Kunta Kinte is such a cultural icon that he inspired Kendrick Lamar to write a song about him, but we can't blame you if you only know him as the guy from that mini-series played by either the host from Reading Rainbow or Geordi La Forge from Star Trek (depending on your relative level of nerdiness).
But before that mega-famous television show Roots, there was the novel. Although Roots is so rooted (pun!) in historical fact, so sprawling, and so insanely culturally important that the word "novel" sounds almost trivializing.
We think "phenomenon" would be a better term for Roots.
Also, it's hard to separate the book from its writing process. Author Alex Haley first honed his craft while serving in the Navy, but would go on to success as a journalist and even co-writer for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Despite this, there was one story Haley couldn't get out of his mind: the family oral traditions passed down to him from his grandparents.
Haley began obsessively researching his family's stories, corroborating them with written records and even visiting The Gambia to meet a storyteller known as a griot who claimed to know the genealogy of his ancestral line. Before long, Haley became convinced that he had found the exact people and places referred to in his family's stories, and began creating a piece of historical fiction that would bring this personal history together with the history of a nation.
And that's exactly what he did. Beginning with Kunta Kinte's childhood in the small village of Juffure, we learn about the traditional way of life that was torn away from countless Africans when they were caught up in the horrors of the American slave trade. Sadly, Kunta becomes one of their number. As we watch Kunta suffer and struggle to adapt to this strange, new world, we gain a greater sense of why American slavery was such a historical calamity.
But we don't stop there. We trace generation after generation of Kunta's descendants as they survive and even thrive, hitting their fair share of struggles too, but always meeting them together as a family.
It's powerful stuff.
In the end, we reach all the way up through history to Alex Haley, our author, creating a wonderful little genealogical ouroboros.
Of course, we shouldn't have to tell you that Roots made tsunami-sized cultural waves. The book was a national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, and its 1977 mini-series adaptation won nine Emmys and a Golden Globe.
And Roots, like the story of Kunta Kinte, has endured. It opened up a cultural dialogue on race when America needed it during the 1970's. And it continues to spark conversations on race today…which is good.
Because, let's face it: America still very much needs to be conversing about race, and how our historical past continues to influence our present in shameful ways.
You know us.
We can make puns about Kafkaesque alienation. We can make snarky asides about how Victorian ideals still confine women today. We have zero problem cracking wise about the body count on Game of Thrones.
But we're almost all out of quips when it comes to systemic racism in America. It's horrific. It's insane. And it started in the late 15th Century.
When we read Roots, we get a front-row seat to the atrocities of the slave trade. We see kidnapping. Horrible living conditions—or maybe we should say dying conditions, because forty percent of slaves didn't survive the trans-Atlantic journey—on slavers' ships. Feet being cut off. Children taken away from parents. Rape. Horrors that pretty much defy belief.
But you better believe that these horrors happened…and that they happened on American soil.
It's not pretty, but that's exactly the point. When looking at grave historical injustices such as this, it's important to stare unflinchingly at the harsh details in order to truly understand the crimes of the past.
Because the crimes of the past have a nasty way of extending into the present. The echoes of slavery still exist in America in a myriad of ways—from the fact that segregation still exists to the point that most white Americans have very few black friends, to the fact that black men are far more likely than white men to be pulled over in a traffic stop, to the fact that studies show that teachers expect less, on average, from black students.
This is all mind-blowingly messed up.
And this is exactly why you should crack a copy of Roots today. Because this book will both underline the fact that the aftershocks of historical atrocity last a good long time…and because it contains the message that as long as the stories of the past are kept alive, we all have a chance of understanding and growing. And changing.
Because hey—if Kunta Kinte can go from being kidnapped and having his foot lopped off by a sadistic slave-owner to being celebrated in a dang Kendrick Lamar song…well, then there's hope for all of us.
Alex Haley Museum
Want to learn more about Alex Haley? Click away, Shmoopers.
The website is a great gateway to everything related to the novel Roots.
The original mini-series adaptation of Roots was a legit cultural phenomenon, and it's well worth looking back on today.
The 2016 adaptation of Roots strays from the novel in some notable ways, but the issues at its core still resonate.
Alex Haley Interviews Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965
This is a great interview for many reasons, and we can't recommend you read it enough.
A Conversation with Alex Haley
This interview with Haley goes in-depth into the psychological reasons behind racism.
Alex Haley Interview (1983)
In this interview, Haley discusses the process behind both Roots the book as well as Roots the show.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
This video, produced by TED, investigates what made the American institution of slavery so distinct from other forms of slavery, as well as its long-term impact on the continent of Africa.
Alex Haley Interviews Spike Lee
Another gem from Haley.
LeVar Burton and the Power of Roots
In this piece, LeVar Burton discusses how he felt playing the role of Kunta Kinte, as well the cultural impact of Roots.
An Interview with Bill Haley
This NPR interview with Bill Haley, Alex Haley's son, discusses his thoughts on his father's work and legacy.
Kinte Family Tree
Study this thing—you're going to need it as you make your way through this epic epic.
Alex Haley's Childhood Home
This right here is Alex Haley's childhood home in Henning, Tennessee, which is now a museum in his honor.