Places: Roots

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1976

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1750-the twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Juffure

*Juffure Roots (jew-FUR-ee). Village on West Africa’s Gambia River in which Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was born and raised. Two centuries after Kunta was forcibly taken from this village, Haley visited Juffure and met many of his African cousins, descendants of Kunta’s brothers. Drawing on his experiences in modern Juffure and his historical research, Haley produced a fascinating literary re-creation of the village as it was around 1750, as Kunta Kinte was growing up.

Through the eyes of young Kunta, readers see a village of round thatched huts surrounded by enclosing walls, pierced by the village gates, as well as the traveler’s tree, at which travelers are greeted by village children; fields on which men grow groundnuts and women grow rice; and the forest in which boys take goats to browse. Well removed from the main village of Juffure is the manhood-training village to which the boys on the threshold of manhood are taken to learn the skills and secrets of men.

In Haley’s novel, Juffure is a place rich in the history of a culture that knows its heritage and has reason to be proud of it. It is a place where each person is known to everyone else, where every action is rich with meaning and tradition, a place where Kunta belongs. However, Kunta does not remain there long, as one day he is ambushed while chopping wood in the forest and sold to slavers.

*<i>Lord Ligonier</i>

*Lord Ligonier. Slave ship on which Kunta Kinte is transported to North America. In an effort to understand what Kunta and the other transportees suffered, Haley booked passage on a modern freighter and slept on a bare plank shelf in the hold each night of the journey. However, his experience only approximated the horrifying conditions experienced by enslaved Africans, chained amid their own filth in the hold of a wooden sailing ship.


*Spotsylvania. Virginia county that is the location of the two plantations on which Kunta Kinte is held as a slave after his arrival in America. On the first, owned by John Waller, the regimen is brutish and conditions harsh. Its slaves live in tumbledown shacks, barely sufficient to shelter them from the elements. Beatings are regular and violent. Kunta repeatedly tries to escape, but each time is tracked down and subjected to even harsher treatment. The plantation of Dr. William Waller, a relative of John, is somewhat more humane, although the physician still regards his slaves as tools of production, not as persons. The slaves live in clean, whitewashed cabins and are treated with gentle firmness instead of violence, but Waller is always ready to sell troublemakers to plantations with harsher conditions and tells his slaves this to keep them in line.


*Caswell. North Carolina county that is home of the gamecock-fighter to whom Kunta’s daughter Kizzy is sold. After the high-class respectability of Dr. Waller’s plantation, the poor-white brutality of Tom Lea comes as a shock. His fortune is based upon gambling on cockfights, and he retains the crude habits of his impoverished upbringing. He forces himself upon Kizzy, and as a result she bears a son, whom Massa Tom names George. The lad proves to have such talent with the fighting birds that he gains the sobriquet of “Chicken George” and is ultimately given his freedom. That grant does not extend to his wife and children, who remain in bondage until the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War.


*Henning. Tennessee town in which George and his family settle as free blacks after the Civil War. It is a community strictly divided by race, where the former masters of one branch of the family are shunned by the other white people for being too friendly to their former property. Nevertheless, it is a place where George’s family can establish a footing as tradesmen and even own a lumber business. It is also the place in which author Alex Haley would be born, where he would hear the stories about his family’s past that would ultimately lead him to search for the truth behind the fragmented oral traditions.

BibliographyBlayney, Michael Steward. “Roots and the Noble Savage.” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Winter, 1986): 1-17. Provides a correlation between the popularity of the novel and the American fascination with the romantic ideal of the noble savage. Sees Kunta Kinte as a character in that tradition. In addition, shows how Haley inverts the notion of the American Eden: Africa, not America, represents the Edenic paradise in the novel.Courlander, Harold. “Kunta Kinte’s Struggle to Be African.” Phylon 47 (December, 1986): 294-302. Discusses Haley’s characterization of Kunta Kinte as a primitive being. Perceives some of the questions first raised about Roots as a result of its ambiguous generic underpinnings. Asserts that Roots should be viewed as a work of fiction, not as pure history.Gerber, David. “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of Popular Phenomenon.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5 (Fall, 1977): 87-111. A review essay that analyzes the popular cultural phenomenon generated by the novel and the subsequent airing of the television miniseries. Analyzes Haley’s treatment of historical material in general and his treatment of slavery in particular.Huntzicker, William E. “Alex Haley’s Roots: The Fiction of Fact.” In Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Cold Mountain,” edited by David B. Sachsman, S. Kittrell Rushing, and Roy Morris, Jr. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007. Analysis of the relationship between historical reality and Haley’s narrative with a particular focus on the Civil War-era sections of the novel.Marsh, Carol P. “The Plastic Arts Motif in Roots. ” CLA Journal 26 (March, 1983): 325-333. Discusses how the characters master the plastic arts of carving, weaving, and forging, all of which enable the Kinte clan to become successful within the context of the Protestant work ethic.Miller, R. Baxter. “Kneeling at the Fireplace: Black Vulcan–Roots and the Double Artificer.” MELUS 9 (Spring, 1982): 73-84. Analyzes Haley’s attempt to celebrate the artisan within the novel. The use of the figures of painters, blacksmiths, and fireworkers subtly alludes to the Hephaestus/Vulcan story of ancient mythology.Othow, Helen Chavis. “Roots and the Heroic Search for Identity.” CLA Journal 26 (March, 1983): 311-324. Offers a discussion of the organic unity of the novel. Cites as problematic the shifting of protagonists, abrupt endings of generational episodes, and authorial intrusion. The work is viewed as an epic in a tradition found in Greek classical literature.Pinsker, Sanford. “Magic Realism, Historical Truth, and the Quest for a Liberating Identity: Reflections on Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. ” In Black American Prose Theory, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Vol. 1 in Studies in Black American Literature. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1984. Examines the role of the storyteller in conjunction with African American identity in Roots and in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977).
Categories: Places