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11.09.03Haley, Alex, Roots, The Saga of an American Family


 Why the Society Considers “Roots” Worthy of our Listing:

Although Alex Haley’s “Roots,” pitched to America as a family history based on genealogical research, a gross misrepresentation, this fault, large as it is, does not negate the huge impact it had on the American mind with regard to African American history and the history of the Southern States and the story of African slavery.  “Roots,” merely a fictional novel, was translated into 27 languages and dramatized in a very popular television series.  Because of its huge influence, “Roots” merits our listing.  But when reading “Roots” always remember that, for the first 93 percent of the book, you are reading a fictional novel in which the Blacks are good people and the Whites are bad people.   The southern States culture needs a more accurate representation of the history of its people, of all three races, Native, African and European.

 Notes Concerning the Author:

 Alex Haley (1921-1992) considered his home town to be Henning, in western Tennessee, although his father’s career as a professor of agriculture took the family to several college towns during Alex’s youth, most notable, Alabama A & M University.  Finding college work difficult, Alex dropped out and, at age 18, joined the U. S. Coast Guard, there making it his career for 20 years (1939-1959).  It was during tours of duty at sea that Haley, relying on his portable typewriter, taught himself to write.  Upon retirement from the Coast Guard he struggled to make a career of writing.  After many rejections he found traction writing for The Reader’s Digest and for Playboy Magazine.  A big break came when he received a job to write a biography of Malcolm X, which became a successful book.  Then he struck out to construct an epic novel based on characters from his own ancestry, going back to a man he believed to be his great-great-great-great- grandfather, Kunta Kinte, the African whose name had been passed down to him by 6 generations of American-born descendants.  As his search for records bore a bit of fruit, support for his writing project grew.  But fiction trumped fact as he struggled to prove the scraps of oral ancestry he sought to document and as he gave in to a need to write a multi-generational tale of African slavery in America’s southern States that supported accepted mythology.  In the final analysis, Haley, and the writers/editors who helped him, produced a passionate and moving novel worthy of our attention as a fictional work of literature, but one which was falsely pitched to the American people as a work inspired by good genealogy.  His genealogy is grossly flawed.  But his novel and the resulting “Roots” television drama greatly influenced the American concept of African slavery in the southern States and of the southern States culture.


Roots is a fictional novel based on an oral tradition of the writer’s family, going back to an enslaved African named Kunta Kinte, believed to have been imported from the Gambia region of West Africa into Virginia in 1767.  Of the story prior to the late 1860’s (pages 1 through 551 of the 587 total page count), the novel is predominately fiction, with only a few scraps of factual story included.  The proposed ancestral characters are Kunta Kinte, the African who is imported into Virginia and fathers a girl, Kizzi, with African American Bell (Kunta worked as a gardener and buggy driver, Bell as a cook); George, a child of Kizzi, fathered by her white owner, Tom Lea (child George would feed and train Mr. Lea’s fighting gamecocks); Tom, a child of George and African American Matilda (child Tom would grow up and become a successful blacksmith); Cynthia, a child of Tom and African/Native American Irene (Irene’s father was Indian); Bertha, a child of Cynthia and African American Will Palmer (Will was a successful lumber merchant); and author Alex, a child of Bertha and Simon Haley, who became a successful college professor, (Simon was black, but of considerable white ancestry as both grandfathers were white).

The novel is set in Spotsylvania County Virginia, then Caswell County, North Carolina then Henning, Tennessee.  Although Kunta Kinte was portrayed as being a very moral man who adhered to the Muslim religion until his death, he was unable to persuade others in his life to practice that faith.  His wife Bell, daughter Kizzi and Kizzi’s descendants (except for Chicken George) were portrayed as devoutly Christian in the line from Kizzi to Alex Haley’s mother.  Comparing the African American characters featured in “Roots” to the white people they encountered, the reader is persuaded that the former practiced a higher level of moral behavior and that they were the heroes.  In fact, there is reason be believe that, over 6 generations, author Haley was fortunate to be descended from a generally honorable lineage of men and women of good moral character and good work ethic.  And these ancestors were portrayed as experiencing a relatively good life, for they were healthy, ample labor was at hand to perform the work that needed doing, there was always adequate food, children remained with parents at least until the latter teen years when young adults customarily leave home and Kunta Kinte’s descendants were prolific, enjoying the blessings of children and large families.   When one contrasts this story with life in the African village from which Kunta Kinte had lived until his late teens, readers can justifiably ponder thoughts that his descendants, living in America, were better off that were his cousins who remained in his African birth village.  That is the puzzle of African slavery in the southern States of America:  The descendants of the 620,000 imported African slaves, now numbering over 35,000,000, are better off today than their cousins left behind.  Was slavery God’s way of bringing Africans to America to help Europeans build the nation in which we live today and to share in the resulting prosperity?  The road for them was tough, to be sure, but do we not live for our children and grandchildren as much as for ourselves?

I need to mention a small detail.  In the novel Alex Haley presented “news” that “Fort Sumter has surrendered with 15 dead on both sides.”  This was wrong.  Only one death was suffered at Fort Sumter, a Federal soldier when his cannon exploded in a flag ceremony prior to departing for the Charleston railroad station.  Shortly afterward, on April 19 in Baltimore, the first battle deaths were suffered as Massachusetts militia, passing though the city, became involved in attempts by citizens to turn them back, an altercation that resulted in 9 dead Baltimoreans and 4 dead militiamen. 

The above misrepresentation of the first days of conflict caught my eye, but is insignificant in comparison to the misrepresentation of Haley’s ancestry, which is described by the following quotation from Wikipedia (see “Roots”).

“The Africanist historian Donald R. Wright and the African-Americanist historian Gary B. Mills, the latter with genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, separately revisited Haley’s research and concluded that his claims were not true. Professor Wright focused on Haley’s identification and portrayal of alleged African ancestors, the unreliability of twentieth-century griots and village elders for historical accounts of the 1700s, and significant inaccuracies in the portrayal of Juffure as a pastoral village. The Millses focused upon Haley’s identification and portrayal of four generations of slave forebears and masters. Their reportage 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.”

Availability of this Book

Published in 1977, over one million copies of “Roots” were sold in its first year, and it was eventually translated into 36 other languages.  ABC produced a “Roots” television miniseries in 1977, watched by 130 million people, and a sequel in 1979.  Inexpensive used copies of the book are readily available on  You can get it as a Kindle e-book and as a audio book, expertly read to you.  Copies of the television miniseries are also available on-line.

An Important Reference Worthy of Mention

Concerning fraudulent genealogy: National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Number 72 (March 1984), pages 35-49.