Roots Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe the moral struggle of manhood that Kunta experienced in his subjugation as a slave. From where did his values come, and how is he able to retain them?

    Answer: Kunta’s values of manhood include freedom, dignity, fertility, and connecting to his ancestors. He learned all of these while progressing through the social learning of Mandinkas as a child in Juffure. At one time or another Kunta is asked or forced to give up all of these: freedom and dignity on the boat and as a slave, fertility versus freedom when he has the choice between having his penis or foot cut off, and connecting with his ancestors when he learns that speaking his language or showing other signs of his “African-ness” is seen as dangerous and subversive. Kunta gives up his freedom, but retains an ironclad dignity that impresses all, and continues to connect with his ancestors by transmitting small amounts of cultural heritage to Kizzy.

  2. 2

    The pages in which Kizzy is sold are some of the most horrifying in the book. Which literary devices does Haley use to enhance the terror of the scene?

    Answer: Her selling is completely unexpected. Only pages before does the reader learn something may be wrong when she is accused of writing a traveling pass for Noah; yet, knowing Master Waller’s judiciousness, the reader might expect her to be badly whipped or a similar punishment. The scene’s rapid escalation from expectation to reality mimics how Kizzy, Kunta and Bell would have felt, lending the scene its powerful and horrible realism. The absurdity of the situation enhances its impact: as Bell and Kunta try to argue, Kizzy would never have known the consequences of her actions, and even if she did transgress, she had been otherwise a loyal slave, as had her parents. Bell’s desperate suggestion that Master Waller sell her and Kunta falls on deaf ears. Kizzy’s possibilities grow more and more narrow until it is clear she and her parents will never see each other again. Especially effective is Haley’s foreshadowing: the reader does know that breaking any of the plantation’s rules will result in being sold, and they have seen it happen before. In the end of the scene, the horrible separation seems inevitable, which makes it all the worse.

  3. 3

    How do oral histories impact the trajectory of the narrative?

    Answer: Kunta’s introduction into a family tree of slaves who do not know their African roots changes his family. If Bell had married an American-born slave who did not know where they came from (or did not seek to incorporate African oral history into their legacy), Alex Haley would not have been able to reconstruct his family’s history and figure out, using the few words passed down, which ethnic group his family belonged to. Beyond Haley’s narrative reconstruction, oral history allows his descendants to maintain their dignity in a similar way Kunta did. They knew they had not always been slaves, and that fueled their desire to be free and ability to retain dignity while enslaved.

  4. 4

    How do white and enslaved black conceptions of freedom differ?

    Answer: This issue is especially apparent during Kunta’s chapters that surround the Revolutionary War. Whites, both in the North and South, feel enslaved by Britain’s tyranny. Kunta and his fellow slaves view all whites as completely free and cannot believe that to them, colonial rule largely free of violence and coercion is viewed as a lack of freedom worth fighting over. To them, all whites are free, and only those enslaved understand what real oppression is.

  5. 5

    Why was Roots a fitting name for the title of the book?

    Answer: Roots can refer both to Kunta and his descendants' origins in Africa as well as their struggle to carve out a place for themselves in the United States pre- and post-Civil War. In terms of Africa, “roots” symbolize an ancestral homeland. By the end of the book they show a healing, since Alex Haley is able to go back to his village and repair what was torn long ago in his family tree. In America, “roots” show that despite their unfortunate beginnings, Haley’s mother’s family was able to mostly stick together and form a new home. They lives in Henning, Tennessee after the war attest to their powerful ability to form roots in a new home and make it truly their own.

  6. 6

    How does Kunta compromise some of his African identity in order to eventually assimilate? How do he, and other slaves, retain it?

    Answer: Following Bell’s forceful requests as well as just trying to fit in, Kunta largely stops speaking any Mandinka words. Bell downplays the importance of the gourd where he drops a stone to record his age every month.  Kunta eventually tolerates Bell’s Christian faith. Kunta also stops trying to escape. Though he initially looked down on all the slaves who sang and danced in their captivity and did not try to escape, he eventually realizes that many of them harbor a secret wish for freedom no less strong than his own; they are just trying to survive by hiding it. The slaves manage to retain many parts of their African identities, passed down through generations. They often do not realize the “African-ness” of their traditions, but Kunta does: the way they carry their babies, hair wraps, spiritual profusions, favorite cuisines, and more, all remind Kunta of African traditions that are being kept alive in an alternate form in America.

  7. 7

    Haley writes of several instances where mixed-raced characters illuminate aspects of how race was conceived of in relation to slavery. What are some examples of these?

    Answer: The one-drop rule – that anyone who has some African ancestry, no matter how small, is a slave – is well-displayed in Roots. Chicken George is a slave, even though his father is white and his master as well. Many “high yaller” people are remarked upon – they are slaves and often have complicated lives due to their having much more European ancestry than African. Native Americans are not slaves, but many of their descendants are, like Irene, whose mother is black and father was Native American, part of the tribe that her mother escaped to until her recapture.

  8. 8

    What role does Haley’s trip back to The Gambia and Juffure play at the end of the novel?

    Answer: It brings the novel to a fitting conclusion because it ends where it started. It allows Haley to heal some of his family’s wounds, especially in the scene where the village called him “Meester Kinte.” It allows him to imagine what his life would have been if Kunta was not enslaved, while simultaneously being grateful and awed that he was able to make this journey and discover his heritage. It made the far-away past of the book’s beginning, in the middle of the 18th century, hyper-realistic and truly woven into the fabric of what is otherwise a wholly America-centric story.

  9. 9

    How does life change for the Murray family after they gain their freedom at the end of the Civil War?

    Answer: Tom tells them that though they are free, they will have to work hard for their stability and good fortune. Tom especially is forceful but respectful in his assertion of freedom: he makes sure that Cates knows he is free and is only giving him water before Cates is thirsty, and he pursues his dream of his own blacksmith career when they move to Tennessee by being innovative and politely breaking the rules until every appreciates his good work, whites and blacks alike. The other members of the family maintain their values like dignity, religion and love for family and transition them into the new reality of freedom: they work hard, create a church, and focus on education and fulfillment for their children. The Murray family maintains its preexisting values and tests them out boldly and intelligently in the new waters of freedom, to great success.

  10. 10

    Based on clues in the book, why might Roots have had a historical impact on African-American lives?

    Answer: The novel can represent many experiences, not just Haley’s. On the slave ship being taken to America, approximately 90 slaves make it off alive. Many are Mandinka, but many are from other tribes in The Gambia, and there were thousands of ships from Africa. The slave voyage makes clear the diverse heritage of slaves from one country alone. Kunta’s further experiences in America – recognizing tribal facial features, meeting a Ghanaian-born slave – shows the wide-reaching effect of slavery on West Africa, and how diverse are the roots of the many descendants of these slaves. Roots also serves as a guide for how to trace one’s roots before DNA testing: relying on oral traditions, especially any words or location clues that may have been passed down through the years, as well as names and owners, which can help locate purchase date and could be back-referenced to find a ship’s log. Haley’s exhaustive account of his years of research may have fueled the genealogy movement as much from its instructional nature as its emotional impact.