The Saga of an American Family


By Alex Haley

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Based off of the bestselling author’s family history, this novel tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who is sold into slavery in the United States where he and his descendants live through major historic events.

When Roots was first published forty years ago, the book electrified the nation: it received a Pulitzer Prize and was a #1 New York Times bestseller for 22 weeks. The celebrated miniseries that followed a year later was a coast-to-coast event-over 130 million Americans watched some or all of the broadcast. In the four decades since then, the story of the young African slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants has lost none of its power to enthrall and provoke.

Now, Roots once again bursts onto the national scene, and at a time when the race conversation has never been more charged. It is a book for the legions of earlier readers to revisit and for a new generation to discover.

To quote from the introduction by Michael Eric Dyson: “Alex Haley’s Roots is unquestionably one of the nation’s seminal texts. It affected events far beyond its pages and was a literary North Star…. Each generation must make up its own mind about how it will navigate the treacherous waters of our nation’s racial sin. And each generation must overcome our social ills through greater knowledge and decisive action. Roots is a stirring reminder that we can achieve these goals only if we look history squarely in the face.”

The star- studded cast in this new event series includes Academy Award-winners Forest Whitaker and Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Derek Luke, Grammy Award-winner Tip “T.I.” Harris, and Mekhi Phifer. Questlove of The Roots is the executive music producer for the miniseries’s stirring soundtrack.



Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte. Forcing forth from Binta’s strong young body, he was as black as she was, flecked and slippery with Binta’s blood, and he was bawling. The two wrinkled midwives, old Nyo Boto and the baby’s Grandmother Yaisa, saw that it was a boy and laughed with joy. According to the forefathers, a boy firstborn presaged the special blessings of Allah not only upon the parents but also upon the parents’ families; and there was the prideful knowledge that the name of Kinte would thus be both distinguished and perpetuated.

It was the hour before the first crowing of the cocks, and along with Nyo Boto and Grandma Yaisa’s chatterings, the first sound the child heard was the muted, rhythmic bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp of wooden pestles as the other women of the village pounded couscous grain in their mortars, preparing the traditional breakfast of porridge that was cooked in earthen pots over a fire built among three rocks.

The thin blue smoke went curling up pungent and pleasant, over the small dusty village of round mud huts as the nasal wailing of Kajali Demba, the village alimamo, began, calling men to the first of the five daily prayers that had been offered up to Allah for as long as anyone living could remember. Hastening from their beds of bamboo cane and cured hides into their rough cotton tunics, the men of the village filed briskly to the praying place, where the alimamo led the worship: “Allahu Akbar! Ashadu an lailahailala!” (God is great! I bear witness that there is only one God!) It was after this, as the men were returning toward their home compounds for breakfast, that Omoro rushed among them, beaming and excited, to tell them of his firstborn son. Congratulating him, all of the men echoed the omens of good fortune.

Each man, back in his own hut, accepted a calabash of porridge from his wife. Returning to their kitchens in the rear of the compound, the wives fed next their children, and finally themselves. When they had finished eating, the men took up their short, bent-handled hoes, whose wooden blades had been sheathed with metal by the village blacksmith, and set off for their day’s work of preparing the land for farming of the groundnuts and the couscous and cotton that were the primary men’s crops, as rice was that of the women, in this hot, lush savanna country of The Gambia.

By ancient custom, for the next seven days, there was but a single task with which Omoro would seriously occupy himself: the selection of a name for his firstborn son. It would have to be a name rich with history and with promise, for the people of his tribe—the Mandinkas—believed that a child would develop seven of the characteristics of whomever or whatever he was named for.

On behalf of himself and Binta, during this week of thinking, Omoro visited every household in Juffure, and invited each family to the naming ceremony of the newborn child, traditionally on the eighth day of his life. On that day, like his father and his father’s father, this new son would become a member of the tribe.

When the eighth day arrived, the villagers gathered in the early morning before the hut of Omoro and Binta. On their heads, the women of both families brought calabash containers of ceremonial sour milk and sweet munko cakes of pounded rice and honey. Karamo Silla, the jaliba of the village, was there with his tan-tang drums; and the alimamo, and the arafang, Brima Cesay, who would some day be the child’s teacher; and also Omoro’s two brothers, Janneh and Saloum, who had journeyed from far away to attend the ceremony when the drumtalk news of their nephew’s birth had reached them.

As Binta proudly held her new infant, a small patch of his first hair was shaved off, as was always done on this day, and all of the women exclaimed at how well formed the baby was. Then they quieted as the jaliba began to beat his drums. The alimamo said a prayer over the calabashes of sour milk and munko cakes, and as he prayed, each guest touched a calabash brim with his or her right hand, as a gesture of respect for the food. Then the alimamo turned to pray over the infant, entreating Allah to grant him long life, success in bringing credit and pride and many children to his family, to his village, to his tribe—and, finally, the strength and the spirit to deserve and to bring honor to the name he was about to receive.

Omoro then walked out before all of the assembled people of the village. Moving to his wife’s side, he lifted up the infant and, as all watched, whispered three times into his son’s ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child’s name, for Omoro’s people felt that each human being should be the first to know who he was.

The tan-tang drum resounded again; and now Omoro whispered the name into the ear of Binta, and Binta smiled with pride and pleasure. Then Omoro whispered the name to the arafang, who stood before the villagers.

“The first child of Omoro and Binta Kinte is named Kunta!” cried Brima Cesay.

As everyone knew, it was the middle name of the child’s late grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, who had come from his native Mauretania into The Gambia, where he had saved the people of Juffure from a famine, married Grandma Yaisa, and then served Juffure honorably till his death as the village’s holy man.

One by one, the arafang recited the names of the Mauretanian forefathers of whom the baby’s grandfather, old Kairaba Kinte, had often told. The names, which were great and many, went back more than two hundred rains. Then the jaliba pounded on his tan-tang and all of the people exclaimed their admiration and respect at such a distinguished lineage.

Out under the moon and the stars, alone with his son that eighth night, Omoro completed the naming ritual. Carrying little Kunta in his strong arms, he walked to the edge of the village, lifted his baby up with his face to the heavens, and said softly, “Fend kiling dorong leh warrata ka iteh tee.” (Behold—the only thing greater than yourself.)


It was the planting season, and the first rains were soon to come. On all their farming land, the men of Juffure had piled tall stacks of dry weeds and set them afire so that the light wind would nourish the soil by scattering the ashes. And the women in their rice fields were already planting green shoots in the mud.

While she was recovering from childbirth, Binta’s rice plot had been attended by Grandma Yaisa, but now Binta was ready to resume her duties. With Kunta cradled across her back in a cotton sling, she walked with the other women—some of them, including her friend Jankay Touray, carrying their own newborns, along with the bundles they all balanced on their heads—to the dugout canoes on the bank of the village bolong, one of the many tributary canals that came twisting inland from the Gambia River, known as the Kamby Bolongo. The canoes went skimming down the bolong with five or six women in each one, straining against their short, broad paddles. Each time Binta bent forward to dip and pull, she felt Kunta’s warm softness pressing against her back.

The air was heavy with the deep, musky fragrance of the mangroves, and with the perfumes of the other plants and trees that grew thickly on both sides of the bolong. Alarmed by the passing canoes, huge families of baboons, roused from sleep, began bellowing, springing about and shaking palm-tree fronds. Wild pigs grunted and snorted, running to hide themselves among the weeds and bushes. Covering the muddy banks, thousands of pelicans, cranes, egrets, herons, storks, gulls, terns, and spoonbills interrupted their breakfast feeding to watch nervously as the canoes glided by. Some of the smaller birds took to the air—ringdoves, skimmers, rails, darters, and kingfishers—circling with shrill cues until the intruders had passed.

As the canoes arrowed through rippling, busy patches of water, schools of minnows would leap up together, perform a silvery dance, and then splash back. Chasing the minnows, sometimes so hungrily that they flopped right into a moving canoe, were large, fierce fish that the women would club with their paddles and stow away for a succulent evening meal. But this morning the minnows swam around them undisturbed.

The twisting bolong took the rowing women around a turn into a wider tributary, and as they came into sight, a great beating of wings filled the air and a vast living carpet of seafowl—hundreds of thousands of them, in every color of the rainbow—rose and filled the sky. The surface of the water, darkened by the storm of birds and furrowed by their flapping wings, was flecked with feathers as the women paddled on.

As they neared the marshy faros where generations of Juffure women had grown their rice crops, the canoes passed through swarming clouds of mosquitoes and then, one after another, nosed in against a walkway of thickly matted weeds. The weeds bounded and identified each woman’s plot, where by now the emerald shoots of young rice stood a hand’s height above the water’s surface.

Since the size of each woman’s plot was decided each year by Juffure’s Council of Elders, according to how many mouths each woman had to feed with rice, Binta’s plot was still a small one. Balancing herself carefully as she stepped from the canoe with her new baby, Binta took a few steps and then stopped short, looking with surprise and delight at a tiny thatch-roofed bamboo hut on stilts. While she was in labor, Omoro had come here and built it as a shelter for their son. Typical of men, he had said nothing about it.

Nursing the baby, then nestling him inside his shelter, Binta changed into the working clothes she had brought in the bundle on her head, and waded out to work. Bending nearly double in the water, she pulled up by the roots the young weeds that, left alone, would outgrow and choke the rice crop. And whenever Kunta cried, Binta waded out, dripping water, to nurse him again in the shadow of his shelter.

Little Kunta basked thus every day in his mother’s tenderness. Back in her hut each evening, after cooking and serving Omoro’s dinner, Binta would soften her baby’s skin by greasing him from head to toe with shea tree butter, and then—more often than not—she would carry him proudly across the village to the hut of Grandma Yaisa, who would bestow upon the baby still more cluckings and kissings. And both of them would set little Kunta to whimpering in irritation with their repeated pressings of his little head, nose, ears, and lips, to shape them correctly.

Sometimes Omoro would take his son away from the women and carry the blanketed bundle to his own hut—husbands always resided separately from their wives—where he would let the child’s eyes and fingers explore such attractive objects as the saphie charms at the head of Omoro’s bed, placed there to ward off evil spirits. Anything colorful intrigued little Kunta—especially his father’s leather huntsman’s bag, nearly covered by now with cowrie shells, each for an animal that Omoro had personally brought in as food for the village. And Kunta cooed over the long, curved bow and quiver of arrows hanging nearby. Omoro smiled when a tiny hand reached out and grasped the dark, slender spear whose shaft was polished from so much use. He let Kunta touch everything except the prayer rug, which was sacred to its owner. And alone together in his hut, Omoro would talk to Kunta of the fine and brave deeds his son would do when he grew up.

Finally he would return Kunta to Binta’s hut for the next nursing. Wherever he was, Kunta was happy most of the time, and he always fell asleep either with Binta rocking him on her lap or bending over him on her bed, singing softly such a lullaby as,

            My smiling child,

            Named for a noble ancestor.

            Great hunter or warrior

            You will be one day,

            Which will give your papa pride.

            But always I will remember you thus.

However much Binta loved her baby and her husband, she also felt a very real anxiety, for Moslem husbands, by ancient custom, would often select and marry a second wife during that time when their first wives had babies still nursing. As yet Omoro had taken no other wife; and since Binta didn’t want him tempted, she felt that the sooner little Kunta was able to walk alone, the better, for that was when the nursing would end.

So Binta was quick to help him as soon as Kunta, at about thirteen moons, tried his first unsteady steps. And before long, he was able to toddle about with an assisting hand. Binta was as relieved as Omoro was proud, and when Kunta cried for his next feeding, Binta gave her son not a breast but a sound spanking and a gourd of cow’s milk.


Three rains had passed, and it was that lean season when the village’s store of grain and other dried foods from the last harvest was almost gone. The men had hunted, but they had returned with only a few small antelopes and gazelle and some clumsy bushfowl, for in this season of burning sun, so many of the savanna’s waterholes had dried into mud that the bigger and better game had moved into deep forest—at the very time when the people of Juffure needed all their strength to plant crops for the new harvest. Already, the wives were stretching their staple meals of couscous and rice with the tasteless seeds of bamboo cane and with the bad-tasting dried leaves of the baobab tree. The days of hunger had begun so early that five goats and two bullocks—more than last time—were sacrificed to strengthen everyone’s prayers that Allah might spare the village from starvation.

Finally the hot skies clouded, the light breezes became brisk winds and, abruptly as always, the little rains began, falling warmly and gently as the farmers hoed the softened earth into long, straight rows in readiness for the seeds. They knew the planting must be done before the big rains came.

The next few mornings, after breakfast, instead of canoeing to their rice fields, the farmers’ wives dressed in the traditional fertility costumes of large fresh leaves, symbolizing the green of growing things, and set out for the furrowed fields of the men. Their voices would be heard rising and falling even before they appeared as they chanted ancestral prayers that the couscous and groundnuts and other seeds in the earthen bowls balanced on their heads would take strong roots and grow.

With their bare feet moving in step, the line of women walked and sang three times around every farmer’s field. Then they separated, and each woman fell in behind a farmer as he moved along each row, punching a hole in the earth every few inches with his big toe. Into each hole a woman dropped a seed, covered it over with her own big toe, and then moved on. The women worked even harder than the men, for they not only had to help their husbands but also tend both the rice fields and the vegetable gardens they cultivated near their kitchens.

While Binta planted her onions, yams, gourds, cassava, and bitter tomatoes, little Kunta spent his days romping under the watchful eyes of the several old grandmothers who took care of all the children of Juffure who belonged to the first kafo, which included those under five rains in age. The boys and girls alike scampered about as naked as young animals—some of them just beginning to say their first words. All, like Kunta, were growing fast, laughing and squealing as they ran after each other around the giant trunk of the village baobab, played hide-and-seek, and scattered the dogs and chickens into masses of fur and feathers.

But all the children—even those as small as Kunta—would quickly scramble to sit still and quiet when the telling of a story was promised by one of the old grandmothers. Though unable yet to understand many of the words, Kunta would watch with wide eyes as the old women acted out their stories with such gestures and noises that they really seemed to be happening.

As little as he was, Kunta was already familiar with some of the stories that his own Grandma Yaisa had told to him alone when he had been visiting in her hut. But along with his first-kafo playmates, he felt that the best storyteller of all was the beloved, mysterious, and peculiar old Nyo Boto. Bald-headed, deeply wrinkled, as black as the bottom of a cooking pot, with her long lemongrassroot chewstick sticking out like an insect’s feeler between the few teeth she had left—which were deep orange from the countless kola nuts she had gnawed on—old Nyo Boto would settle herself with much grunting on her low stool. Though she acted gruff, the children knew that she loved them as if they were her own, which she claimed they all were.

Surrounded by them, she would growl, “Let me tell a story . . .”

“Please!” the children would chorus, wriggling in anticipation.

And she would begin in the way that all Mandinka storytellers began: “At this certain time, in this certain village, lived this certain person.” It was a small boy, she said, of about their rains, who walked to the riverbank one day and found a crocodile trapped in a net.

“Help me!” the crocodile cried out.

“You’ll kill me!” cried the boy.

“No! Come nearer!” said the crocodile.

So the boy went up to the crocodile—and instantly was seized by the teeth in that long mouth.

“Is this how you repay my goodness—with badness?” cried the boy.

“Of course,” said the crocodile out of the corner of his mouth. “That is the way of the world.”

The boy refused to believe that, so the crocodile agreed not to swallow him without getting an opinion from the first three witnesses to pass by. First was an old donkey.

When the boy asked his opinion, the donkey said, “Now that I’m old and can no longer work, my master has driven me out for the leopards to get me!”

“See?” said the crocodile. Next to pass by was an old horse, who had the same opinion.

“See?” said the crocodile. Then along came a plump rabbit who said, “Well, I can’t give a good opinion without seeing this matter as it happened from the beginning.”

Grumbling, the crocodile opened his mouth to tell him—and the boy jumped out to safety on the riverbank.

“Do you like crocodile meat?” asked the rabbit. The boy said yes. “And do your parents?” He said yes again. “Then here is a crocodile ready for the pot.”

The boy ran off and returned with the men of the village, who helped him to kill the crocodile. But they brought with them a wuolo dog, which chased and caught and killed the rabbit, too.

“So the crocodile was right,” said Nyo Boto. “It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid with badness. This is what I have told you as a story.”

“May you be blessed, have strength and prosper!” said the children gratefully.

Then the other grandmothers would pass among the children with bowls of freshly toasted beetles and grasshoppers. These would have been only tasty tidbits at another time of year, but now, on the eve of the big rains, with the hungry season already beginning, the toasted insects had to serve as a noon meal, for only a few handfuls of couscous and rice remained in most families’ storehouses.


Fresh, brief showers fell almost every morning now, and between the showers Kunta and his playmates would dash about excitedly outside. “Mine! Mine!” they would shout at the pretty rainbows that would arc down to the earth, seeming never very far away. But the showers also brought swarms of flying insects whose vicious stinging and biting soon drove the children back indoors.

Then, suddenly, late one night, the big rains began, and the people huddled inside their cold huts listening to the water pound on their thatch roofs, watching the lightning flash and comforting their children as the frightening thunder rumbled through the night. Between cloudbursts, they heard only the barking of the jackals, the howling of the hyenas, and the croaking of the frogs.

The rains came again the next night, and the next—and the next—and only at night—flooding the lowlands near the river, turning their fields into a swamp and their village into a mudhole. Yet each morning before breakfast, all the farmers struggled through the mud to Juffure’s little mosque and implored Allah to send still more rain, for life itself depended upon enough water to soak deeply into the earth before the hot suns arrived, which would wither those crops whose roots could not find enough water to survive.

In the damp nursery hut, dimly lighted and poorly heated by the burning dry sticks and cattle-dung patties in the earthen floor’s shallow firehole, old Nyo Boto told Kunta and the other children of the terrible time she remembered when there were not enough big rains. No matter how bad anything was, Nyo Boto would always remember a time when it was worse. After two days of big rain, she told them, the burning suns had come. Although the people prayed very hard to Allah, and danced the ancestral rain dance, and sacrificed two goats and a bullock every day, still everything growing in the ground began to parch and die. Even the forest’s waterholes dried up, said Nyo Boto, and first wild fowl, and then the forest’s animals, sick from thirst, began to appear at the village well. In crystal-clear skies each night, thousands of bright stars shone, and a cold wind blew, and more and more people grew ill. Clearly, evil spirits were abroad in Juffure.

Those who were able continued their prayers and their dances, and finally the last goat and bullock had been sacrificed. It was as if Allah had turned His back on Juffure. Some—the old and the weak and the sick—began to die. Others left town, seeking another village to beg someone who had food to accept them as slaves, just to get something into their bellies, and those who stayed behind lost their spirit and lay down in their huts. It was then, said Nyo Boto, that Allah had guided the steps of marabout Kairaba Kunta Kinte into the starving village of Juffure. Seeing the people’s plight, he kneeled down and prayed to Allah—almost without sleep and taking only a few sips of water as nourishment—for the next five days. And on the evening of the fifth day came a great rain, which fell like a flood, and saved Juffure.

When she finished her story, the other children looked with new respect at Kunta, who bore the name of that distinguished grandfather, husband of Kunta’s Grandma Yaisa. Even before now, Kunta had seen how the parents of the other children acted toward Yaisa, and he had sensed that she was an important woman, just as old Nyo Boto surely was.

The big rains continued to fall every night until Kunta and the other children began to see grown-ups wading across the village in mud up to their ankles and even to their knees, and even using canoes to paddle from place to place. Kunta had heard Binta tell Omoro that the rice fields were flooded in the bolong’s high waters. Cold and hungry, the children’s fathers sacrificed precious goats and bullocks to Allah almost every day, patched leaking roofs, shored up sagging huts—and prayed that their disappearing stock of rice and couscous would last until the harvest.

But Kunta and the others, being yet little children, paid less attention to the hunger pangs in their bellies than to playing in the mud, wrestling each other and sliding on their naked bottoms. Yet in their longing to see the sun again, they would wave up at the slate-colored sky and shout—as they had seen their parents do—“Shine, sun, and I will kill you a goat!”

The life-giving rain had made every growing thing fresh and luxuriant. Birds sang everywhere. The trees and plants were explosions of fragrant blossoms. The reddish-brown, clinging mud underfoot was newly carpeted each morning, with the bright-colored petals and green leaves beaten loose by the rain of the night before. But amid all the lushness of nature, sickness spread steadily among the people of Juffure, for none of the richly growing crops was ripe enough to eat. The adults and children alike would stare hungrily at the thousands of plump mangoes and monkey apples hanging heavy on the trees, but the green fruits were as hard as rocks, and those who bit into them fell ill and vomited.

“Nothing but skin and bones!” Grandma Yaisa would exclaim, making a loud clicking noise with her tongue every time she saw Kunta. But in fact his grandma was almost as thin as he; for every storehouse in Juffure was now completely empty. What few of the village’s cattle and goats and chickens had not been eaten or sacrificed had to be kept alive—and fed—if there was to be a next year’s crop of kids and calves and baby chicks. So the people began to eat rodents, roots, and leaves foraged from in and around the village on searchings that began when the sun rose and ended when it set.


  • Philadelphia Tribune, 6/7/16
    “[A] landmark book.”—Marian Wright Edelman

On Sale
May 3, 2016
Page Count
912 pages
Da Capo Press

Alex Haley

About the Author

Alex Haley (1921-1992) was a bestselling and award-winning writer whose works, including Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, centered on the struggles of African Americans.

Learn more about this author