(This article is actually the first chapter of Roots: The Saga of An American Family. It was later published as: Kunta Kinte Is Born within Heritage: African American Readings For Writers by Margaret G. Lee, Joyce M. Jarrett and Doreatha D. Mbalia.)
When he was fifty-four years old, Alex Haley (1920 – 1992) published his monumental book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). Chronicling Haley’s descent from the African named Kunta Kinte, this work (and the subsequent 1977 television miniseries) had a tremendous influence, especially on African Americans. It taught them to be proud of their heritage and to enthusiastically seek their roots.
Haley’s story begins in 1750 with the birth of a West African boy named Kunta Kinte. He is kidnapped by slave traders 17 years later, brought to America in a crowded ship, and sold in Annapolis, Maryland for $850. What follows is a heartbreaking yet eventually triumphant story of the struggles of Kinte’s descendants to survive and adapt. Through the years they were determined to keep their African ties alive.
“This is not just the saga of my family,” says Haley. “It is the symbolic saga of a people. Every black person in this country has the same ancestral background. Every one of us crossed the same ocean on a slave ship, ended up on the same plantations.”
Roots started on the front porch of Alex’s grandmother’s house in Henning, Tennessee. As a boy, he listened with fascination when she told about “the furthest back person in the family.” She called him “the African” and repeated strange-sounding names of people and places that had been passed down to her. Alex and his friends acted out the stories, and they became fixed in his memory. That introduction to oral history, Haley believes, set him on the path to discover his heritage.
The following selection, from Chapter 1 of Roots, documents the rich African culture in which Kunta Kinte is born.
Kunta Kinte Is Born
Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte. Forcing forth from Binta’s strong young body, he was as black as she was, flecked and slippery with Binta’s blood, and he was bawling. The two wrinkled midwives, old Nyo Boto and the baby’s Grandmother Yaisa, saw that it was a boy and laughed with joy. According to the forefathers, a boy firstborn presaged the special blessings of Allah not only upon the parents but also upon the parents’ families; and there was the prideful knowledge that the name of Kinte would thus be both distinguished and perpetuated.
It was the hour before the first crowing of the cocks, and along with Nyo Boto and Grandma Yaisa’s clatterings, the first sound the child heard was the muted, rhythmic bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp of wooden pestles as the other women of the village pounded couscous grain in their mortars, preparing the traditional breakfast of porridge that was cooked in earthen pots over a fire built among three rocks.
The thin blue smoke went curling up, pungent and pleasant, over the small dusty village of round mud huts as the nasal wailing of Kajali Demba, the village alimamo, began, calling men to the first of the five daily prayers that had been offered up to Allah for as long as anyone living could remember. Hastening from their beds of bamboo cane and cured hides into their rough cotton tunics, the men of the village filed briskly to the praying places where the alimamo led the worship: “Allahu Akbar! Ashadu an lailahailala!” (God is great! I bear witness that there is only one God!) It was after this, as the men were returning toward their home compounds for breakfast, that Omoro rushed among them, beaming and excited, to tell them of his firstborn son. Congratulating him, all of the men echoed the omens of good fortune.
Each man, back in his own hut, accepted a calabash porridge from his wife. Returning to their kitchens in the rear of the compound, the wives fed next their children, and finally themselves. When they had finished eating, the men took up their short, bent-handled hoes, whose wooden blades had been sheathed with metal by the village blacksmith, and set off for their day’s work of preparing the land for farming of the groundnuts and the couscous and cotton that were the primary men’s crops, as rice was that of the women, in this hot, lush savanna country of The Gambia.
By ancient custom, for the next seven days, there was but a single task with which Omoro would seriously occupy himself: the selection of a name for his firstborn son. It would have to be a name rich with history and with promise, for the people of his tribe—the Mandinkas—believed that a child would develop seven of the characteristics of whomever or whatever he was named for.
On behalf of himself and Binta, during this week of thinking, Omoro visited every household in Juffure, and invited each family to the naming ceremony of the newborn child, traditionally on the eighth day of his life. On that day, like his father and his father’s father, this new son would become a member of the tribe.
When the eighth day arrived, the villagers gathered in the early morning before the hut of Omoro and Binta. On their heads, the women of both families brought calabash containers of ceremonial sour milk and sweet munko cakes of pounded rice and honey. Karamo Silla, the jaliba of the village, was there with his tan-tang drums; and the alimamo, and the arafang, Brima Cesay, who would some day be the child’s teacher; and also Omoro’s two brothers, Janneh and Saloum, who had journeyed from far away to attend the ceremony when the drumtalk news of their nephew’s birth had reached them.
As Binta proudly held her new infant, a small patch of his first hair was shaved off, as was always done on this day, and all of the women exclaimed at how well formed the baby was. Then they quieted as the jaliba began to beat his drums. The alimamo said a prayer over the calabashes of sour milk and munko cakes, and as he prayed, each guest touched a calabash brim with his or her right hand, as a gesture of respect for the food. Then the alimamo turned to pray over the infant, entreating Allah to grant him long life, success in bringing credit and pride and many children to his family, to his village, to his tribe—and, finally, the strength and the spirit to deserve and to bring honor to the name he was about to receive.
Omoro then walked out before all of the assembled people of the village. Moving to his wife’s side, he lifted up the infant and, as all watched, whispered three times into his son’s ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child’s name, for Omoro’s people felt that each human being should be the first to know who he was.
The tan-tang drum resounded again; and now Omoro whispered the name into the ear of Binta, and Binta smiled with pride and pleasure. Then Omoro whispered the name to the arafang, who stood before the villagers.
“The first child of Omoro and Binta Kinte is named Kunta!” cried Brima Cesay.
As everyone knew, it was the middle name of the child’s late grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, who had come from his native Mauretania into The Gambia, where he had saved the people of Juffure from a famine, married Grandma Yalsa, and then served Juffure honorably till his death as the village’s holy man.
One by one, the arafang recited the names of the Mauretanian forefathers of whom the baby’s grandfather, old Kairaba Kinte, had often told. The names, which were great and many, went back more than two hundred rains. Then the jaliba pounded on his tan-tang and all of the people exclaimed their admiration and respect at such a distinguished lineage.
Out under the moon and the stars, alone with his son that eighth night, Omoro completed the naming ritual. Carrying little Kunta in his strong arms, he walked to the edge of the village, lifted his baby up with his face to the heavens, and said softly, “Fend kiling dorong leh warrata ka iteh tee.” (Behold—the only thing greater than yourself.) ~ Alex Haley.
(Kunta Kinte Is Born is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1976 Doubleday, Inc. © 2007 by Perseus Books Group. Heritage: African American Readings For Writers © 1996, 2002 Prentice Hall. All Rights Reserved.)