Kunte, the young child grows up being trained for the roles he must fulfill as a man. He gets an education from the Muslim priest of the village so he can read Arabic. He strongly adheres to the Muslim beliefs and the cultural practices of the Village. He finally reaches the stage of life where he has his own house and is expected to take a wife, but then, at age 17, he is kidnapped by slavers, and his life takes a severe turn.
He is stripped and branded, then shackled into the hold of a slave ship, shoulder to shoulder with other kidnapped Africans. It is hell; lying in the stench of bodily wastes and vomit, unable to change positions in the tightly packed hold of the ship for over a month as the ship crosses the Atlantic to America. He can’t communicate with the other slaves, who speak different tribal languages.
Finally, having survived the voyage, the ship lands in Maryland, where he is sold at a slave auction. During all of this time, everything from Kunte’s previous life disappears, he is totally confused and has no understanding of what is happening to him.
Once Kunte was purchased and carted off to a farm, his one goal was to escape and make his way back to his village. This of course was impossible. His three attempts at escape failed, due to the bloodhounds and trackers that found him. After being caught a fourth time, the trackers cut off half of his foot, to put an end to his escape attempts.
Mercifully, Kunte then ends up in a farm run by a more humane master. Kunte, who still had trouble communicating, felt contempt toward his fellow slaves. He hated them for being so passive and accepting of their abuse. He tried to adhere to his Muslim beliefs, keeping to himself, but slowly, he accepted that he could never return to his family, and succumbed to his new reality, integrating himself with the other slaves on the farm.
Kunta became the driver for his master and married Bell, a slave who was the master’s cook. Bell had learned to read at a previous plantation, something that was prohibited in slaves. Reading enabled her to keep her fellow slaves informed about what she had secretly read in the master’s newspapers and what she overheard during their dinners. This eavesdropping on their master’s private conversations and newspapers about the historical events that were happening, was an effective way for the author to show the passage of time in the lives of his characters. I would assume that otherwise, the constant mundane work of the slaves would give no indication of historical time.
Kunte and Bell had a daughter, Kizzi. Kunte told Kizzi about his life in Africa, teaching her words from his language. This information about his origin was remembered and further passed down to each generation of the family. As Kizzi grew up, she learned how to read, while being the “student”, playing “school” with the master’s young niece.
As a teen, she fell in love with a field slave who was set on escaping. He talked her in to writing out a “road pass”, but he was caught in his escape attempt and confessed that Kizzi had written the pass. As a result, Kizzi was sold, never to see her family again. This was a shock to me, having been so throughly immersed in Kunte’s struggles, but the complete disappearance of family members was a common occurrence to slaves.
Kizzi’s new owner, immediately raped her, giving her a son, George, who plays a prominent part in the book. Their master had been a “cracker,” a poor, white trash farmer, who had risen in status after winning a very good fighting rooster in gambling bet at a cock fight. Cock-fighting then enabled him to greatly improve his economic situation allowing him to buy land, a nice house, and slaves.
Young George was assigned to work with the aging, black man who trained the fighting roosters. George immediately took to the job, gaining expertise, and also became besotted with cock-fighting. He slowly established a good working relationship with his master, who was also his father. He was given a small percentage of the winnings. The goal of the whole family was to raise enough money to buy their freedom, but they were never able to achieve their freedom until after the Civil War, but even then, their opportunities were restricted by racism.
The storyline of Roots continues on through four more generations of the family, each being taught about Kunte, his African story, and his African words. In one of the last chapters, a boy child was born to the family and his name was Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who, after much research, wrote the book about his family’s saga.
Using Kunte’s African words, Haley was eventually able to pinpoint which tribe Kunte, his ancestor, belonged too, and after traveling to Africa, he found Kunte’s small village where, with translators, he listened to an old generation-keeper, whose task was to remember the generations of local families, give the ancient line of the Kinte family. In the old man’s oral history, he confirmed Kunte’s existence, which inspired Haley to write Roots.
Roots was a Pulitzer Prize winner, which was made into a popular mini-series. I was aware of the book and mini-series, but didn’t know the story until now. It is a compelling story, based on the struggles of a real family. It is certainly a story that needed to be told.
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