Study Guide

Roots: The Saga of an American Family Summary

By Alex Haley

Roots: The Saga of an American Family Summary

Kick back and relax, guys—this one's going to take a minute. This book is long.

*Deep breath.*

So, Kunta Kinte is the first-born son of Omoro and Binta Kinte, Mandinka tribes-people who live in the village of Juffure, which is in The Gambia. Kunta has a lovely, idyllic childhood, but it's cut tragically short when he's kidnapped by white slave traders (whom he refers to as "toubob") while looking for wood to build a drum.

After his capture, Kunta is brutally beaten, abused, and locked in the belly of a ship along with a mass of other enslaved Africans. He endures unimaginable treatment and, although the imprisoned Africans plan to rise up, the conditions are so bad that an uprising becomes impossible. Many don't survive the journey, but the ship reaches its destination: America.

Kunta's Story

Kunta's auctioned off to a toubob man and brought to a large farm, where he's locked up and forced to perform manual labor. "Terrible" doesn't even begin to describe this. Kunta runs away a total of four times, and on the fourth, he's captured by a group of professional slave catchers and they cut off his foot. The pain is so intense he passes out.

He wakes up in an unfamiliar room as a tall toubob treats his wounds with the help of a black woman named Bell. Kunta learns that the toubob is called Massa Waller and that he bought Kunta from his brother. All of this still continues to surpass the words "terrible," "horrible," and "brain-meltingly awful."

But dude persists.

Although Kunta's upset by a) his insanely horrific predicament and b) the way that the black people in America seem to have abandoned their heritage, he slowly softens up. He befriends the fiddler and the gardener, and falls in love with Bell, who he marries. Aww. They have a kid together named Kizzy and Kunta is happier than he's ever been—especially after teaching her about the family history, and even a few words in Mandinka.

But tragedy strikes when Kizzy's sold by Massa Waller after forging a travel pass for a runaway slave named Noah. She never sees her parents again…and we get a new protagonist.

Kizzy and Chicken George's Story

Kizzy's brought to a dark cabin, where she is raped repeatedly by Massa Tom Lea, her new owner. (At this point, we're going to stop telling you how insanely evil all of this is…because we're guessing you get it.)

Eventually, she gives birth to a son, who Massa Lea names George.

Massa Lea makes his money from cockfighting, so George begins assisting the slave who watches over his chickens, Uncle Mingo. He's so good at this new job, in fact, that he earn himself a new nickname: Chicken George. Besides gamecocking, Chicken George also proves exceptionally proficient with the ladies.

That is, until he meets Matilda. Matilda's super religious, so she won't play his games. Still—playing hard to get always works. They marry and have a gaggle of kids, though George's passion for gamecocking and playboy lifestyle prevents him fully diving into life as a family man.

Eventually, George gets back on the straight and narrow, and he and Matilda starting saving money to buy the family's freedom. They even enlist the help of their son Tom, who has become a successful blacksmith in recent years. Nice. Unfortunately, both Chicken George and Massa Lea gamble away their savings on a big cockfight. Chicken George's sent to England for three years to pay off Massa Lea's debt, though Massa Lea promises to free the family upon his return.

Tom's Story

But that doesn't happen. Instead, Massa Lea's finances get so bad that he's forced to sell everyone…except Grandma Kizzy.

They end up on the plantation of Massa and Missis Murray, who are decent as far as slave-masters go (which isn't all that decent in the grand scheme of things, of course). Tom sets up a thriving blacksmith shop and marries a woman named Irene. They have few kids of their own. Meanwhile, Chicken George returns from England, but is only able to snag his freedom from Massa Lea. Even worse, he's forced to leave the state due to legal restrictions against free black people.

While this is happening, the Civil War's kicking up into gear. It's a crazy tense time, and Tom's forced to blacksmith for the Confederacy, but the North ends up winning and freeing the nation's slaves. The family sharecrops on the Murray farm for a bit before Chicken George returns once again, telling them of an amazing settlement he found in western Tennessee.

The Next Generation

So they go. Although there's some pushback from local white folks, the family (and a bunch of others that joined them) builds themselves homes and a thriving community. Tom's daughter Cynthia marries a businessman named Will, and their daughter Bertha marries a hard-working guy named Simon Haley. Bertha and Simon give birth to a son named Alex and guess what—he's the author of this novel we're reading right now. Mind blown.

Alex Haley explains that the story we just read is based on oral traditions first passed down from Kunta Kinte to Kizzy, then all the way to himself. He corroborated these oral traditions with historical documents, as well as the genealogical knowledge of a West African oral storyteller known as a griot. Once that was established, he began writing Roots.

His father passed away while he was writing it, but the book has actually helped him make peace with that. It gives him comfort knowing that his dad is up there watching him now, along with Kunta, Kizzy, Chicken George, Tom, and the entire fam.