Author: Alex Haley
First published: 1976
Locale: The Gambia, West Africa; and the southern United States
Plot: Historical realism
Kunta Kinte (KEWN-tah KIHN-tay), “the African,” progenitor of the American line of Haley's family. Kunta, a member of the highly respected Kinte clan of the Mandinka people of Gambia, is captured at the age of seventeen, transported to Annapolis, Maryland, and subsequently sold into slavery. A man of immense courage and spiritual fortitude (he remains a devout Muslim in Christianized America), he never relinquishes his dream of returning to his homeland. He instills in his daughter Kizzy a strong sense of self-worth and dignity, as well as the desire to be free. Kunta teaches his young daughter the Mandinka words of ko (a kora is a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) and Kamby Bolongo (the Gambia River), which eventually is transmitted orally down through seven generations.
Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta and Bell. She keeps her father's dream alive, even after she is sold to the wretched Tom Lea. After being raped by Lea, she gives birth to their son, whom Lea names George after “the hardest-working nigger I ever saw.” Despite her baby's sordid conception, light skin, and undignified naming, Kizzy resolves to see him only as the grandson of Kunta Kinte. She perpetuates the dreams and teachings of her father in the rearing of her son.
Chicken George, Kizzy's clever and resourceful son. Chicken George earns his unusual moniker while successfully serving as Massa Leas's gamecocker. Although he shares some of the vices of his white father, he never forgets the teachings of Kizzy, especially the importance of knowing who he is and who his people are. He is the first of Kunta Kinte's descendants to become free.
Tom Murray, the son of Chicken George. A stolid, forthright man, Tom fervently believes in the traditions passed on in the family narrative. He expresses his concern with racial purity and pride, refusing to allow his daughter Elizabeth to marry the “high yaller” John Tolan.
Cynthia Murray Palmer, the daughter of Tom Murray and grandmother of Alex Haley. After her husband's death, she invites the female Murrays to spend summers with her in Henning, Tennessee. These “graying ladies” retire after dinner to the front porch and retell the family narrative. Over her daughter Bertha's objections to “all that old-time slavery stuff,” Cynthia persists in maintaining the oral tradition. The porch talk leaves an indelible impression on Cynthia's young grandson.
Georgia Anderson, the sole survivor of the “graying ladies” who perpetuated the family narrative on Cynthia Palmer's porch. Characterized as a cherished, yet feisty, member of the community, the elderly Cousin Georgia encourages Haley on his quest to discover the ancestral roots. Almost mystically, Cousin Georgia dies within the very hour that Haley enters Juffure to meet with the griot.
Alex Haley, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Kunta Kinte. A professional writer, Haley spent twelve years researching and writing the family narrative passed down from Kunta Kinte.