Study Guide

Tom in Roots: The Saga of an American Family

By Alex Haley


In many ways, Tom is the most fitting heir to the Kinte legacy…because he combines basically all of the Kinte patriarchs' best qualities. He's stoic and no-nonsense like Kunta. He's brilliantly ingenious like Chicken George. And he's a talented blacksmith like the long-lost Kinte ancestors back in Mali.

Yeah, Tom's basically the best. And, more than anyone, he's the product of the family's ancestral legacy.

Little Man

That's ironic when you remember that he's named after Massa Tom Lea, which is a decision met with so much scorn by his mother Matilda and grandmother Kizzy. Still, Tom quickly proves to be the most serious and mature son in the family, taking to blacksmithing at a young age and even helping his father save up for their freedom.

As a result, he's thrust into a leadership position during the family's most trying time, when Chicken George is sent to England and the family is sold to the Murrays. Even when his dad returns and leads the family to Henning, Tennessee, Tom still retains his status as the man of the household. Chicken George would rather be the cool uncle, anyway.

Taking Charge

Tom encounters prejudice in Henning from its white residents who claim that he can't own a blacksmith shop because of his race. Exhausted by his constant struggles, Tom considers packing up and leaving again, but he instead reaches back into his memory and thinks of lessons taught to him by his family.

Check it out:

He played back in his mind the ordeal they had all endured in the wagons, rolling for weeks on end...and he thought of something Matilda had said often: "You search hard enough in sump'n bad, you's jes' liable to find sump'n good." (114.29)

Brilliantly, Tom builds a rolling blacksmith shop in a wagon to bypass the town's racist restrictions, creating a cool bit of branding in the process. That's an expert-level life move.

What's even better is that he does it in the most Tom way possible. He might seem quiet and he might seem stoic, but trust us on this one—Tom is always going to figure out a way to better the lives of himself and his family. That's just the Kinte way.