Juffure, The Gambia, West Africa
Spotsylvania County, Virginia
Kunta Kinte (1750–1822; also known as "Toby Waller") was a Gambian-born American slave. The outline of his life story was the basis for the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by American author Alex Haley, and the television miniseries Roots, based on the book. The character in the miniseries was portrayed as a youth by LeVar Burton and as an older man by John Amos.
Fact or fiction?
Haley described his book as faction: a mixture of fact and fiction. After Haley's book became nationally famous, American author Harold Courlander noted that the section describing Kinte's life was apparently taken from Courlander's book The African. Haley at first dismissed the charge, but later issued a public statement affirming that Courlander's book had been the source, and Haley attributed the error to a mistake of one of his assistant researchers.
One day in 1767, while Kunta was searching for wood to make a drum for his younger brother, four men chased him, surrounded him, and took him captive. Kunta awoke to find himself blindfolded, gagged, bound, and a prisoner of white men. He and others were put on the slave ship the Lord Ligonier for a four-month Middle Passage voyage to North America.
Kunta survived the trip to Maryland and was sold to a Virginia plantation owner in Spotsylvania County, Master Waller, who renamed him "Toby." He rejected the name imposed by his owners and refused to speak to others.
After being recaptured during the last of his four escape attempts, the slave catchers gave him a choice: he would be castrated or have his right foot cut off. He chose to have his foot cut off, and the men cut off the front half of his right foot. As the years passed, Kunta resigned himself to his fate and also become more open and sociable with his fellow slaves, while never forgetting who he was or where he came from.
Kunta married a fellow slave named Bell Waller and they had a daughter which they named Kizzy (Keisa, in Mandinka), which in Kunta's native tongue means "to stay put" (he named her this to protect her from being sold away). When Kizzy was in her late teens, she was sold away to North Carolina when her master discovered that she had written a fake traveling pass for a young slave boy with whom she was in love (she had been taught to read and write secretly by Missy Anne, the niece of the plantation owner). Her new owner immediately raped her and fathered her only child, George, who spends his life with the tag "Chicken George", because of his assigned duties of tending to his master's cockfighting birds.
In the novel, Kizzy never learns her parents' fate. She spends the remainder of her life as a field hand on the Lea plantation in North Carolina. In the miniseries, she is taken back to visit the Reynolds plantation later in life. She discovers that her mother was sold off to another plantation and that her father died of a broken heart two years later, in 1822. She finds his grave, where she crosses out his slave name Toby from the tombstone and writes his original name Kunta Kinte instead.
The rest of the book tells of the generations between Kizzy and Alex Haley, describing their suffering, losses and eventual triumphs in America. Alex Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.
Haley's sources for the origins of Kinte were oral family tradition and a man he found in The Gambia named Kebba Kanga Fofana, who claimed knowledge of the Kintes. He described them as a family in which the men were blacksmiths, descended from a marabout named Kairaba Kunta Kinte, originally from Mauritania. Haley quoted Fofana as telling him: "About the time the king's soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from this village to chop wood and was never seen again."
There is an annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival held in Maryland. Kunta Kinte also inspired a reggae rhythm of the same name, performed by artists including The Revolutionaries, and Mad Professor, and an album, Kunta Kinte Roots by Ranking Dread. There is also a song of the same name.
On the January 19, 2002 broadcast of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update sketch, host Jimmy Fallon, while reporting on ABC's refusal to show the Roots 25th anniversary special, gave a quick recap on the Roots story, stating: "For those of you who don’t remember Roots, it follows a saga of Kunta Kinte from young African tribesman, to slavery, to becoming literate, and eventually being the top of his class at The Academy".
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