Kunta in America, Chapters 34-49
Kunta’s narrative resumes after a lag of several days where he is a captive on a slave ship, the Lord Ligioner (though he does not know the name of the ship), chained below deck with 140 other slaves. Many are Mandinka, but a variety of tribes are represented. There are two levels to the hold, each with about 70 slaves who are lying on their backs chained together. The hatch is dark and stinks with their refuse. Kunta is trapped inside a living nightmare.
As Kunta gets his bearings he recalls being entrapped. He woke from a blow to the head tied to a tree with eleven other captured men, women, and children. They are branded with “LL” and are chained into a canoe and rowed in the darkness. They are whipped by the white slave trader if they try to break free. Kunta sees the huge ship and tries to escape again but is lashed and beaten.
Kunta is on the ship for more than two months. The slaves are let out every few days for fresh air and to clean themselves. Besides that, they fester down below. The captive women are raped by the sailors constantly. Many of the captured men die of infections, which spread rapidly in the filthy hold. In addition to sickness, which Kunta experiences, they also rub their backs raw from sliding on the wood slabs that they lie on, often so hard that their bones and muscles show through. Kunta is deeply upset to know he will never see his family again.
The slaves learn to communicate though the few people who know more than one language, and messages travel up and down their chained lines below deck all day. Through this communication, Kunta learns that the death drum has been played for him in Juffure. The slaves discover that on each level there is a black slatee. On Kunta’s level, they kill him. The one from the level below jumps overboard. The slaves try to revolt above deck by lulling the sailors into a false sense of security, but the revolt fails.
Finally they arrive in America. After a week of waiting in a barred room, they are sold. Kunta is sold for $850. He is put in the back of his new owner’s “rolling box” and they spend two days travelling, sleeping the night at a house on the way. When Kunta’s new owner’s black slave pulls Kunta from the wagon, Kunta strangles him until he is unconscious and breaks free.
Kunta spends the night in the woods but is caught soon after daybreak and whipped. He is brought back and the black man he met earlier tells him his own name is Samson and Kunta’s new name is Toby. He is taken to the cornfield with other slaves and begins to pick. He spends the harvest season on this plantation, working hard and trying to remain inconspicuous so that he will get the hobbles on his ankles removed, allowing him to try to escape again. He views the other slaves as traitors to their heritage and heathens, but he recognizes signs of African cultural heritage in them as well. Kunta tries to escape again when his hobbles are removed but his ankles are so weak that Samson quickly stops him.
When winter comes, Kunta tries to escape one snowy day. But his feet leave marks in the snow and he is soon caught after being shot in the leg twice. He is beaten badly and re-shackled. Kunta is desperately lonely. He talks to himself and to his mother. He learns to pick cotton when the season for that crop comes. He forms a new plan for escape: in the night, he will jump on the back of one of the many wagons that pass the plantation, laden with tobacco.
He succeeds and rides several hours in the back of one under cover of darkness. He jumps out unseen before daybreak. He spends two days on the run in a forest. He hears hounds and they finally find him, along with two white men. They make him choose between having his penis or foot cut off. They tie his foot to a tree trunk and cut off the front half of his right foot.
This section of the book contains several nightmarish sections, all vividly rendered. One is the slave ship voyage, one is the ride through the plantations on the way to Kunta’s master’s home, and one is the scene of Kunta having his foot cut off.
The slave ship appears to be a corporeal representation of hell. By ceaselessly rendering the horrors of the ship, Haley does not allow a mental break for the reader, which makes them sympathetic to Kunta’s perspective. He uses vivid descriptions of the darkness, the fetid overpowering stench of the hold, and the small sparks of hope and brotherhood forged by the slaves as they try to communicate with each other.
Any moments of hope or rebellion are tempered by violent control and upsettingly true stories like slaves jumping overboard and bones poking through skin that has been rubbed raw. Especially in the description of the below-deck area as steaming hot and disgusting smelling, Haley makes the ship seem hellish.
The two-day ride through the plantations that Kunta takes with his master and Samson are similarly nightmarish. It is a long hot march past plantation after plantation as far as the eye can see, each filled with rows of chained and captive slaves looking vacant and overcome. Haley shows how trapped Kunta feels by representing his world as one in which there is nowhere to escape for blacks, surrounded by plantations on all sides.
This entrapment becomes a Sisyphean struggle for freedom. Kunta tries to escape no less than four times and each time is caught and brought to painful justice by white people. Kunta’s spirit is indomitable despite his loneliness and to see his hopes for freedom crushed again and again makes his eventual acceptance of slavery all the more cruel. The final nightmarish sequence of this section of the book – when Kunta’s foot is cut off – renders future escape so obviously impossible that it is a fitting end to Kunta’s brief era as a slave striving with all his being to be free.