Study Guide

Kunta Kinte in Roots: The Saga of an American Family

By Alex Haley

Kunta Kinte

King Kunta

Kendrick Lamar sums up Kunta Kinte best (because of course he does; he's the brilliant Kendrick Lamar):

King Kunta/ Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta/ Black man taking no losses (Source)

Kunta Kinte: a man who's kidnapped from his homeland by evil slavers, bears witness to horrible human suffering, keeps running away from various horrible slave-owners until they have to chop his foot off, and still manages to have his name and story remembered and praised.

Yeah. If anyone deserves to be called royalty, it's Kunta.

If we forget about Kendrick Lamar and real-deal historical context for a second, however, Roots is a fish-out-of-water story. Torn from his home against his will, Kunta Kinte is brought to a strange land filled with strange-looking, clearly evil people. Even worse, the few people who are like him seem to have been brainwashed into submission.

When you put it like that, it sounds like the plot of a dystopian sci-fi novel.

When we combine this understanding of Kunta's character with the historical aspects of the novel, however, we can see that Kunta represents something very powerful—a connection between Roots' author and narrator Alex Haley and his long-lost past.

Dark Times

Before we get into that, however, let's look at Kunta as a person (instead of as a legacy). Kunta's born into a respected Mandinka family, the grandson of a holy man who saved his hometown of Juffure from a terrible drought. That's a lot to live up to. Still, it seems the sky is the limit for Kunta, even at seventeen.

Tragically, this potential is stolen away when Kunta is kidnapped, beaten, and brought aboard a slave ship, where he endures the worst physical conditions imaginable. Seriously—this makes Dante's Inferno look like a walk in the park. At first, he struggles with the notion that he did something wrong to deserve it, asking himself "what sins was he being punished for in such a manner as this" and pleading "to Allah for an answer" (34.6).

Of course, there is no reason behind this, save the greed of men who buy and sell people. The sheer evil that Kunta finds himself entrenched in completely upends his view of the world, which had previously been built upon the egalitarian ideals of his tribe, the Mandinka, who teach that "every person [...] was equally important [...] from the newest baby to the oldest elder" (25.12).

Clearly the toubob do not agree.

The Great Escapes

Kunta's experiences in America are no less disorienting. It's bad enough that he's around a whole bunch of toubob, but he also sees his own people walking around like zombies. Here's one of those early encounters:

Kunta's eyes entreated this black one, who had distinctly Wolof features, My Brother, you come from my country…But the black one seemed not even to see Kuna. (41.11)

In fact, Kunta seems to direct more ire towards American-born black people than American-born white people. This is because he believes that they've abandoned their heritage, accepting the toubob's lifestyle and submitting to their authority. How could they allow themselves to be debased like that?

Kunta learns the answer the hard away during his several escape attempts. Although he plans them meticulously and utilizes every skill learned during his manhood training, the deck is stacked so far against him that he hardly has a hand to play with. His foot is even cut off by sadistic slave catchers.

This helps him realize that the other people enslaved here aren't wasting away, having accepted their fate—they're biding their time and trying to survive as best they can.

Come Together

This leads Kunta to finally embrace the African-American community, though he retains a strong sense of his cultural heritage. He even holds onto it after marrying Bell—which, to be honest, might be what attracted his old lady to him in the first place. In a similar way, he develops strong bonds with the gardener and the fiddler, both of whom help him better understand this strange new world he finds himself in.

Still, nothing compares to the bond he develops with his daughter Kizzy. Kizzy's the only person he can truly share his African identity with, and he passes down his ancestral knowledge to her like his father did for him. They even create a little ritual: every time they go "rolling along the dusty Spotsylvania County roads, he would tell her the Mandinka names of things the passed along the road" (74.7).

As happens frequently in Roots, however, the family is torn apart by circumstances out of their control when Kizzy is sold for forging a travel pass for a runaway slave. Kunta's devastated by this and upends the pebble-filled gourd he and Kizzy used to mark his age. This is symbolic of his agony at having his daughter—and heir to the Kinte legacy—stolen away from him.

Passing the Torch

Although we don't see what happens to Kunta after this, his story does indeed have a happy ending. After all, we're reading a book written by his great-great-great-great grandson; a book that uses the stories and words he passed down to Kizzy to create a multi-generational account of the family he loved so much.

In the end, Alex Haley has kept Kunta Kinte's legacy alive. That's all the guy ever asked for, right? We'd say that he would have been grinning if he'd seen Alex Haley first lay pen to paper, but we all know he's way too stoic for that. He probably would have rocked a manly nod.