Kunta Kinte

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Kunta Kinte
Kunta Kinte LeVar.jpg
LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries Roots
Born c.1750
Juffure, The Gambia, West Africa
Died c.1822 (aged c.71–72)
Spotsylvania County, Virginia
Family Bell (wife)
Kizzy (daughter)
George (grandson)
Tom (great-grandson)
Alex Haley (descendant)

Kunta Kinte (also known as Toby Waller) (c.1750-c.1822) is a character in the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by American author Alex Haley. Haley claimed that Kunta Kinte was based on one of his ancestors: a Gambian man who was born in 1750, enslaved and taken to America and who died in 1822. Haley said that his account of Kunta Kinte's life in Roots was a mixture of fact and fiction. However, doubts on the claimed factual aspects arose when it was discovered that Haley had plagiarized Kunta Kinte's story from another author's work.

Kunta Kinte's life story also figured in Roots,[1] a TV miniseries based on the book. The character in the miniseries was portrayed as a teenager by LeVar Burton and as an adult by John Amos.

Historical accuracy[edit]

Haley claimed that his 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."[2]

However, Haley described his book as faction: a mixture of fact and fiction.[3] 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.[4] Courlander sued Haley for breach of copyright, which Haley settled out of court. In a later interview with BBC Television, the trial judge stated, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public."[5] During the trial, Alex Haley had maintained that he had not read The African before writing Roots. Shortly after the trial, however, a minority studies teacher at Skidmore College, Joseph Bruchac, came forward and swore in an affidavit that he had discussed The African with Haley in 1970 or 1971 and had given his own personal copy of The African to Haley, events that took place well before publication of Roots.[6]

Life as told in Roots[edit]

According to Roots, Kinte was born circa 1750 in the Mandinka village of Juffure, The Gambia.

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. 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 became 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 who 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.[7]


There is an annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival held in Maryland.[8] Kunta Kinte also inspired a reggae rhythm of the same name, performed by artists including The Revolutionaries,[9] and Mad Professor, and an album, Kunta Kinte Roots by Ranking Dread.[10]

In the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith's character says, in regard to being punished, "Why don't you just do me like Kunta Kinte and chop off my foot?"[11]

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",[12] in reference to LeVar Burton's acting roles as Kunta Kinte, the host of Reading Rainbow, and Geordi La Forge.

Rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar references Kunta Kinte in his 2015 single release, "King Kunta".[13]

Kunta is mentioned in the Ludacris song "Coming 2 America" from his 2001 album Word Of Mouf.[14]

Ice Cube mentions Kunta Kinte, as well as Kunta's slave name, Toby, in his controversial diss track No Vaseline.[15] Ice Cube also makes a Kunta Kinte reference in his self-scripted movie Friday. Kinte is also mentioned by the young version of Ice Cube's character, Doughboy in the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood. Kunta is also mentioned in the movie Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Kunta is also briefly referenced in Missy Elliott's hit entitled "Work It".[16]

Reference in song 'Never Let You Down' by Kanye West

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bird, J.B. "ROOTS". Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  2. ^ Alex Haley, "Black history, oral history, and genealogy", pp. 9–19, at p. 18.
  3. ^ Wynn, Linda T. "ALEX HALEY (1921–1992)". Archived from the original on 2004-08-03. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  4. ^ "Saying sorry for slavery", The Times Literary Supplement, 28 March 2007.
  5. ^ "The Roots of Alex Haley". BBC Television Documentary. 1997.". 
  6. ^ Stanford, Phil (April 8, 1979). ""Roots and Grafts on the Haley Story".". The Washington Star: p. F.4. 
  7. ^ "The Kunta Kinte – Alex Haley Foundation". Retrieved 2007-11-11. 
  8. ^ "Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival". Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  9. ^ "The Revolutionaries – Kunta Kinte". Pressure Sounds. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  10. ^ "Kunta Kinte Roots". Roots Archives. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  11. ^ "Will Gets a Job". Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Season 2. September 23, 1991. NBC. 
  12. ^ "Jack Black/The Strokes". Saturday Night Live. Season 28. January 19, 2002. NBC. 
  13. ^ "Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta". Genius. 
  14. ^ "Work that track, whip 'em like Kunta". Genius. 
  15. ^ "Ice Cube – No Vaseline". Genius. 
  16. ^ "Missy Elliott – Work It". Genius.