Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Roots: The Saga of an American Family is a novel written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976. It was adapted into a hugely popular, 12-hour television miniseries, also called Roots, in 1977, and a 14-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, in 1979.

Plot introduction

Brought up on the stories of his elderly female relatives -- including his Grandmother Cynthia, who was emancipated from slavery with her family in 1865 -- Alex Haley purported to have traced his family history back to "the African", Kunta Kinte, captured by slave traders in 1767. For generations, each of Kunta's enslaved descendants passed down an oral history of Kunta's experiences as a free man in Gambia, along with the African words he taught them. Haley researched African village customs, slave-trading and the history of Blacks in America -- including a visit to the griot (oral historian) of his ancestor's African village -- to produce this colorful rendering of his family's history from the mid-eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century which led him back to his heartland, Africa.

Characters in "Roots"

  • Kunta Kinte – original protagonist: a young man of the Mandinka people, grows up in the Gambia and is raised as a practicing Muslim before being captured and enslaved. Renamed "Toby"
  • Master John Waller – plantation owner who buys Kunta (called John Reynolds in the TV series)
  • Dr. William Waller – doctor of medicine and John's brother: buys Kunta from him (called William Reynolds in the TV series)
  • Belle Waller – cook to the doctor who Kinte marries (called Belle Reynolds in the TV series)
  • Kizzy Waller – daughter of Kinte and Belle (called Kizzy Reynolds in the TV series)
  • Missy Anne – Dr. Waller's niece
  • Tom Lea – slave owner in North Carolina to whom Kizzy is sold (called Tom Moore in the TV series)
  • George Lea – son to Kizzy and her brutal new owner, he is called "Chicken George" (called George Moore in the TV series)
  • Matilda – who George marries
  • Tom Murray – son of Chicken George and Matilda (called Tom Harvey in the TV series)
  • Cynthia – the youngest of Tom and Irene's eight children (grand daughter of Chicken George)
  • Bertha – one of Cynthia's children; mother of Alex Haley
  • Simon Alexander HaleyCornell University professor and husband of Bertha; father of Alex Haley
  • Alex H. – author of the book and central character for last 30 pages; great-great-great-great-grandson (6 generations) of Kunta Kinte

Literary significance and criticism

Haley earned a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1977 for Roots, and the television miniseries garnered many awards, including nine Emmys and a Peabody. Haley's fame was marred, however, by charges of plagiarism. After one trial, in which he admitted that large passages of Roots were copied from The African by Harold Courlander, Haley was permitted to settle out-of-court for $650,000. Haley claimed that the appropriation of Courlander's passages had been unintentional. In 1988, Margaret Walker also sued Haley, claiming that Roots violated the copyright for her novel Jubilee. That case was dismissed by the court.

Additionally, the veracity of those aspects of the story which Haley claimed to be true have also been challenged. Although Haley acknowledged the novel was primarily a work of fiction, he did claim that his actual ancestor was Kunta Kinte, an African taken from the village of Juffure in what is now The Gambia. According to Haley, Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery where he was given the name Toby and, while in the service of a slavemaster named John Waller, went on to have a daughter named Kizzy, Haley's great-great-great grandmother. Haley also claimed to have identified the specific slave ship and its specific voyage that transported Kunta Kinte from Africa to North America in 1767.

However, noted genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and the African-Americanist historian Gary B. Mills revisited Haley's research and concluded that his claims were not true. According to the Millses, the slave named Toby who was owned by John Waller could be definitively shown to have been in North America as early as 1762. They further said that Toby died years prior to the supposed date of birth of Kizzy. There have also been suggestions that the griot in Juffure, who, during Haley's visit there, confirmed the tale of the disappearance of Kunta Kinte, had been coached to relate such a story.

Although a friend of Haley's, Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of general editors the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, has acknowledged the doubts about Haley's claims, saying, "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.


  • 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.
  • 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.

Television and audio adaptations

Roots was made into a hugely popular television miniseries that aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Many people partially attribute the success of the miniseries to the original score by Quincy Jones. 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. However, 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 was rated 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 1988, a two-hour made-for-TV movie, Roots: The Gift, aired. Based on characters from the book, it starred LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Avery Brooks as Cletus Moyer and Kate Mulgrew as Hattie, the female leader of a group of slave catchers (coincidentally, all three actors have become prominent as leading actors in the Star Trek franchise).

In August 2006, author Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, recorded a public service announcement for Deejay Ra's 'Hip-Hop Literacy' campaign encouraging reading of Alex Haley's books to commemorate Haley's 85th birthday.

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.

Release 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


See also

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