In 1750 in the port city of Juffure, in the river region of The Gambia in West Africa, Omoro Kinte and his wife, Binta, have their first child, a son named Kunta. As a member of the highly esteemed Kinte family, Kunta is trained in Mandinka customs and traditions. He is a dedicated student who dreams of traveling to the university in Timbuktu to become a scholar.
Kunta passes his warrior training, an important Mandinka rite of passage, but soon after he is betrayed by the Koros, a rival family. After being kidnapped and captured by the Koros, Kunta is sold to British slave traders in 1767 and is shipped through the brutal Middle Passage to America on the Lord Ligonier along with 140 other slaves.
Conditions are horrific on the slave ship and Kunta fears he will never see his family again. He unites his fellow slaves and unsuccessfully leads an uprising on board.
In Annapolis, Maryland, he is sold to a Virginia planter named John Waller and is given the slave name Toby. Kunta strongly resists his new name and enslavement.
He relies on the wise counsel of Fiddler, an assimilated slave and sophisticated musician who has been assigned to train him. With Fiddler's help, Kunta fights to survive and maintain his dignity despite the unrelenting violence of the slave system.
In 1775, Kunta is working on the Waller farm when he meets English Redcoats encouraging slaves to run away and join the English governor's 'Ethiopian Regiment'. The slaves are promised freedom if they fight for King George.
However, during the battle Kunta realises the English are little better than the Americans and takes off. He is apprehended by slave catchers and they amputate half his foot to make sure he never ruins off again.
John Waller's younger brother William, a doctor, is outraged at the mutilation and buys Kunta. Kunta is healed by the ministrations of William Waller's slave cook, Belle. After a lengthy, awkward courtship, Kunta marries Belle.
Soon after, a daughter is born to the couple. Kunta gives her the Mandinka name of "Kizzy," meaning "you stay put." A clever child, Kizzy is entranced by William Waller's daughter, Missy, mistaking her attention for true friendship. Missy secretly teaches Kizzy how to read and write. Her hidden skills allow her to feel free and actively resist.
As a teenager, Kizzy forges papers that help a young slave, Noah, to escape during a terrible hurricane. Her conspiracy is discovered; Kizzy is sold to a poor, white farmer, Tom Lea. Lea rapes Kizzy fathering a son, George. Kizzy vows to instill in her son both her pride in their African heritage and Kunta Kinte's dream of freedom.
As George grows to manhood, he exhibits traits of both his parents. Like Tom Lea, he falls in love with cockfighting and carousing. The old slave bird-handler, Mingo, resents George who eventually usurps his position as pit master. The rakish George becomes such an accomplished trainer of gamecocks that he earns the sobriquet of "Chicken George."
George marries a preacher's daughter, Matilda, and fathers many children. But George struggles to keep Tom Lea, his father, from his self-destructive ways.
From Kizzy, George has inherited the strong traditions of family and a desire to be free. He rationalizes his bond with Tom Lea by convincing himself that one day he can buy freedom for himself and his family.
When Tom Lea loses a reckless wager with an Englishman, he offers to send his son to work off his debts. Chicken George is dragged off to England.
After more than 20 years in England, Chicken George is finally given his freedom. George returns to the Lea farm to discover that his family was sold off to another family in North Carolina in his absence. He tracks them down working for Benjamin Murray, a respected engineer at the North Carolina Federal armory.
George is reunited with Matilda but finds his youngest boy, Tom, a master blacksmith, is now the leader of the family. Tom is a quiet, hard-working young man but he nurses a cold rage against his father, blaming him for abandoning the family.
George is forced to leave the Murray farm and meets up with a young, hot-headed slave, Cyrus. Together they join the Memphis Colored Battery. As the Civil War comes to a close, Chicken George and Cyrus barely escape with their lives.
After the war, southern soldiers launch a terror campaign against freed slaves. Tom goes on a journey to find his father and, inspired by a vision of Kunta Kinte, rescues George. Once home, Tom leads his family off the Murray farm, embarking on a new life. True to Kunte's hope, the family finally finds freedom and has kept the family and their traditions intact.
In 1976, Alex Haley, a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, authors and publishes the Pulitzer Prize winning Roots: The Saga of an American Family.