A Pulizer Prize winning historical novel that describes, with varying degrees of accuracy, the tragedies and triumphs of the known direct ancestors of author Alex Haley, highlighting each one of them in turn with the narrative.
It starts with the birth of Kunta Kinte, a typical boy from the village of Juffure in the Gambia, who, after manhood training, grew up to become a reasonably successful farmer and trader. Around age 17, after his night watch duties, he wandered into the nearby forest to chop some wood to make a drum for one of his brothers. There, he was attacked and captured by four slave traders who hauled him away.
From there, it follows Kunta's life for many years, being owned first by the cruel John Waller, who renamed Kunta to Toby (though Kunta would never recognize the name as his), then sold to John's brother the kinder (but still staunch slaver) William Waller, and from there to his marriage to the house cook Bell and the birth of his daughter Kizzy. The narrative then flows to follow both Kunta and Kizzy, taking special care to note that Kunta would tell Kizzy stories about his life in Africa whenever the opportunity arose, and taught her some words in his native Mandinka language. The story follows them both until Kizzy is sold away from her parents to a plantation in another state, after which the narrative then follows her alone until the birth of her own child, George, who was born as a result of frequent raping by her new master Tom Lea.
The book gradually shifts away from Kizzy's life as a slave cook to a high focus on George, but not before noting that she took special care to pass all the stories and Mandinka words she learned from her father to her son, so that he might know who his proud African grandfather was.
As George grew he became the right-hand slave to the master, who was an avid gamecock farmer and fighter. George's natural skill at raising and training gamecocks earned him the nickname "Chicken George," a tag he wore with pride for the rest of his days. While detailing Chicken George's life, the book notes that he ultimately had eight children through his wife Matilda. After each birth, he rounded up his entire extended family and told them all the stories and Mandinka words he had learned from Kizzy through their great-grandfather, the African Kunta Kinte.
One of Chicken George's boys, Tom, was a little different than the rest of the children. He was quiet, reserved, and thoughtful, very much unlike his boisterous and gregarious father or his sullen and cranky brothers. He turned out to have a natural talent for blacksmithing, and after gaining freedom from the end of the Civil War and the whole family moving to Tennessee, he became a very successful traveling smith. He ultimately had seven children of his own, and like his father before him, at each birth he brought in the entire extended family to retell all the stories and Mandinka words of their African great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte.
Tom's youngest daughter, Cynthia, grew up as thoughtful and intelligent as her father, and married a man named Will Palmer, who became a successful lumber yard owner — the first black man to run such a large business in Tennessee. They had one daughter, Bertha. Cynthia made it a point to stay in touch with her extended family and periodically gather them to her home, where she continued the family tradition of telling everybody, including Bertha, the family legend of their African ancestor and all his wonderful stories and strange Mandinka words.
Bertha went to college, where she met and married a struggling young man named Simon Haley. They had three sons before Bertha's death at a young age.
The eldest of their sons, Alex, grew especially close to his grandmother Cynthia, and loved sitting on her porch and listening to all the old stories Cynthia and her kin would tell about their African ancestor: the man who had been stolen away by four men while chopping wood to make a drum for his brother, and had gone by boat to a place called "Naplis" where he was sold to a man named John Waller, who named him Toby, but he would only answer to his birth name of Kinte. And how this Kinte tried four times to escape, but was recaptured and got his foot cut off, and then was sold to John Waller's brother William, and that on William Waller's plantation he married the cook Bell and they had a daughter named Kizzy whom he taught his history and many Mandinka words, but was sold away and then had a son Chicken George who was a famous gamecock trainer and fighter, and then Chicken George had a son, Tom the Blacksmith, who had Cynthia.
The book concludes with Alex Haley describing the research he did to verify independently as much of his family's story as he could, claiming that through written records and oral history from the region he identified as the likeliest place of Kinte's birth he was able to piece together enough of the story to know the tales had to be at least mostly true — that a Mandinka named Kunta Kinte had disappeared without a trace, that a slave ship called the Lord Ligonier had traveled from that land to Annapolis, Maryland at the time Kunta would have been around 17, and that a John Waller had sold land and a slave named Toby to his brother William. He also found a census form with Tom Murray, blacksmith, on it — Cynthia's father — from the town in Tennessee where Chicken George was said to have taken the entire family after Emancipation.
Haley then wrote the book, filling in from his imagination all the parts that couldn't be verified (primarily conversation and some filler events), but noting that, to the best of his knowledge and study, the lineage information was accurate. His stated goal was for the book to be a kind of analogue for all American blacks who had lost their family histories through the brutality and dehumanization of slavery. He knew he was incredibly lucky that any shred of his African heritage had survived the systemic suppression of the Slave Codes and of families being torn apart by sale, and that most black Americans have no way to tell such a story.
The book provides examples of:
- Adult Fear: Time and again, the fear of family members being taken away, never to be seen again, is the ultimate horror. Kunta was stolen from his family, and then his own daughter Kizzy was sold away from him. Kizzy's grandchildren and all their families were sold away from her, her son was forcibly shipped off to England, and she never saw any of them ever again before her death. Chicken George almost suffered this fate during his stint in England — his family was sold away from him, but on his return he managed to get Tom Lea drunk enough to spill the beans as to their current whereabouts, and found the freedom papers Lea had written out for him before getting shipped off.
- Based on a Great Big Lie: Not intentionally, but much of the work is admittedly a product of the author's imagination, and some of the independent documentation of the family history was not as rigorous as it should have been. It's possible that he has the wrong slave ship, and it's almost certain that the oral historian ("griot") he listened to in Africa was telling Haley a story that he heard, in a roundabout way, from Haley telling other people, hoping to find someone who knew it. The story probably got to the griot during Haley's search, who then told the tale back to Haley, who considered it proof of independent verification.
- Child by Rape: Chicken George. Tom Lea introduces himself to the story by raping Kizzy the night he bought her. He continues to do so multiple times, eventually impregnating Kizzy with George.
- Crapsack World: The entire existence of a slave.
- The Dandy: Chicken George, with his trademark green scarf and black bowler decorated with a red rooster feather. He spends almost every penny he makes at cockfights on fancy clothes for himself and his family until, middle aged, he realizes he could buy freedom instead.
- Death by Despair: Chicken George. The brash, boisterous, gregarious man becomes sullen and withdrawn after his beloved Matilda dies of a heart attack, and he follows her to the grave soon after. It's implied that he let himself be burned alive in the fireplace.
- Despair Event Horizon: After Kizzy is sold, Kunta desperately tries to invoke the African traditions that would ensure she would find her way back home — then realizes that he's deluding himself and his daughter is gone forever. He flies into a silent rage, and destroys his counting gourd, the last bit of African tradition he had managed to hold on to.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first time the reader meets Master Tom Lea, he's drunk out of his mind and rapes his new slave, Kizzy (who is only 16).
- Fate Worse than Death: Kunta considered slavery as this, and was willing to join his ancestors who had already met Allah rather than succumb, but found himself unable to die. He went into every escape attempt believing that if he failed, he'd be killed, and he was just fine with that. But he never was killed, only recaptured and eventually maimed.
- Freudian Excuse: Tom Lea tries to justify his ways to Chicken George by explaining that he grew up dirt poor, that he only has what wealth he does because he has worked so much harder than anyone he knows, including all his slaves, and that his worthless relatives all come begging for money and favors, then sneer at him behind his back. Chicken George feels kind of sad for Lea that his family is terrible, but isn't really convinced that Lea got everything he has by being such a hard worker.
- Generational Saga: This whole book is an extended example, going through seven generations, starting in Africa and moving through slavery in America.
- Hope Spot: By the bushel, but this is the South while slavery was in full swing. Every time it looks like Kunta or one of his descendants is about to get free, or at least get something good in life, reality bites them hard. Things only start turning around for the family after Emancipation.
- In the Blood:
- It's implied that Chicken George's tendency to philander and drink, and his unusually strong aptitude for raising and fighting gamecocks, comes from him being the son of Tom Lea.
- Tom the Blacksmith is also naturally skilled at his chosen profession. Alex Haley learns during his research that the Kinte clan of antiquity were known for being good blacksmiths in Old Mali and Mauritania.
- Killed Offscreen:
- Kunta and Bell, since Kizzy isn't around to find out how they ultimately died.
- Kizzy herself, since Chicken George's whole family, except for his mother, is sold away by Tom Lea, and she dies sometime while he's in England working off Lea's debt.
- Meaningful Name: Kizzy. In Mandinka, the name (properly "Kiese") means "to stay put." Kunta used it as a kind of incantation to ensure she would never be sold away from her family. The trope is subverted.
- N-Word Privileges:
- Defied In-Universe. While the book is positively dripping with the word, including black people both slave and free referring to each other as such, Kunta realizes that it's a white-man's pejorative slang, so he avoids using it whenever possible.
- Played straight in the macro sense. The author of the book was of course black, and used it wherever the narrative demanded for period authenticity without it being exceptionally jarring.
- The audiobook version is read by Avery Brooks. There is no way in hell that a white person could have narrated the book without it being beyond cringeworthy.
- One-Word Title: Named for its subject, the family line of its author.
- Red Baron: George Lea, son of Kizzy and slave of Tom Lea, is such a skilled gamecock trainer and fighter that he eventually earns the nickname "Chicken George." He wears it like a crown his whole life.
- Rite of Passage: The first chapters in the book go into great detail the various rites of passage that the male villagers of Juffure could expect, and each one is treated with a ceremony of sorts to let them know they have moved to the next level. As Kunta ages, he goes from naked (infant and toddler), to clothed (young child), to school and tending goat herds (older child), and from there to "manhood training" — essentially military training and survivalist camp with a circumcision finisher — after which he is accorded full status as an equal among other grown men. The other rites are not shown, as Kunta is stolen away before going through whatever rite would have made him a village elder.
- Sadistic Choice: When Kunta is captured during his fourth and final escape attempt, the slave catchers who nab him offer him a simple choice: either lose your foot, or be castrated. He chooses his foot, as a man with no fotoo can father no children and is therefore no man at all.
- The Stoic: Kunta tries to be this whenever he is enduring some punishment. It seldom succeeds, but not from a lack of effort or will. The punishments are just so brutal that nobody could possibly endure them without screaming or tears.
- Torture Cellar: The slave cargo hold of the Lord Ligonier. An unbelievable dungeon of filth, disease, and beatings. More than a third of the slaves died during the 80-90 day voyage. Justified in that those were very typical conditions for slave ships in the Middle Passage.
- Training from Hell: The Mandinka "manhood training" is considered this by boys who have not experienced it, and to some extent by boys going through it. That said, the boys who are going through it tend to harden and adapt fairly quickly, and learn to love the instructor and tough lessons by the end of it. At least until the circumcision, anyway.
- Translation Convention: Nearly all dialogue between Africans while in Africa or aboard the Lord Ligonier. The occasional Mandinka word is added for flavor, such as toubob ("white person"), which is used in its native form nearly without exception.
- Uncle Tomfoolery: Discussed and exploited. Chicken George and his son Tom both mention that it's one of the ways that black slaves can stay out of trouble — by appearing more foolish and silly than they actually are, they can mitigate a white man's wrath.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: After Kizzy is sold away, we never hear from Kunta or Bell again. Justified in that Kizzy never saw her parents again after being sold, and would have no more stories to tell of them.
- White Man's Burden: The slave masters love to cover themselves with this to justify maintaining their brutal and dehumanizing ways. They complain endlessly to one another about the barely-endurable tribulations of taking these poor black savages and making civilized humans of them, teaching them proper Christianity instead of their heathen ways, replacing their natural laziness with industry, offering harsh punishment only as a paternalistic form of loving correction, and that all this is done ultimately for the slaves' benefit. The slaves, naturally and correctly, believe exactly none of it.
- Work Off the Debt: In one of the most horrible fashions imaginable. Tom Lea loses both his entire estate and Chicken George's life savings in a cockfighting wager with an English nobleman. Rather than give up his plantation to repay the remaining debt, he doesn't do anything himself, but rather sends Chicken George to England for five years to work as a gamecock trainer. He promises to repay Chicken George's loss, both financial and familial, by granting him his freedom on return. Instead, he sells off Chicken George's entire family and conveniently forgets about the offer of freedom.
- You No Take Candle: Kunta takes a very long time to learn to speak English. Until he has been a slave for over 20 years, his speech is almost entirely broken.