Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte -- a young man taken from The Gambia when he was seventeen and sold as a slave -- and seven generations of his descendants in the United States. Kunta has a typically difficult but free childhood in his village, Juffure. His village subsists on farming, and sometimes they do not have enough food, as the climate is harsh. Yet Kunta is surrounded by love and traditions. One morning when he is cutting wood to make a drum, he is captured. After a nightmarish journey across the Atlantic, he is sold in Annapolis to John Waller. Kunta tries to run away four times, and after the fourth attempt part of his right foot is cut off.
Kunta is then bought by his master's brother, William Waller. He becomes a gardener and eventually his master's buggy driver. He marries Bell, a slave in 'the big house', and together they have a daughter, Kizzy. Kizzy's childhood as a slave is as happy as her parents can make it. She is close friends with John Waller's daughter Anne, and she rarely experiences cruelty. Yet her life changes when she forges a traveling pass for her beau Noah, a field hand; when he is caught and confesses, she is sold away from her family at the age of 16.
Kizzy is bought by Tom Lea, a farmer and chicken fighter who rose from poor beginnings. He rapes and impregnates her, and she gives birth to George, who will later be known as Chicken George when he becomes his master (and father's) cockfighting trainer. He is a philanderer known for expensive taste and alcohol, as much as for his iconic bowler hat and green scarf. He marries Matilda and they have six sons and two daughters, including Tom, who becomes a very good blacksmith. Tom marries Irene, a half-Indian woman.
When Tom Lea loses all his money in a cockfight, he sends Chicken George to Europe for several years to pay off the debt, and he sells most of the rest of the family to the Murrays. The Murrays are generally kind masters who treat the family well. When the Civil War ends, however, the Murray slaves decide that rather than sharecrop for their former masters, they will move from North Carolina to to the town of Henning, Tennessee, which is looking for new settlers.
They eventually become a prosperous family. Tom's daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer, a successful lumber businessman, and their daughter Bertha is the first in the family to go to college. There she meets Simon Haley, who becomes a professor of agriculture. Their son is Alex Haley, the author of the book. Alex relates his journey back to Africa to find his roots and discover as much about his family as he can. Eventually Alex goes to Juffure, the very village that Kunta came from 200 years before.