First edition cover
|August 17, 1976|
|Media type||Print (Hardback, paperback)|
|Pages||704 pp (First edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||0-385-03787-2 (First edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||E185.97.H24 A33|
Roots: The Saga of an American Family is a 1976 novel written by Alex Haley. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, transported to North America; following 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. The novel spent forty-six weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, including twenty-two weeks at number one. 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 African American genealogy and an appreciation for African-American history. 
The book was originally described as "fiction," yet 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 found critical errors in his research. Most of the novel is either unsupported or contradicted by the available evidence.
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, a Mandinka living by the River Gambia, has a difficult but free childhood in his village, Jufureh. His village subsists on farming, and sometimes they lack enough food, as the climate is harsh. 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.
Kunta is excited to see the world. At one point, Kunta sees men in hoods taking away some of the children. This confuses Kunta, but is eager to learn his father, Omoro, will take him outside Juffure. Omoro and Kunta set off, learning much more about their surroundings. When they return, Kunta brags to all his friends about the journey, but does not pay attention to his family's goats, which fall prey to a panther.
Later on, Kunta is taken off from manhood training, with other children of his kafo (division or grade). Kunta learns even more about the Gambia, but fears the slave trade, which he learns is closer to home than he thinks. Kunta passes his training, and learns more about Juffure's court system. One day, he witnesses the case of a young girl, who was kidnapped by the toubob, and came back pregnant. She gives birth to a mixed-raced child, and the case is unresolved.
One morning when Kunta is cutting wood to make a drum, he is ambushed by slatees (black slave traders), and is knocked unconscious and taken prisoner. He awakens to find himself gagged and blindfolded. The toubob humiliate Kunta and the other captives by stripping them naked, examining them in every orifice and burning them with hot irons. Kunta is then placed in the brig of a ship, naked and chained. After a nightmarish journey across the Atlantic on board the slave ship Lord Ligonier, he is landed in Annapolis, 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. Kunta also befriends a musician slave named Fiddler. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, Kunta 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. 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 Andrew Murray. 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 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.
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 of 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 attempts to locate the likeliest origin of the African words passed down by Kunta Kinte. Dr. Jan Vansina explains 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 "Colonel O'Hare's forces" were dispatched to Fort James on the Gambia River in 1767. In Lloyd's of London, he discovers a 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.
|Sireng Kinte||Kairaba Kunta Kinte||Yaisa Kinte|
|Janneh Kinte||Saloum Kinte||Omoro Kinte||Binta Kebba|
|Kunta Kinte||Bell Waller||Lamin Kinte||Suwadu Kinte||Madi Kinte|
|Tom Lea||Kizzy Waller|
|Virgil||Lily Su||Ashford||George||Tom Murray||Irene||James||Louis||Kizzy||Mary|
|Zeona Hatcher||Simon Alexander Haley|
|Bertha George Palmer|
|Lois Haley||Alex Haley (1921-1992)|
|George Haley (1925-2015)||Julius|
Published in October 1976 amid significant advance expectations,Roots was immediately successful, garnering a slew of positive reviews and debuting at number five of The New York Times Best Seller list (with The Times choosing to classify it as non-fiction). By mid-November, it rose to number one. The television adaptation of the book aired in January 1977, further fueling book sales. Within seven months of its release, Roots had sold over 15 million hard cover copies.
In total, Roots spent twenty-two weeks at the number one spot on The Times' list, including each of the first eighteen weeks of 1977, before falling to number three on May 8. It did not fall off of the list entirely until August 7. By then, the list had featured it for forty-six 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.
In the spring of 1977, Haley was charged with plagiarism in separate lawsuits by Harold Courlander and Margaret Walker Alexander. Courlander, an anthropologist, charged Roots was copied from his novel The African (1967). Walker claimed 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 $2.5 million in 2019) and an acknowledgment from Haley certain passages within Roots were copied from The African. The court dismissed Walker's case, which, in comparing the content of Roots with that of Jubilee, found "no actionable similarities exist between the works".
Haley called his novel "fiction" and acknowledged 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 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.:884-885
However, some historians and genealogists suggested Haley did not rely on factual evidence as closely as he represented, claiming there are serious errors with Haley's family history and historical descriptions in the period preceding the Civil War.
Haley's family history after the Civil War also contains serious errors based on available evidence. In chapter 115, he describes the blossoming romance between his great Aunt Elizabeth Murray and John Toland. He describes how Elizabeth's father, Tom Murray, refused to consent to any marriage between his daughter and Toland on the basis that Toland was biracial, appearing to be more white than black. Haley goes on to describe how Tom's mother, Matilda, became so upset because of Tom's attitude that she suffered a medical episode and died soon thereafter. According to historical record, Matilda died in 1875. According to census records, Elizabeth was born in 1867, although her gravestone indicates she was born in 1872. Using the earlier date for her birth, she would have only been eight years old when Matilda died calling into serious question whether the story regarding the circumstances of her death has any basis in fact. If Elizabeth was really born in 1872, she would have only been three years old at the time of Matilda's death. While it may be true that Elizabeth experienced her father's rejection of Toland as her suitor, it seems quite impossible that her grandmother, Matilda, died in reaction to this incident.
Haley also incorrectly states the year of his own mother's death. At page 667, Haley states that one morning in 1931 while he was in school, he received a message to hurry home where he found that his mother was dying. In fact, however, Bertha Palmer Haley died on 16 February 1932. Haley states that she was 36 years old when she died, when in fact she was 34.
In April 1977, the (London) Sunday Times published an article titled "Tangled Roots" by Mark Ottaway. It challenged the book's account of Kunta Kinte and Haley's African ancestry. Ottaway found that 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 Haley had relied on for his identification.
Donald R. Wright, a historian of the West African slave trade, found 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. Haley had told his story to so many people, his family history assimilated into the oral traditions of the Gambia. Haley had created a case of circular reporting, in which people repeated his words back to him.
Roots depicted Juffure as a village that had only heard rumors about white men in 1767. In reality, Juffure was two miles from James Island, a major trading outpost established by the Royal Africa Company in 1661. The King of Barra allowed the Company to establish a fort on the island, on the condition none of his subjects could be purchased without his permission. Haley admitted he had picked the year 1767 for "the time the King's soldiers came" to match his American research.
Historian Gary B. Mills and genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, who specialize in black 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 Waller family already owned the slave Toby 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 Haley uncovered was the 1870 Census listing for Tom Murray's household. Therefore, there is a gap of over ninety years relying 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. Further, England had abolished slavery in 1833.
Haley initially conceded he may have been led astray by his African research, and admitted he had thought of calling Roots a "historical novel". However, he stated Ottaway's article was "unwarranted, unfair and unjust", and added he had no reason to think Fofana unreliable. Haley also criticized his detractors' reliance upon written records in their evaluation of his work, contending such records were "sporadic" and frequently inaccurate with regard to such data as slave births and ownership transactions. Haley asserted for black genealogy, "well-kept oral history is without question the best source".
Ironically, the Millses 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 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 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 used DNA testing to corroborate family histories and genealogies. Haley wrote another novel in regard to his paternal grandmother Queen [Jackson] Haley but died before he could finish it; it was published posthumously as Queen: The Story of an American Family. Subsequent DNA testing of Alex Haley's nephew Chris Haley revealed that Alec Haley, Alex's paternal grandfather (and Queen Haley's husband) was most likely descended from Scottish ancestors via William Harwell Baugh, an overseer of an Alabama slave plantation.
Roots was a television miniseries airing 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 fourteen-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979, featuring the leading black 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 mini-series debuted on May 30, 2016, to coordinate with the release of the remake of the television series.
In November 2013, the History channel announced it was developing an eight-hour Roots miniseries with Mark Wolper, son of the original show's original producer David L. Wolper. This version aired May 30, 2016, and combined 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.