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Who was Kunta Kinte?

Kunta Kinte, taken from Africa to a slave plantation in the United States, is the main character in Alex Haley's book "Roots.".
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  • Originally Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 April 2014
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Kunta Kinte, also known as Toby, was a young man taken from his native Gambia in the mid-18th century, according to writer Alex Haley. He was brought to the United States, where he was a slave on a plantation. People also recognize him as the main character in Haley’s novel, Roots, which was made into an epic television series. He fought to maintain a sense of freedom and cultural identity during his enslavement. His story, which became wildly popular upon its release, opened the eyes of the public to the horrors of slavery and encouraged investigation and preservation of both African and African American culture.

Geneology

According to Alex Haley, an American author of African American descent, Kunta Kinte was a member of the Mandinka tribe of Gambia, West Africa. Haley asserts that he was captured and brought as a first-generation slave to Annapolis, Maryland in 1767. He was the grandson of Kairaba Kunta Kinte, who served as a holy man for the Mandinkas of Juffure. His father was Omoro.

Once in the United States, he became known by his white masters as Toby. He fathered a daughter, Kizzy, who had a son affectionately called Chicken George. Next came Tom Murray, who fathered Cynthia Murray, who was the mother of Bertha Haley. Bertha had three children, Julius, George and Alex (the author).

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Cynthia Murray, Alex Haley’s grandmother, had preserved much of the oral tradition and history of her family as best she could. She passed her ancestor’s story as she had heard it. From these stories, Haley crafted his famous work, Roots, which is a partially-fictionalized account of the slave’s life.

Although Haley asserts that Kunta was a real person, other people have disputed this claim. Investigation of Murray’s accounts have not been able to show without a doubt that Kunta and a slave named Toby were the same person. He likely was not Kizzy’s father, as he might have died long before she was conceived. This breaks the direct lineage Haley is supposed to have.

Roots

The story of Kunta Kinte, as Haley tells it in Roots, begins with his birth in 1750 in Juffure, Gambia. He is captured as a teenager by slave traders and makes the terrible journey on a slave ship to the United States. Along the way, many of his companions die of illness and poor treatment. Upon arriving in the United States, John Waller buys him as a worker for a plantation in Virginia, giving him the name Toby.

Waller repeatedly punishes Kunta for not responding to Toby, and the young slave tries several times to run away. When he is caught for the fourth time, Waller has his foot chopped off so that he can no longer run. Waller then sells him to his brother, William Waller. In his new home, the slave meets and marries Belle, with whom he fathers a daughter, Kizzy.

When Kizzy is sold, she has a son by her new master. She calls him simply George, but as an adult, he becomes known as Chicken George, because he has skills as a cockfighter. He eventually buys his freedom, which paves the way for the rest of the family to live out of slavery.

Roots, the Film

Due to the incredible success of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots was made into an epic film. It was released in 1977, starring Levar Burton. The 570 minute picture solidified the tale’s place in both American literature and African American culture.

Significance

The importance of Kunta, according to Haley, is that he impressed upon the slaves around him the glory of being free, the need to return to African origins and the value of continual opposition to slavery. Although this opposition earned him torturous punishment, he maintained a sense of his African identity, which he passed on to his daughter. The sense of coming from someplace and the tenacity necessary to hold onto the dream of freedom are reoccurring themes in Roots.

Despite the problems in proving elements of Haley’s story, as a symbol of the experience of the captured slave, Toby settled into the minds of the American people. He became symbolic of the plight of the slave and the dignity of man. Through him, dialogues started regarding the negative nature of slavery and its profound effect on generations of African Americans. In this sense, he is almost allegorical, serving as every captured slave waging a battle against an oppressor far stronger than himself.

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Discuss this Article

anon338426
Post 41

Can we all just take this epic story of a man's trials and desires and not press the points of whether the man "Kunta Kinte" existed? It is enough that each of us came from somewhere, be it Africans, French, Europeans, Irish, etc. The horror of slavery was real and "Kunta" represents all of those that suffered capture and slavery and repression and prejudice. In that aspect, Kunta was real. As all of our ancestors were real, whether or not we have a name for our forefathers.

The names of our fathers are important, but it is the suffering and endurance that they lived through that is important, not the details of their lives. Let it be known that they lived and loved and gave us life. That is what is important and should be remembered.

amypollick
Post 39

@anon311809: The article makes it very clear that, even though Kunta Kinte may not have existed as an individual person, his story is one that needs to be told, because it illustrates the experiences of African slaves brought to the U.S., and therefore, should be told and not forgotten.

Now then, about your Columbus reference: he is given credit for discovering America because he was the first Western European explorer to get here. Of course, the Native Americans were already here. Columbus basically gets the credit for bringing the Americas to the attention of the known world at the time.

Electricity and other such forces existed long before the births of Benjamin Franklin and Nikola Tesla, but they get the credit for their discoveries for the scientific communities. I've seen very little hate in this forum.

I've seen a great deal of support for telling Kunta Kinte's story in this discussion forum, and how it opened people's eyes about the evils of racism. I haven't seen any hatred. The dispute isn't "white American" history, and it's not whether slavery existed or anything of the sort; it's whether Alex Haley found *his* actual roots. As one who has done some family history studies, I know how tough getting the facts can be. Records change, oral histories are not always correct, and they can change through the years. When you start going back as far as Haley did, the dates can get extremely murky. Records may be destroyed in a fire or other disaster.

Bringing up errors in research does not constitute the manipulation of facts, nor does it equal hatred. In this case, it just isn't that important. What is important, is that Kunta Kinte's story continues to be told.

anon311809
Post 38

My question is why Christopher Columbus given the credit for discovering America when the Indians were already living here? White American history is based on a bunch of lies. Kunta Kinte's story was true and needed to be told, so stop hating.

anon289707
Post 36

I think this is a great story about what happened and what also made us all Americans in whatever form, creed or color. It is part of all of our history that America endured to make us all strong and to make this country great.

However, he did not have to lie and plagiarize and for that, I am truly disappointed in him. I would have loved the story regardless. It's one of my favorites along with Queen.

That has misled me for years because I thought it was true. How disappointed I am to find that it is not.

anon267186
Post 35

Respecting the fact that not only African Americans like myself were enslaved, the African people were the most likely to be so, and sold on the largest scale. "Roots" demonstrates the evils that they endured, and the horrors that they witnessed every day.

As for the part where Kunta's son was born and sold, I can relate. When I was younger, my first child, Eric, was killed in a car accident. I remember feeling like the world was crashing down about me. Like I had failed in some way. I realize that Kunta must have felt similarly.

anon106298
Post 32

The book does not mention what happened to Kunta after Kizzie was sold.

It's a good story but it it's mostly a work of fiction. Check out the BBC documentary that proves it. No American network had the guts to show the documentary probably because of the backlash (no pun intended) it would cause.

anon97292
Post 31

Regardless of Kunta being a slave, or how bad slavery really was and is, it wasn't just the white man dealing in slavery, nor was it just the black man being used as a slave. The reason slavery is stereotyped as being the black man oppressed and the white man the oppressor is because the majority of slave trade's notoriety about during the time this was occurring, and was also when people took notice and started realizing what a wretched thing slavery really was.

History shows that, prior to the white man dealing in black slaves, slavery was already a common practice among the warring nations/tribes of Africa. The winning tribe would tell the survivors of the defeated enemy and sell or trade off the survivors they didn't need, and this was prior to the arrival of the first white man -- presumably from Portugal.

Other indigenous tribes from around the world were also following this practice. The white man is however, fully responsible for trading black slaves on such a grand scale. The white man is responsible for how slavery turned out, which was utterly senseless, and also for how it is perceived today.

anon90302
Post 30

Whether this was a factually based story of Alex Hailey's ancestry or not, it is essentially true - it is the truth about many African and other slaves throughout history. It made me hate racism more than I already did. But it saddens me that many of my own race - Irish - were and still are deeply racist.

anon83283
Post 29

i think that it is really important to tell people what all the black africans went through and people should stop being racist.

anon82277
Post 27

I agree with the person in discussion in number 10. Why is this story being questioned? I read the book when I was in 5th grade. I am in seventh grade right now. I have been to Africa three times and see how hard it must have been to be torn away from family. All the slaves have suffered.

Mr. Alex Haley did not make the things in Roots up because the story has been passed down for generations and hasn't been changed. He also says how he got the information and I think he is pretty accurate.

anon81726
Post 26

I am pretty sure that alex would not just come up with bogus stories just to make a great story. All of the information he included in his novel and roots series are very logical and his family all seems to agree with him. I mean, that is where he received all his information from.

The story of kunta kinte is a story that all african americans should look at and receive joyfully in knowing that they are free and are treated as human beings and not just some piece of property.

So i think that whether or not you believe the relation between kunta kinte all the way to alex haley, then keep it to yourself because this story has changed the lives of many african americans and a few white americans. It shows us that we have come a long way and i thank alexander murray palmer haley for being the great writer he was.

anon79234
Post 25

If they said that a person named''kunta kinte'' was captured as a slave in africa, that is the truth (coming from a griot). Now where did kunta kinte go? Was he brought to america or not 'is mr alex his descendant or not?

i guess nobody will ever find out the real story behind all this. Slavery was not just in america. it is true that majority of the slaves were brought here but the whites at that time didn't have records on blacks. The only paperwork was maybe a receipt showing that they purchased the slave.

Even if you look through your family tree history i am pretty sure that you will get stuck somewhere on the top. it is just a long story and at that time blacks were not allowed to read or write.

But thank to mr alex, the story makes sense, and since there is no way to prove you wrong and this is the best slavery story out there, we are going to stick with your story even if it is not true, but i am pretty sure that it is so close to it. It helps a lot of people and let them know where they are really from.

anon78897
Post 24

Africans will always remain Africans. No matter the hard times, our roots as Africans is strongly unmovable. we have learned to forgive, therefore we forgive all the tormentors of the past and want any who still think towards such line that it can never be possible again.

anon76643
Post 23

It is so hard to believe that human beings carried out such cruel acts towards other human beings, all because of the colour of their skin. i watched the series of roots in 1986 when i was seven years old. the story has helped me in educating my own children on the history of slavery.

hopefully my children will go on to educate their children with the same knowledge that has been passed to them, so that the cruel, inhuman treatment of black people will never be forgotten.

anon75868
Post 22

I have watched the movie and it really makes me made how those whites thought they were superior. it's very interesting and it depicts what happens. i love Kunte Kinte for the resistance he showed to the whites.

anon74563
Post 21

i am colombian, i had the opportunity, the great opportunity to read Roots and i was deeply moved. i love kunta kinte and his struggle to get freedom, even i think he was partly free because he did not forget his roots, his dream.

When i read the book for the first time i felt anger and thought about the ignorance of some men thinking they are better just because of the color of the skin.

anon72518
Post 20

The basis of this whole saga starts on the front porch of alex haley's ancestral home (henning, tennessee ) and then it travels backwards - to africa and his talk with a historian called a griot (who is buried in a standing position - because of value of the knowledge found stored in a griot's head).

The black nations of this world have historians, like other nations, and it is my belief that historians the world over should be respected for the informational input.

We as a world of people have some kind of nerve when we set about questioning the knowledge of these people, be they family members on the front porch of their estate or, as in this case, right down to the knowledge shared from the head of a griot, which is centuries old, actually i am appalled.

We as african americans are so far behind and the late mr alex haley brought us a long way. Sometimes i find myself feeling so caught up in Roots, by alex haley because of this book and the the movie that sprang from it

Get with it, people. All of our roots are coming to fruition because of alex. Thank you mr. haley.

anon72202
Post 19

This story is a safe story. movie is safe also.

anon69611
Post 18

This is a terrible article. I don't see why you are questioning Alex Haley.

anon66191
Post 17

Kunta Kinte died a slave.

anon65985
Post 16

anon33552 I disagree. He would have made his own way in the world. Why don't we enslave you and keep you in bondage for a while so you can see if it's better to be enslaved than free!

anon65979
Post 15

I saw "Roots" in 1979 when it was released. I couldn't help but wonder why we were not taught more about the vile institution of slavery. It is the shame of the south but it is our shame.

However, many don't know that many northerners had slaves as well. As a descendant of plantation owners and yes, slave owners, I was profoundly affected by Alex Haley's story and I began to see things in a different way.

Since then, I've had my own children and I raised them not to be prejudiced against anyone and that hate has no place in our world, our minds and our hearts.

I don't care who disputes what about Alex Haley. I think he's a great and admirable man and I'm so glad he wrote his family's story down for us all to learn from and enjoy. It made laugh and made me cry. But most of all it made me understand. Thank you Alex.

anon65240
Post 14

i saw the series and i still can't believe exactly what other human beings put their fellow human beings through. It was totally wrong I'm still thinking about it all these years on.

anon65038
Post 13

i think this story is very sad, but it's my history and not only should i know about it, others should know too, because it's very cruel of what some did to us. so i truly say that it was a wonderful movie and I'm glad he didn't cover up any feelings because it should be told everywhere. thank you, alex haley.

anon47941
Post 11

bravo alex haley for the great job you have done of writing such an interesting book which won worldwide acclaim in your contribution to the English literature.

anon39276
Post 10

Ok, this is the part that makes me angry. why is this story even being questioned. Because even if he did not exsist. there were other slaves who went through the same issues and struggles. Roots is a excellent novel, and based on what we went through back then. leave it at that.

anon37880
Post 9

Had Kunta Kinte been presented allegorically, his impact would have been as great and the result of the story the same. It is Haley's grave error in stealing the work of another man and claiming it as genuine history that will taint the name for all time.

Haley harmed his cause by his crime both in making it possible for the entire story to be discounted and in allowing racists to point to it as a lie whenever the sufferings of slavery are raised.

anon36808
Post 8

In the book you never learn his fate. After Kizzy is sold, the narrative follows her life from that moment.

anon33552
Post 7

I don't think it's sad he died enslaved. He never would have made it on his own.

anon32605
Post 6

I watched they movie about kunta kinte and his life, what i want to know is if he ever thought that he was going to have a happy life?

anon19878
Post 5

I agree with you whether or not Kunta Kinte truly was Haley’s ancestor is relatively unimportant unless you have concrete evidence stating that is is not. The story is relatively important to all African Americans who were enslaved, regardless if the character was fictional or not because most slave did endure cruel and unusual punishment for various reasons. Roots allowed all Americans to see inside of the slave's life if a person hasn't experienced first hand. I think it's an educational TV series.

anon13442
Post 4

do you think that tom harvey and wil palmer played big roles in bringing their family units out from the slavery mind set?

WGwriter
Post 3

Kunta was never freed. He died still enslaved. It's pretty sad.

anon12664
Post 1

In the book ROOTS, did Kinte earn his freedom and buy his way out or was he freed by his owner? Was he released or did he run away?

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