Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley’s fourth great- grandfather and the central character of his novel and subsequent TV series Roots, couldn’t possibly have predicted the effect his life would have on a non-African nation some 227 years after his birth in 1750. Even when he died a half-footed, spirit-broken slave on a plantation in America’s Old South, there was no reason for his heirs to believe his life’s story would change the lives of so many in the late 20th century.
When Haley’s novel was published in 1977, I was a divorced mother of an 8-year-old African American child. I had experienced a non-typical pathway to understanding my racial identity, because of my mixed heritage, to be sure; but it was far more complicated than that.
I always describe my mother as white, primarily because that’s what her head tells her she is. In truth, though, her paternal grandfather was originally from someplace in Great Britain and was a Moor. He married a white Englishwoman, probably from Sussex or Surrey. The seven children they eventually had together ranged in hue from café au lait to paper white.
My great-grandfather was always described to me by my mother as being “as black as the ace of spades.” It was of utmost importance for all of us to understand, however, he was not and never had been related to anyone who was enslaved. Not our people.
Be that as it may, as far as the United States of America was concerned, she was an octoroon and her father was a mulatto. My grandfather looked a lot like some of the Jewish insurance salesman that regularly visited our house – white skin, wavy dark hair, prominent nose. My mother passed for white, easily, thanks to her white mother’s genetic contributions. She gave birth to me in a whites-only hospital in Melrose Park, Illinois.
I was raised only in proximity to my maternal grandparents and their families. I had very limited exposure to my paternal relatives, who were most definitely descendants of American slaves from Georgia and Tennessee. It was probably predictable I would grow up conflicted about the black parts of myself. I wouldn’t dream of trying to pass for anything I’m not, but I didn’t have the option anyway. There are some people who mistake me for other ethnicities, but I am never taken for white. I had to negotiate my world as a Negro/Afro-American/African American.
I had a view of slaves that was not grounds for racial pride. With no formal instruction, in school or otherwise, about the history of the slaves before they were snatched from Africa’s “jungles,” I developed the belief that those who were captured and brought to these shores had to have been uneducated, godless and savage cannibals. I did understand the horror of their enslavement, but I never gave a moment’s thought to what they had left behind.
My total focus as a young adult was assimilation. I believed with all my heart in the Civil Rights Movement, but the Black Power movement was something a little different. I was busy trying to prove how much the races had in common. I was uncomfortable with conversations that emphasized how black culture was unique. I preferred Martin Luther King’s approach to change over Malcolm X’s angry rhetoric.When Alex Haley decided to share the story of his ancestors with the world in 1977, he single-handedly changed my life. I devoured that book. Two years later, when the much-decorated mini-series hit the small screen, I did not miss one nanosecond of it. Page by page, and broadcast by broadcast, my sense of pride in my African heritage, however limited it might be, grew exponentially. I cheered the recalcitrant Kunta for his pluck and power.
Kunta Kinte’s father was a Mandinko warrior in The Gambia, West Africa. Fifteen-year-old Kunta was out with other adolescent males gathering wood to make a ceremonial drum for their Manhood Ceremony when they were captured, most likely by black African middle men securing their own safety, and thrown aboard a slave ship bound for the United States. He was probably a Muslim, based on what I have read. Had he not been captured, he would have become an official warrior himself shortly after his Manhood Ceremony.
Kunta Kinte lost half his foot because he was not willing to be enslaved without a fight. He was hobbled because he kept trying to escape. He carried himself with great dignity and was not about to docilely comply with these strange white men’s animalistic treatment.
Many of the assertions in Haley’s book have been challenged for accuracy as it pertains to the societal workings of The Gambia and the location of the town or village from which Kinte was snatched. That doesn’t matter to me at all. What mattered was that at the age of 32 I was finally exposed to the notion that at least some of the people who were hunted down like animals and subsequently subjected to treatment even livestock didn’t have to endure were civilized, learned and productive citizens of their respective countries.
Finally, when it comes to my complete genealogy – what I knew then and what I have learned since – I have my head on straight. I am proud of every single aspect of my DNA.
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