Study Guide

Chicken George in Roots: The Saga of an American Family

By Alex Haley

Chicken George

If Kunta Kinte is the star quarterback, Chicken George is the class clown. If Kunta Kinte is Zeus, Chicken George is Hermes. Kunta's stoic like Superman…while Chicken George is more on a par with the wisecracking partyboy ways of Iron Man.

In fact, Chicken George might be the most complex of the main characters in Roots. On one hand, he's a hardcore partier who loves nothing more than fine liquor and finer ladies. On the other, he's a loving family man who's dedicated to carrying Kunta Kinte's legacy into the future.

But we don't hold these contradictions against him—it's what makes him such a one-of-a-kind character.

The Man with Many Faces

Of course, his first love is cockfighting. He stumbles across it by accident, while wandering around the plantation one day, but quickly becomes the most eager pupil Uncle Mingo could ask for—and eventually his replacement. For George, cockfights are unlike anything he's ever experienced, giving him a sense of freedom he didn't think possible.

Related to this are George's hard-partying ways. Even after he gets married to Matilda, who's devoutly religious, he continues getting sloshed and spending time with other women. It's a real drag. But George is pulled back from the brink by the love of his growing family and, interestingly, his desire to live up to Kunta Kinte's legacy. Check it out:

"Gran'mammy say de African make us know who we is!"

"He do dat!" said Gran-mammy Kizzy, beaming.

For the first time in a long time, Chicken George felt that his cabin was his home again. (97.43)

This is the turning point when Chicken George finally gives his family his full focus. The results are amazing: most of his kids learn trades and become successful beyond his wildest expectations. It's super swell.

Unfortunately, not everything about George's family life is so perfect.

Finding a Father

We're referring, of course, to Massa Tom Lea, George's owner, fellow gamecocker, and biological father.

Massa Lea raped George's mother Kizzy when he first bought her, eventually producing a son who he decided to name George after the first slave he ever owned. This situation is horrible no matter which way you look at it, but as soon as her son is born, Kizzy resolves to help him transcend his circumstances. And she does it through Kunta's legacy.

Here's what she says:

Kizzy decided that however base her baby's origins, however light his color, [...] she would never regard him as other than the grandson of an African. (85.20)

Many years later, she inadvertently reveals the truth of George's parentage to him. This really throws him for a loop, leading him to approach his owner much differently. He goes out of his way to seek Massa Lea's approval. He naively assumes that Massa Lea will treat him with more respect. Chicken George just can't see that any real relationship between them as father and son would be impossible for a whole myriad of reasons.

Instead, he misses out on the "nearest to a father he ever had known"—Uncle Mingo—until it's too late and Mingo passes away (98.32). This is a heart-breaking moment for Chicken George, but it also makes him see the importance of freedom, which directly leads to his and Matilda's decision start saving up to free their family.

The Fight for Freedom

Of course, he trips up in a big way when he and Massa Lea bet their entire savings on a big cockfight, which they lose. The consequence of this is two-fold: the family is forced to start their freedom fund from the ground up, and George is sent to England for three years to pay off Massa Lea's debt.

There are bummers as far as the eye can see.

On a symbolic level, this is because Chicken George still hasn't fully atoned with his relationship with his father. It's not until he returns, sees his family sold away, his mother dead, and Massa Lea an old, decrepit shadow of himself, that he's finally able to let go of his conflicted feelings for his biological father.

This exchange sums things up well:

In Massa Lea's hollowed face, his eyes were rheumy, then with high, cackling laughter he rushed with widening arms to hug Chicken George, who sidestepped. Catching Massa Lea's bony hands, he shook them vigorously. (108.23)

For the first time, George is the one denying Massa Lea of a relationship. That's huge.

After this, Chicken George becomes his family's knight in shining armor, leading them to the tiny town of Henning, Tennessee, where they create a thriving community that lasts generations. He remains as flashy and cocky as ever, but we're sure old Grandpa Kunta would be proud.