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.
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).
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.
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.
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.