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 (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.

Kunta Kinte's life story also figured in two US-made television series based on the book: the original 1977 TV miniseries Roots,[1] and a 2016 remake of the same name. In the original miniseries, the character was portrayed as a teenager by LeVar Burton and as an adult by John Amos. In the 2016 miniseries, he is portrayed by Malachi Kirby.[2] Additionally, Burton reprised his role as Kunta in the TV movie Roots: The Gift, a fictional tale originally broadcast during the 1988 Christmas season.

Life as told in Roots[edit]

According to Roots, Kinte was born circa 1750 in the Mandinka village of Juffure, in 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 an enslaved woman named Bell Waller and they had a daughter whom they named Kizzy (Keisa, in Mandinka), which in Kunta's native language means "to stay put" (he gave her this name in order 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 an enslaved young man 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 spent 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 1977 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. Kizzy is Haley's only ancestor in the genealogy link to Kunta Kinte whose entire lifetime was spent in slavery.

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.[3]

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 to be a griot with knowledge about the Kinte clan. 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."[4]

However, journalists and historians later discovered that Fofana was not a griot. In retelling the Kinte story, Fofana changed crucial details, including his father's name, his brothers' names, his age, and even omitted the year when he went missing. At one point, he even placed Kunta Kinte in a generation that was alive in the twentieth century. It was also discovered that elders and griots could not give reliable genealogical lineages before the mid-19th century, with the single apparent exception of Kunta Kinte. It appears that Haley had told so many people about Kunta Kinte that he had created a case of circular reporting. Instead of independent confirmation of the Kunta Kinte story, he was actually hearing his own words repeated back to him.[5][6]

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 own novel 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. 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."[7]


There is an annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival held in Maryland.[8] Kunta Kinte 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]

Rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar references Kunta Kinte in his 2015 single release, "King Kunta".[12]

Kunta is mentioned in the Ludacris song "Coming 2 America" from his 2001 album Word Of Mouf.[13]

Ice Cube mentions Kunta Kinte, as well as Kunta's slave name, Toby, in his controversial diss track No Vaseline.[14] He 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 mentioned in the movie Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Kunta is briefly referenced in Missy Elliott's hit "Work It."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bird, J.B. "ROOTS". Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  2. ^ http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/malachi-kirby-kunta-kinte-roots-remake-n579491
  3. ^ "The Kunta Kinte – Alex Haley Foundation". Retrieved 2007-11-11. 
  4. ^ Alex Haley, "Black history, oral history, and genealogy", pp. 9–19, at p. 18.
  5. ^ Ottaway, Mark (April 10, 1977). "Tangled Roots". The Sunday Times. pp. 17, 21. 
  6. ^ Wright, Donald R. (1981). "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants". History in Africa. 8: 205–217. 
  7. ^ "The Roots of Alex Haley". BBC Television Documentary. 1997.". 
  8. ^ "Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival". www.kuntakinte.org. Kunta Kinte Celebrations, Inc. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  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. ^ "Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta". Genius. 
  13. ^ "Work that track, whip 'em like Kunta". Genius. 
  14. ^ "Ice Cube – No Vaseline". Genius. 
  15. ^ "Missy Elliott – Work It". Genius. 

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