African American slave family2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, whose powerful story captivated a nation and sparked a revolution in society, television, and genealogy.

The novel earned the author a Pulitzer Prize and spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List.

The final episode of the miniseries the book inspired was watched by 100 million people — nearly half of the entire U.S. population at the time.

Today, the ability of Americans of all races to trace their ancestors through oral histories, documents, and even DNA arises in large part due to the Roots phenomenon.

The Planting of the Seed

The seed for Roots was planted in the mind of the author, Alex Haley, when he was still a boy.

His Tennessee grandmother shared with him stories about the furthest-back person anyone in the family knew of — an ancestor named Kin-tay.

1732 Map of the River Gambra (now Gambia)
1732 Map of the River Gambra (now Gambia)

All they knew about him was that he had been taken from his African home, shipped to Annapolis, Maryland, and sold into slavery.

He played a type of banjo called a ko and had been kidnapped from Kamby-Bolongo.

For a decade after releasing The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965, which Haley ghostwrote for the controversial black nationalist and civil rights leader, Haley researched those words and his own family tree.

A Quest Through Gambia

Haley learned that the few African words his family had passed down were in Mandinka, a West African language, and that Kamby Bolongo could mean the Gambia River.

That led Haley to travel to Gambia, where he met a griot, an oral historian and storyteller.

Gambia River
Gambia River

There, Haley learned about the 16-year-old Kunta Kinte, kidnapped from the shores of the Gambia River and never seen in his village again.

Haley had found the African roots of his furthest-back person, and the heart of his story.

Sharing His Story

Inspired by his personal history, Haley told the story of Kunta Kinte’s agonizing passage to the United States, his suffering as a slave, and the lives of Kinte’s descendants in his 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of An American Family.

In doing so, Haley took the revolutionary step of talking about slavery from the point of view of African Americans.

“For the first time, it presented slavery and discrimination from a black historical point of view,” said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a consultant on the Cosby Show.

The compelling story behind the book and miniseries resonated with audiences. The book sold more than 6 million copies.

And the show’s finale was the second-most-watched overall series finale in U.S. television history.

The True Legacy

But the greatest legacy of Roots may be the way that American families thought about their own pasts. Haley’s research into his family’s past inspired millions.

Information inquiries to the National Archives about genealogical material quadrupled the week after the miniseries aired.

Libraries, government offices, and other sources of family records received repeated requests for books, official records, and microfilm collections.

Four decades after the publication of Roots, the fruit of Haley’s work is apparent.

For African Americans, Ancestry has a wealth of resources to help them research their family histories, both before and after the end of slavery.

These resources for African American family history research range from census records (including the first census after the Civil War) to 2,300 personal stories and photographs of formerly enslaved individuals collected in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project.

AncestryDNA Reveals West African Ethnicities

Today, even amateur genealogists can wield science in ways that Haley never imagined in 1976. By submitting nothing more than a saliva sample, anyone can learn about their ethnic makeup.

The AncestryDNA test can identify 26 ethnicities from around the globe, including 9 ethnicities in Africa.

Actress Vanessa Williams’ DNA test, for example, revealed a number of surprises. For example, while 23% of her DNA mapped to Ghana and 15% to Cameroon, 17% of her genetic makeup was from the British Isles, and 12% was Finnish.

What secrets does your DNA hold? Find out today.


– Sandie Angulo Chen