Looking for Kunta Kinte: Alex Haley's Roots and African American Genealogies


  • Elisa Bordin




literature, American literature, African-American, slavery, Alex Haley


As the 30th anniversary 2006 edition recalls, Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family was a big popular success: in 1976, the year it was published, “the book sold over one million copies” and in 1977 the miniseries created out of it “was watched by an astonishing 130 million people.” David Chioni Moore reports that the book “was translated into twenty-four languages, and sat atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for more than five months beginning in late November 1976” (6). Roots’s popularity continues in more recent times: in December 2011, BET’s 35th anniversary airing of the miniseries Roots was watched by 4.1 million viewers, testifying to the longevity of Roots’ popular appeal. Haley’s family saga starts in 18th - century village of Juffure, in the Gambia, Africa, where his ancestor Kunta Kinte was kidnapped and shipped, together with other African slaves, to the United States. His Virginian master Wallace imposes on him the name Toby, which Kunta resists fiercely to maintain his African and Muslim identity. After four escape attempts and having his foot cut off he accepts his American fate and name and eventually marries Belle, the slave cook, thus going against his original disdain for African American slaves. From this union Kizzy is born, who is sold to master Tom Lea. The latter repeatedly rapes the girl, who consequentially gives birth to Chicken George, the family patriarch who leads the Kintes out of slavery. From this moment on the family line proceeds fast till Simon Alexander Haley, Alex Haley’s father, and ends with Haley’s telling of his researches in Africa, Britain, and the US to trace his family history.


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