Kunta Kinte struggles with this dilemma when he arrives in America as a slave. He has complete contempt for his fellow slaves who were born in America. To him they are quintessential "niggers" and have given up all hope and resigned themselves to generations of slavery instead of trying to escape like he does repeatedly. Yet he gradually realizes that to have some semblance of a decent life as a slave, he will need to stop clinging to the Mandinka language, all of his customs, and his stubborn will to be free. Eventually he relinquishes some of his stubbornness (though none of his pride), and learns to speak English (rendered in print as Ebonics), marries an American-born slave (Bell), and has a daughter (Kizzy).
While Bell eschews Kunta's African heritage because she smartly knows that its expression will bring him trouble, Kunta is able to secretly transmit some of his heritage through Kizzy by teaching her Mandinka words like ko and Kamby Bolongo, as well as telling her how he was captured and what his terrible journey was like. Through the generations, this story is passed on. Though Kunta assimilates into American slave culture and subsequent generations know little of their ancestral homeland, through Kunta's insistence and the example he set for Kizzy, the most important parts of his story are passed down. Eventually, assimilation and heritage are able to co-exist better than when Kunta first arrived.
Kunta takes pride in his "pure" blackness and is always disgusted to see examples of mix-raced slaves, often the product of forceful relationships between male masters and female slaves. William Waller's plantation is "black" only - no slaves of mixed race, which he prides himself on morally. Yet after Kunta and Bell's generation, their family will be full of mixed-race members, as soon as Kizzy's son, George, is born of her master Tom Lea.
Throughout the novel, there are constant descriptions of the skin tones of various slaves: high "yaller" (yellow), who often can pass for white; mixed-race with Native Americans; and many slaves who have far more European ancestry than African. Skin tone and racial heritage permeate many character interactions, from Tom Murray not letting one of his daughters marry a high yaller boy since he knows how much it will complicate her life, to Kizzy despairing at her brown mix-raced child since she knows how much her father would disapprove this example of racial intermingling.
Many slaves are not as black as their African ancestors, and this reality permeates Roots. At the end of the novel Alex Haley is deeply moved to be in The Gambia as see "tar-black" faces all around him. In America's deeply difficult world of mix-raced slaves and their descendants, it is a reality he has never known.
Putting down roots in a new home - often having to transplant them, and then missing one's old home - frequently occurs to characters in the novel. It is a fitting title for the book, since much like plants, Kunta and his descendants (up until the abolition of slavery) have no say over where they will live and when they will have to move due to being sold and bought. Characters as well as the reader may become comfortable in a certain character's life, thinking nothing will change. Yet as Kizzy's unexpected and sudden selling and the Leas selling the family move away after they go bankrupt show, the family and the reader are often torn away from their homes right as they feel most secure.
For Alex Haley, roots take on a backward-looking meaning, since he is never torn away from his home. Instead of having his roots torn up, he tries to look back and reconstruct where his family's original roots began, in Africa. Nature imagery is frequently used in the novel to describe Kunta's yearning for his homeland. For Haley, finding out where Kunta came from, and literally going back himself, helps him to heal the wounds of passed, of having his family's roots ripped up.
Oral traditions play a large role in Roots. People called griots are a central figure in Mandinka culture. They are historians whose memories go back centuries, and they know the entire oral history and traditions of their people. Stories are also a large part of Kunta's life as a child in Juffure. Though some people, mainly men, can write well in Arabic, it is through oral traditions that the Mandinka preserve most of their heritage.
In America, Kunta's story is passed down through the generations by means of oral traditions. Additionally all the family members, marriages, masters, and other life circumstances of Kunta's descendants also are passed down through oral traditions. Barely any people in the story are able to read or write, so similar to the Mandinka, oral traditions are the best way to pass on their culture. It is through these oral narratives that Haley is able to reconstruct his family background and figure out where Kunta came from in Africa. As one person tells Alex Haley at the end of the novel, people do not realize what the human memory is capable of because of writing. The griots can recite history for days since they do not rely on writing to pass it on.
Time plays two roles in Roots. The first is the Mandinka concept of time. There are three groups of people in a village: those who are dead, those who live there now, and those yet to be born. Life cannot exist without death. This central concept is an immense comfort to Kunta both as a boy when his Grandmother Yaisa died and when he sold into slavery. This concept of three groups helps Kunta stay connected to his heritage and eventually anticipate a future and legacy in America, no matter how bad his circumstances as a slave.
The temporal structure of the novel also serves a literary purpose. Sometimes events are described in great detail. A year in a character’s life might take up several chapters. Other times, a decade goes by in a few sentences. This shifting temporal structure allows Haley to highlight the most salient aspects of his family’s history. It also keeps the narrative from stagnating.
Freedom is a central preoccupation of the lives of both black and white characters in Roots. It is the main focus of Kunta's voyage across the Atlantic in chains and his four escape attempts soon after reaching Virginia, the last of which results in his right foot being partially cut off to hamper any further escape attempts. In time he accepts his new life and curbs his rabid desire for freedom, which was wildly and understandably out of control in his first few months in America. Though he feels a part of him is dying in his acceptance of his fate as a slave, he knows it is the only way he can carve a new life for himself.
For Kunta's family and descendants it is something they constantly dream of, even in private, and they confess their yearnings at times, like Bell to Kunta and Alfonso to his family. But to speak this wish too loudly would make their masters very angry. Especially when the topic of abolition and the Civil War comes up, the slaves have to pretend to be firmly on the side of the South and to desire to remain slaves. Even when several generations have a good relationship with Master Murray, Tom is incredulous that they actually think his family would be happy to remain slaves for their entire lives. Throughout the novel, white slaveowners have no conception of the deep unhappiness slaves feel with their situation, no matter how comparatively well they are treated.
Slavery means something very different for whites in America, which is highlighted by the chapters describing the Revolutionary War from Kunta's point of view. His master, William Waller (as well as the newspapers), will talk about how they cannot be free when Britain rules over them. Kunta and the other slaves find this ridiculous, since their lack of freedom is nothing compared to that of slaves - and their desire for freedom does not extend to the humans they hold as slaves. They are unable to see the two conditions as comparable, which is especially surprising given that being enslaved is so much worse than being a colony of Britain.
Manhood plays a large part in the lives of male characters in Roots, most of all in Kunta Kinte’s. His childhood in The Gambia is taken up either manhood rituals or the steps taken to get there. He moves up through kafos, earning new status at each level: getting to wear clothing, herd goats, and attend school in the second kafo; having manhood training, circumcision, and his own hut in the third kafo; and if he had stayed in The Gambia, his responsibilities and roles would have changed throughout his life, culminating in his role as an elder making decisions for the community.
His trials in America represent a different kind of manhood challenge. On the boat it is a fight to stay alive; his initial flights for freedom represent him trying to be the kind of man he was trained to be back home; him choosing to have his foot rather than his penis cut off represents his recognition that above all, he needs a child to consider himself a man; and his final acceptance of his life as a slave while retaining a great deal of dignity represents a compromise about manhood that America forced him to accept if he wanted to live.
Roots Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Roots is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.