"So the crocodile was right," said Nyo Boto. "It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid with badness. This is what I have told you as a story."
Kunta Kinte hears many stories as a small boy in his village Juffure. The old woman, Nyo Boto, who is a midwife, slave, and treasured member of the community, tells the above story, which is about a rabbit outsmarting a crocodile, only to be killed by humans whom he had helped by ensnaring the crocodile. Nyo Boto is teaching the children to never fully trust outsiders, especially in the age of the "toubob" - Europeans who have come to Africa, sometimes as ecologists and explorers but most of the time as exploitative slave traders, helped by native Africans. As a boy Kunta often does not understand the gravity of the dangers that could befall him from letting his guard down. This story foreshadows his capture or at least that something bad might happen to him, since it is clear that the adults in the village are trying to prepare their children for a changing world in which being a good person does not always guarantee a good life.
"He said that three groups of people lived in every village. First were those you could see - walking around, eating, sleeping, and working. Second were the ancestors, whom Grandma Yaisa had now joined.
'And the third people - who are they?' asked Kunta.
'The third people,' said Omoro, 'are those waiting to be born.'"
Kunta's father Omoro takes him aside when the young boy is grieving for his Grandma Yaisa. Omoro offers these comforting words, which teach his son that death is part of life and that those dead, alive, and not yet born are all connected even if they are not physically together. This idea recurs throughout the novel after Kunta is captured and misses his family in Africa, and also as the generations go on and they are separated by death or distance. This quote shows two of the book's primary themes, time and family. It in instills in Kunta the importance of staying connected to his past and anticipating his future, for all are a part of his life at any given time. This lesson from his father Omoro will help Kunta regain his broken spirit when he is enslaved.
"He was thirty-four rains old! What in the name of Allah had happened to his life? He had been in the white man's land as long as he had lived in Juffure. Was he still an African, or had he become a 'nigger,' as the others called themselves? Was he even a man? He was the same age as his father when he had seen him last, yet he had no sons of his own, no wife, no family, no village, no people, no homeland, almost no past at all that seemed real to him anymore - and no future he could see. It was as if The Gambia had been a dream he'd had once long ago. Or was he still asleep? And if he was, would he ever waken?"
Kunta's first 17 years in America pass in a blur of hard work and lack of true emotional connection. Though this will change in a few years when he marries Bell and they have their daughter Kizzy, so far his experience in America is a lonely one. This quote shows the depth of his solitude and sadness. Kunta has seen the entire Revolutionary War come and go, but he does not yet feel woven into America, both because of his status as a slave and a forced immigrant. This quote is more than melancholy - it is truly sad: Kunta feels like he has no homeland because the Gambia was no long ago yet his connection to America is superficial. Kunta's crisis of identity and belonging in this quote is a vivid incursion into his thoughts.
"The first time he had taken massa to one of these 'high-falutin' to-dos,' as Bell called them, Kunta had been all but overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: awe, indignation, envy, contempt, fascination, revulsion - but most of all a deep loneliness and melancholy from which it took him almost a week to recover. He couldn't believe that such incredibly wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they didn't live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it's possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother's milk made possible the life of privilege they led."
Most of Roots takes place in slaves' quarters. "Massas" are seen less often, and almost entirely absent is a description of antebellum southern upper-class white culture. As his master William Waller's buggy driver, however, Kunta has clearly seen a lot of their most glamorous affairs. In this quote he is stunned at their ostentatious display of wealth, especially since he and they both know it comes mostly from the labor of slaves. Here Kunta tells himself that the slaveowners have convinced themselves that they are good, civilized people despite the institution of slavery - an illusion he compares to a dream. This is in contrast to the backbreaking, decidedly un-dreamlike work that many slaves are engaged in. This quote is one of many that show the disconnect between slaveowning high class white culture and slave culture itself, and the gap of understanding from the masters to the slaves.
"He wondered what the gardener's true name had been - the name of his African forefathers - and to what tribe they had belonged. He wondered if the gardener himself had known. More likely he died as he had lived - without ever learning who he really was....
As they trudged silently back from the graveyard, Kunta thought how the family and close friends of one who had died in Juffure would wail and roll in ashes within their huts while the other villagers danced outside, for most African people believed that there could be no sorrow without happiness, so death without life, in that cycle that his own father had explained to him when his beloved Grandma Yaisa had died.... His heart sank - until he decided a moment later that this would become another of the many things he would one day tell Kizzy about the homeland she would never see."
The gardener's death, without any of the African rituals Kunta associated with death, strikes a sad chord for him. He realizes that most of the African-American slaves he knows have no idea what their heritage is. He is one of the few who does know, and can transmit this knowledge, if not to his anti-African wife, then to his daughter Kizzy, who seems curious about his life in The Gambia. Though Kunta is sad to see the gardener's cultural anonymity, he realizes that he has a wealth of history and knowledge about his people in his mind. This quote illustrates the difference between Kunta and many other slaves: he knows an entirely different world, not just of freedom but of ancient tribal rituals. His determination to pass them on will form an invaluable part of his family's oral traditions.
"She lay thinking of how she had never understood why her pappy had always felt so bitter against the world of white people - 'toubob' was his word for them. She thought of Bell's saying to her, 'You's so lucky it scare me, chile, 'cause you don' really know what bein' a nigger is, an' I hopes to de good Lawd you don' never have to fin' out.' Well, she had found out - and there seemed no limit to the anguish whites were capable of wreaking upon black people. But the worst thing they did, Kunta had said, was to keep them ignorant of who they are, to keep them from being fully human.
'De reason yo' pappy took holt of my feelin's from de firs',' her mammy had told her, 'was he de proudest black man I ever seed!' Before she fell asleep, Kizzy decided that however base her baby's origins, however light his color, whatever name the massa forced upon him, she would never regard him as other than the grandson of an African."
Kizzy has these thoughts after she has been sold away from her parents to Tom Lea, who has raped her repeatedly, impregnated her, given their son a name, and then raped her again only a month after she gave birth. Before being sold to Massa Lea, Kizzy led a sheltered life that was privileged by the standards of slaves. Her naive questions to Kunta as a child about his capture and hatred of whites show this. This quote shows that she has finally learned about the depravity of slavery. Yet her memory of her father's unflinching pride, a legacy of his free birth in Africa, gives her strength, not only for herself but for her biracial son. Despite being separated from Kunta, his legendary pride has suffused Kizzy with a determination to pass on that attitude to her son and share their family story.
"'Tom, I know you're not the oldest, but Missis Murray and I regard you as the head of your family. And we want you to tell them that we look forward to us all enjoying the rest of our lives together just as soon as we get these Yankees whipped. They're nothing but human devils!'
'Yassuh,' Tom said. He thought that it was impossible for a massa to perceive that being owned by anyone could never be enjoyable."
While the Murrays have been the best masters the descendants of Kunta Kinte have ever had - he treats them mostly kindly, is receptive to their needs, and does not abuse them - he still thinks that his slaves inherently enjoy being slaves and would of course side with the Confederacy in the Civil War. While Tom and his family feel affection for the Murrays, this quote reveals the depth of the disconnect between the white slaveowner's mindset and that of his slaves, represented here by Tom. No matter how kindly or considerately slaves are treated, this quote shows, the indignity of being owned will never go away.
"But that night, with their celebration having ended in their sheer exhaustion, Tom Murray assembled his large family within the barn to discuss what they should do not that this long-awaited 'freedom' had arrived. 'Freedom ain't gwine feed us, it just let us 'cide what we wants to do to eat,' said Tom. 'We ain't got much money, and 'sides me blacksmithin' an' Mammy cookin', de only workin' we knows is in de fiel's,' he appraised their dilemma."
In this quote, the Murray slave family has just been freed at the end of the Civil War and they are contemplating what to do with their suddenly free future. This quote highlights a real dilemma among newly freed slaves: though they had their freedom, they would have to find economic stability on their own. This quote shows a practical aspect to consider of obtaining freedom, often overlooked. Tom's intelligent quote - 'Freedom ain't gwine feed us, it just let us 'cide what we wants to do to eat' - sums up their position well. It highlights Tom's practical character and shows that freedom both consisted of a world of possibility and a practical reality that had not changed since before the war.
"'About the time the King's soldiers came' - another one of the griot's time-fixing references - "the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from his village to chop wood . . . and he was never seen again. . . .' And the griot went on with his narrative.
I sat as if I were carved of stone. My blood seemed to have congealed. This man whose lifetime had been in this back-country African village had no way in the world to know that he had just echoed what I heard all through my boyhood years on my grandma's front porch in Henning, Tennessee . . . of an African who always insisted that his name was 'Kin-tay', who had called a guitar a 'ko', and a river within the state of Virginia, 'Kamby Bolongo'; and who had been kidnapped into slavery while not far from his village, chopping wood, to make himself a drum."
This quote if from Alex Haley's quest to track down his ancestry, first through linguists, now in The Gambia itself. He has found his ancestral village Juffure and is hearing the story of Kunta's capture from a griot who knows the village's entire history. This quote connects the entire book, for this is a story that has been passed down orally through seven generations to reach Haley. Now, hearing it again from a traditional oral storyteller and historian, Haley's genealogical quest has come full circle. This quote demonstrates the power of oral traditions and shows how Kunta was right to insist that his descendants continue to tell the story of him and his family through the centuries. At last, a descendant has returned.
"I guess we had moved a third of the way through the village when it suddenly registered in my brain what they were all crying out . . . the wizened, robed elders and younger men, the mothers and the naked tar-black children, they were all waving up at me, their expressions buoyant, beaming, all were crying out together, 'Meester Kinte! Meester Kinte!'
Let me tell you something: I am a man. A sob hit me somewhere around my ankles; it came surging upward, and flinging my hands over my face, I was just bawling, as I hadn't since I was a baby. 'Meester Kinte!' I just felt like I was weeping for all of history's incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind's greatest flaw . . . .
In this quote Alex Haley feels like he is being welcomed home and acknowledge as an African by the people of Juffure, who are all calling him Mr. Kinte. This quote is emotional because it provides exactly what Haley has been searching for: his roots. More than that, it shows that he has been accepted by his people. When he cries, it is because he knows so few of his fellow descendants of slaves can or will make this journey, and no one who was enslaved could (except for the few free blacks sent to Liberia). Even more than hearing the griot confirm his family's oral traditions, this moment may be more meaningful for Haley as he is acknowledged as an heir to Kunta Kinte - and, in this moment, a symbolic replacement.
Roots Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Roots is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I am not a black American but I might consider that prejudice is still alive and often thrives in the United States. There are examples inequality and racism that happen everyday. Despite positive changes, I imagine that being black in the United...