel, combined with its hugely popular television adaptation, Roots (1977), led to a cultural sensation in the United States, and it is considered to be one of the most important U.S. works of the 20th century. The novel spent months on The New York Times Best Seller List, including 22 weeks in the top spot on that list. The last seven chapters of the novel were later adapted in the form of a second miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations (1979). It stimulated interest in genealogy and appreciation for African American history.


Following the success of the novel and the miniseries, Haley was accused by two authors of plagiarism of their novels. Harold Courlander was able to prove that Roots was plagiarized from his novel The African, which was published nine years earlier. The resulting trial ended with an out-of-court settlement and Haley's admission that some passages within Roots had been copied from Courlander's work; Haley claimed this was unintentional. In a later interview with BBC Television, the presiding judge in Courlander's lawsuit against Haley said, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public."

The book was originally described as "faction" and was sold in the non-fiction section of bookstores. Haley spent the last chapter of the book describing his research in archives and libraries to support his family's oral tradition with written records. However, historians and genealogists have found critical errors in his research work. Most of the novel is either unsupported or contradicted by the available evidence.

Edward Kosner, reviewing the volume Alex Haley by Robert J. Norrell, said that Haley "could have avoided all the grief if he and his publishers had simply labeled the book [Roots] what it was—a historical novel valid in its essential narrative but informed by the imagination".

Roots miniseries premiere january 1977 abc tv


Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte — a young man taken from the Gambia when he was seventeen and sold as a slave — and seven generations of his descendants in the United States. Kunta has a typically difficult but free childhood in his village, Juffure. His village subsists on farming, and sometimes they do not have enough food, as the climate is harsh. Yet Kunta is surrounded by love and traditions. Ominously, the village had heard of the recent arrival of toubob, men with white skins who smell like wet chickens.

One morning when Kunta is cutting wood to make a drum, he is captured by several toubob slave-traders. After a nightmarish journey across the Atlantic on board the British slave ship Lord Ligonier, he is landed in Annapolis in the British colony of Maryland. John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia purchases Kunta at an auction and gives him the name Toby. However, Kunta is headstrong and tries to run away four times. When he is captured for the last time, slave hunters cut off part of his right foot to cripple him.

Kunta is then bought by his master's brother, Dr. William Waller. He becomes a gardener and eventually his master's buggy driver. He marries Bell, Waller's cook, and together they have a daughter, Kizzy. Kizzy's childhood as a slave is as happy as her parents can make it. She is close friends with John Waller's daughter "Missy" Anne, and she rarely experiences cruelty. Yet her life changes when she forges a traveling pass for her beau Noah, a field hand. When he is caught and confesses, she is sold away from her family at the age of sixteen.

Kizzy is bought by Tom Lea, a farmer and chicken fighter who rose from poor beginnings. He rapes and impregnates her, and she gives birth to George, who later becomes known as "Chicken George" when he becomes his father's cockfighting trainer. Chicken George is a philanderer known for expensive taste and alcohol, as much as for his iconic bowler hat and green scarf. He marries Matilda and they have six sons and two daughters, including Tom, who becomes a very good blacksmith. Tom marries Irene, a woman originally owned by the Holt family.

When Tom Lea loses all his money in a cockfight, he sends George to England for several years to pay off the debt, and he sells most of the rest of the family to a slave trader. The trader moves the family to Alamance County, where they become the property of the Murrays. The Murrays have no previous experience with farming and are generally kind masters who treat the family well. When the American Civil War ends, however, the Murray slaves decide that rather than sharecrop for their former masters, they will move from North Carolina to Henning, Tennessee, which is looking for new settlers.

They eventually become a prosperous family. Tom's daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer, a successful lumber businessman, and their daughter Bertha is the first in the family to go to college. There she meets Simon Haley, who becomes a professor of agriculture. Their son is Alex Haley, the author of the book.

Search for his roots

Alex Haley grows up hearing stories from his grandmother about the family's history. They tell him of an ancestor named Kunta Kinte, who was landed in 'Naplis and given the slave name Toby. The old African called a guitar a ko, and a river the Kamby Bolongo. While on a reporting trip to London, Haley sees the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and thinks back to his own family's oral traditions. Could he trace his own family lineage back to its origins in Africa?

In the United States Census for Alamance County, North Carolina, he finds evidence of his ancestor Tom Murray, the blacksmith. He then attempts to locate the most likely origin of the African words passed down by Kunta Kinte. Dr. Jan Vansina tells him that in the Mandinka tongue, kora is a type of stringed instrument, and bolongo is the word for river. Kamby Bolongo could then refer to the Gambia River.

Alex Haley travels to the Gambia and learns of the existence of griots, oral historians who are trained from childhood to memorize and recite the history of a particular village. A good griot could speak for three days without repeating himself. He asks to hear the history of the Kinte clan, which lives in Juffure, and is taken to a griot named Kebba Kanji Fofana. The Kinte clan had originated in Old Mali, moved to Mauritania, and then settled in the Gambia. After about two hours of "so-and-so took as a wife so-and-so, and begat," Fofana reached Kunta Kinte:

About the time the King's soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, when he had about 16 rains, went away from his village to chop wood to make a drum...and he was never seen again.

After searching records of British troop movements in the 1760s, Haley finds that "Colonel O'Hare's forces" were dispatched to Fort James on the Gambia River in 1767. In Lloyd's of London, he discovers that a British merchantman named the Lord Ligonier had sailed from the Gambia on July 5, 1767 bound for Annapolis. The Lord Ligonier had cleared customs in Annapolis on September 29, 1767, and the slaves were advertised for auction in the Maryland Gazette on October 1, 1767. He concludes his research by examining the deed books of Spotsylvania County after September 1767, locating a deed dated September 5, 1768, transferring 240 acres and a slave named Toby from John and Ann Waller to William Waller.

Characters in Roots

  • Kunta Kinte – original protagonist: a young man of the Mandinka people, grows up in the Gambia in a small village called Juffure; he was raised as a Muslim before being captured and enslaved. Renamed Toby.
  • John Waller – planter, who buys Kunta
  • Dr. William Waller – doctor of medicine and John's brother: buys Kunta from him
  • Bell Waller – cook to the doctor and wife of Kunta
  • Kizzy Waller (later Kizzy Lea) – daughter of Kunta and Bell
  • Missy Anne – Dr. Waller's niece, who lives off the plantation, but visits Dr Waller regularly. She befriends Kizzy and teaches her reading and writing by playing "school".
  • Tom Lea – slave owner in North Carolina to whom Kizzy is sold
  • George Lea – son to Kizzy and Tom Lea, he is called "Chicken George"
  • Matilda – whom George later marries
  • Tom Murray – son of Chicken George and Matilda
  • Cynthia – the youngest of Tom's and Irene's eight children (granddaughter of Chicken George)
  • Bertha – one of Cynthia's children; the mother of Alex Haley
  • Simon Alexander Haley – professor and husband of Bertha; father of Alex Haley
  • Alex Haley – author of the book and central character for last 30 pages; allegedly the great-great-great-great-grandson of Kunta Kinte.
  • Reception

    Published in October 1976 amid significant advance expectations, Roots was immediately successful, garnering a slew of positive reviews and debuting at #5 of The New York Times Best Seller list (with The Times choosing to classify it as non-fiction). By mid-November, it had risen to the #1 spot on the list. The television adaptation of the book aired in January 1977, further fueling book sales. Within seven months of its release, Roots had sold over 1.5 million copies.

    In total, Roots spent 22 weeks at the #1 spot on The Times' list, including each of the first 18 weeks of 1977, before falling to #3 on May 8. It did not fall off of the list entirely until August 7. Ultimately, it was on the list for a total 46 weeks. Together, the success of the novel and its 1977 television adaptation, sparked an explosion of interest in the fields of genealogy and researching family histories.

    Haley earned a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1977 for Roots. The television miniseries garnered many awards, including nine Emmys and a Peabody.


    In the spring of 1977, Haley was charged with plagiarism in separate lawsuits by Harold Courlander and Margaret Walker Alexander. Courlander, an anthropologist, charged that Roots was copied largely from his novel The African (1967). Walker claimed that Haley had plagiarized from her Civil War-era novel, Jubilee (1966). Legal proceedings in each case were concluded late in 1978. Courlander's suit was settled out of court for $650,000 (equivalent to $2.4 million in 2016) and an acknowledgment from Haley that certain passages within Roots were copied from The African. Walker's case was dismissed by the court, which, in comparing the content of Roots with that of Jubilee, found that "no actionable similarities exist between the works."

    Historical accuracy

    Haley called his novel "faction" and acknowledged that most of the dialogue and incidents were fictional. However, he claimed to have traced his family lineage back to Kunta Kinte, an African taken from the village of Juffure in what is now The Gambia. Haley also suggested that his portrayal of life and figures among the slaves and masters in Virginia and North Carolina were based on facts which he had confirmed through historical documents. In the concluding chapter of Roots Alex Haley wrote:

    To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

    However, historians and genealogists have found that Haley did not rely on the factual evidence as closely as he represented. There are serious errors with Haley's family history and historical descriptions in the period preceding the Civil War.


    The only African confirmation of Haley's family history came from Kebba Kanga Fofana, a griot in Juffure. However, Fofana was not a genuine griot, and the head of the Gambian National Archives even wrote a letter to Alex Haley expressing doubts about Fofana's reliability. On repeated retellings of the story, Fofana changed key details that Haley had relied on for his identification.

    Donald R. Wright, an historian of the West African slave trade, found that elders and griots in the Gambia could not provide detailed information on people living before the mid-19th century; however, everyone had heard of Kunta Kinte. Apparently, Haley had told his story to so many people that his own family history had been assimilated into the oral traditions of the Gambia. Haley had created a case of circular reporting, in which his own words were repeated back to him.

    In Roots, Juffure was depicted as a village that had only heard rumors about white men in 1767. In fact, Juffure was only two miles from James Island, a major trading outpost that was first occupied by the British in 1661. The King of Barra had allowed the British to set up a fort on the island, on the condition that none of his subjects could be enslaved without his permission. Haley admitted that he had picked the year 1767 for "the time the King's soldiers came" to match up with his American research.

    Virginia and North Carolina

    Historian Gary B. Mills and genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, who specialize in African-American and southern history, followed Haley's trail in Census records, deed books, and wills. They concluded:

    "Those same plantation records, wills, and censuses 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!" (emphasis in the original)

    The slave Toby was already owned by the Waller family in 1762, five years before the Lord Ligonier supposedly landed Kunta Kinte in Annapolis. Haley had only searched for references to Toby after 1767, succumbing to confirmation bias. Dr. Waller did not have a cook named Bell or his own plantation, as he was disabled and lived with his brother John. Toby also appears to have died before 1782, eight years before his daughter Kizzy was supposedly born. "Missy" Anne could not have been Kizzy's childhood playmate, as Ann Murray was a grown woman and already married in the relevant timeframe. In fact, there is no record of a Kizzy being owned by any of the Wallers.

    After the deed reference to Toby Waller, the next piece of documentary evidence uncovered by Alex Haley was the 1870 Census listing for Tom Murray's household. Therefore, there is a gap of over 90 years that relies only on the Haley family's oral history. The Millses investigated the oral history and found no corroborating evidence in the historical record.

    Tom Lea was not born into a poor family; he came from a well-to-do planter family. The record does not show a Kizzy or her son George among Tom Lea's slaves. There are also no records of a mulatto George Lea married to a Matilda. Haley described George Lea as a skilled chicken trainer who was sent to England when Tom Lea ran into financial difficulty in the 1850s. However, Tom Lea died during the winter of 1844-45.


    Haley initially conceded that he may have been led astray by his African research, and admitted that he had thought of calling Roots an "historical novel." However, he later stated that Ottaway's article was "unwarranted, unfair and unjust", and added that he had no reason to think Fofana unreliable. Haley also criticized his detractors' reliance upon written records in their evaluation of his work, contending that such records were "sporadic" and frequently inaccurate with regard to such data as slave births and ownership transactions. Haley asserted that for African-American genealogy, "well-kept oral history is without question the best source."

    Ironically, the Millses actually discovered a better fit to the Haley oral history in the written record than Haley himself had found. Dr. William Waller's father was Colonel William Waller, who owned a slave named Hopping George, a description that would be consistent with a foot injury. Colonel Waller also owned a slave named Isbell, who may be the Bell in Haley family legend. Tom Lea's father lived in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and he may have purchased some of Haley's ancestors from the Wallers. When the Lea family moved to North Carolina, they would have taken their slaves with them. The Leas lived in close proximity to the Murrays and Holts, and there are three Kizzies associated with the Lea and Murray families in the post-Civil War records.

    Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a friend of Haley, but years after Haley's death, Gates acknowledged doubts about the author's claims:

    "Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination."

    Gates later hosted the TV series African American Lives and Finding Your Roots, which use DNA testing to corroborate family histories and genealogies.

  • Gerber, David A. “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry Into the Nature of a Popular Phenomenon”, Journal of Ethnic Studies 5.3 (Fall 1977): 87-111.
  • Hudson, Michelle. "The Effect of 'Roots' and the Bicentennial on Genealogical Interest among Patrons of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History," Journal of Mississippi History 1991 53(4): 321-336
  • Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. "Roots and the New 'Faction': A Legitimate Tool for CLIO?", Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89 (January 1981): 3-26. PDF at Historic Pathways [2].
  • Ryan, Tim A. Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008.
  • Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. “Roots: A New Black Myth”, Southern Quarterly 17. 1 (Fall 1978): 42-50.
  • Taylor, Helen. “‘The Griot from Tennessee’: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots”, Critical Quarterly 37.2 (Summer 1995): 46-62.
  • Wright, Donald R. "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants," History of Africa 8 (1981): 205-217.
  • Television and audio adaptations

    Roots was made into a television miniseries that aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. ABC network television executives chose to "dump" the series into a string of airings rather than space out the broadcasts, because they were uncertain how the public would respond to the controversial, racially charged themes of the show. The series garnered enormous ratings and became an overnight sensation. Approximately 130 million Americans tuned in at some time during the eight broadcasts. The concluding episode on January 30, 1977 has been ranked as the third most watched telecast of all time by the Nielsen corporation.

    The cast of the miniseries included LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy, and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. A 14-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979, featuring the leading African-American actors of the day.

    In December 1988, ABC aired a two-hour made-for-TV movie: Roots: The Gift. Based on characters from the book, it starred LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Avery Brooks as Cletus Moyer, Kate Mulgrew as Hattie Carraway, and Tim Russ as house slave Marcellus (all four actors later became prominent as leading actors in the Star Trek franchise).

    In May 2007, BBC America released Roots as an audiobook narrated by Avery Brooks. The release coincided with Vanguard Press's publication of a new paperback edition of the book, which had gone out of print in 2004, and with Warner Home Video's release of a 30th-anniversary DVD-boxed set of the mini-series.

    A Blu-ray edition of the original series was released May 30, 2016 to coordinate with the release of the remake of the television documentary.

    In November 2013, the History channel announced that it was developing an eight-hour Roots miniseries with Mark Wolper, son of the original show's original producer David L. Wolper. This version will air beginning May 30, 2016 and combine elements from both Haley's book and its 1977 adaptation. Directors include Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Phillip Noyce, Executive Producers include Will Packer and LeVar Burton, while cast members include Malachi Kirby as Kunte, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Mekhi Phifer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Derek Luke, Anika Noni Rose, and Chad L. Coleman.

    Publication details

  • 1976, USA, Doubleday Books (ISBN 0-385-03787-2), Pub date 12 September 1976, hardback (First edition)
  • 1977, UK, Hutchinson (ISBN 0-09-129680-3), Pub date ? April 1977, hardback
  • 1978, UK, Picador (ISBN 0-330-25301-8), Pub date 14 April 1978, paperback
  • 1980, USA, Bantam Books (ISBN 0-685-01405-3), Pub date ? November 1980, paperback (Teacher's guide)
  • 1982, UK, GK Hall (ISBN 0-8161-6639-0), Pub date ? December 1982, hardback
  • 1985, USA, Vintage (ISBN 0-09-952200-4), Pub date ? May 1985, paperback
  • 1992, USA, Bantam Doubleday Dell (ISBN 0-440-17464-3), Pub date 31 December 1992, paperback
  • 1994, USA, Vintage (ISBN 0-09-936281-3), Pub date 21 January 1994, paperback
  • 1999, USA, Rebound by Sagebrush (ISBN 0-8085-1103-3), Pub date ? October 1999, hardback (Library edition)
  • 2000, USA, Wings (ISBN 0-517-20860-1), Pub date ? September 2000, hardback
  • 2006, USA, Buccaneer Books (ISBN 1-56849-471-8), Pub date 30 August 2006, hardback
  • 2007, USA, Vanguard Press (ISBN 1593154496), Pub date 22 May 2007, paperback
  • Legacy and honors

  • Haley received a Pulitzer Prize for his book, and the TV series won several major awards.
  • Including weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, the book is considered a publishing and cultural sensation.
  • The state of Tennessee put a historical marker by Haley's childhood home in Henning, noting the influence he had as an author because of Roots.
  • He was buried in the front yard of his childhood home, where a memorial marks the gravesite.
  • References

    Roots: The Saga of an American Family Wikipedia