The story, like that of Olaudah Equiano, begins in an idyllic African world destroyed by Europeans. Haley's description of Kinte's journey to America in the hold of a slave ship is harrowing and indelibly memorable. Kinte is enslaved in America but is still proud, refusing to forsake his African name or heritage. He passes on stories of Africa to his daughter, Kizzy, who bears a child, Chicken George. George is a successful cockfighter whose father is also his master—a common situation in the time of slavery but one that is treated with unusual sensitivity here. George passes the stories of his grandfather on to his children, including Tom, who marries a part-Indian woman named Irene. Tom and Irene have eight children, one of whom is Haley's grandmother. She passes the family stories to her daughter, who passes them on to Haley. Haley, in turn, tells the story, from Kunta Kinte to Chicken George, to his own grandmother, to his children.
Haley has been accused of plagiarism and his book has been criticized for historical inaccuracies, but the novel holds up as a powerful representation of the full African American saga. Haley tells the story of his family—and, by extension, the story of all black people whose family histories are lost in the mists of time—with an immense amount of respect and tenderness. Amidst the undeniable misery of slavery and Jim Crow, he always reveals the outstanding characteristics that sustained his family—spirited resistance, cunning survival instincts, and a will to remember and pass on. James Baldwin captured the book's appeal when he wrote, "Alex Haley's taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage, but this book is also an act of love, and it is this which makes it haunting."