Good in The Myth of ‘Kunta Kinte’?

Posted: February 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

As a person that has studied history (particular Blackamerican History) extensively, I continue to be amazed at how far mythical stories have traveled, have been crystalized as fact, and have gone on to become part of culture. When people find out the truth, they are hurt. This is why I am so doggedly opposed to propagating myths and fairy tales such as Alex Haley’s Roots. There is enough truth to go around. Not only is the work fiction (originally pushed as fact) but much of the material in the book is – shall we say – borrowed from a book by Harold Courlander entitled The African. Not only are people hurt, but racists use this as ammunition to try to discredit all Blackamerican History more below the fold

The myth of Kunta Kinte has grown as people celebrate ‘Kunta Kinte Day’ and a memorial was built in his honor in Annapolis. It is a money making bonanza. However, Jack White in this article says that it does not matter that Roots

Like every black person I know, I got caught up in the Roots frenzy. So I was shaken when one of my professors of African history told me that Haley’s soul-stirring account of tracing his ancestor Kunta Kinte back to his Gambian home village of Juffure was a fairy tale.

This is exactly what I am talking about, but he later tries to gloss over it.

Over the years, the strict factuality of Roots has been challenged persuasively in all sorts of ways, and I am not trying to reopen that controversy. Most people I’ve talked to seem to agree with Gates, who thinks the book should be regarded as a brilliant “work of the imagination.” Even Haley conceded that Roots was a blend of fiction and fact that he labeled a “faction.”

It doesn’t matter to me at all whether Haley was actually able to trace his roots back to Africa. His real achievement is that he made us proud and curious about our origins in Africa and in slavery, of which many us had been ashamed. It’s because of him that so many us began investigating our family trees, using the traditional tools of genealogical research, and more recently the astonishing power of DNA to learn where our forebears hailed from.

What about all of the great figures that came before Alex Haley (who was a very minor figure)? Haley alone tried to instill a sense of pride in a people that HATED themselves? Frauds ultimately do much more damage than good in the long run.

  1. gassus says:

    Excellent article. You touched on so many points here. The history of slavery is well documented. The Roots story was not needed at all. I guess it is easier to watch movies instead of doing real research. Sadly, the relationships between Africans ( diaspora included)themselves has not improved from the tribalism that led them into slavery.

  2. Kwame Madden says:

    I to was hurt when I found out about the distortions in Roots.I remember those epsiodes of this story about our people be brought over as slaves like it was yesterday.I I was then about 9 or 10 yrs old.The first episode was amazing especially when Kunta Kinte raised his son up over his head and prononce Allah-u-Akbar.Also the slaves resisting on the ship to be brought here to the so called newworld.Kunta kinte in espiodes always resisting this barbaric instition until his foot was cut off.Lavar burton was wonderful his acting superb.I We all can truthfully say that this film left a lasting impact on Black America.It would be many years later that I would find out the truth.I would later hear about the broken promises that Alex haley would make to Gambian people.We also even heard about the 3 chapters left out of the autobiography of MalcolmX.
    Which highlight Malcolm political program and also his organzations
    to tackle many of the problems faciong Black America.Prof.Manning
    Marable is planning to bring forth some of this information.I guess Alex could not pull the wool over everybodys eyes.With all that said
    this film defintenly woke alot of people up.Many parents gave their children African and Arabic names.When I was kid going to school me and my late twin brother were the only ones with African names.Kwame was a uncommon name back then now many brothers have this name.I am proud never to have had a slave name.
    As one person once said slaves are named by there masters free men name themselves.Thankyou, for this wonderful post.

  3. salafiburnout says:

    “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic”

    – John F Kennedy

  4. Marc says:

    I got a serious question here for you people. I’m a white guy in my mid 20’s from Philadelphia. Over the last 18 months or so I’ve taken a keen interest in Islam, and would like to learn more about it. So, I want to visit a mosque in Philadelphia, but I’m apprehensive to go, because the vast majority of Muslims here are non white, most being black. I don’t consider myself a racist, but I prefer not to be around blacks, and other non whites. Does anyone have some advice for me? Everything I’ve written here is true, I would appreciate some genuine advice

  5. muslimahlocs says:

    roots represents our collective story despite the ambiguity @ whether it is indeed the true story of alex haley’s family. yes, it would have been better for him to portray it as “faction” but the fact that he did not does not negate its value for the descendants of enslaved africans. having travelled in the gambia and spoken with elders in rural villages, i believe that it also served the useful function of educating gambians as well as their descendants here in america @ slavery and why/how it remains relavant on both sides of the atlantic.
    and the idea of agreeing with skip gates on anything just does not sit well with me at all.

  6. rahma says:

    Hmm, I read Roots for my 10th grade advanced english class in overwhelmingly white, christian central wisconsin. This later lead me to read Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, which in turn lead me to explore Islam during my spiritual search. Looking back, I’d say that Roots was my first positive experience with muslims, and that it was key in my path to Islam. So, anecdotally at least, there’s good in this myth in that it helped me to find Islam.


    Marc, get over it. Seriously, that’s my genuine advice. If you get Islam, you get the whole muslim ummah (community), which includes blacks, whites, and every other race and ethnic group on the face of the planet. I’m a euro-american who attends a mosque that is predominantly blackamerican and african immigrants, and I’ve never felt more at home anywhere, including the all white lutheran church in which I was raised.

  7. […] Les africains, quand on en parle entre nous, on se demande surtout qu’elle est la finalité d’une telle démarche ? Supposons que je sois Spike Lee et que j’apprends que je suis RD Congolais d’origine. Que faire ? Je demande la double nationalité ? Certainement pas (surtout que c’est légalement assez difficile), Il ne me reste plus qu’à servir de porte ouverte à une récupération financière par mes ancêtres du fait de mon statut de star. Si je suis, au contraire, un gars moins ou pas connu du tout,  le bled se foutra de moi comme il se fout de sa diaspora car c’est bien connu: la diaspora ne partage pas les malheurs du bled juste ses bonheurs. Plus sérieusement, les noirs américains (et les antillais) ont une dent contre les africains à qui ils reprochent le fait de les avoir vendu aux galériens. Et quand on voit le peut d’entrain que ceux-ci ont mis a retrouver ou du moins garder la mémoire de leurs frères disparus, on ne peut pas trop leur en vouloir. Il a fallu la vraie/fausse biographie de Alex Haley pour redorer le blason du bled.  Alors quand Barack O a réussi ce qu’aucun fils d’esclave n’avait même rêvé de réaliser, il n’en fallait pas plus pour les motiver à s’éloigner de l’image du descendant d’esclave pour se rapprocher de celle de fils de l’Afrique. […]

  8. Anonymous says:

    While Haley may have fabricated his own family lineage, he did not fabricate the lineage of the family he claims owned Kunta Kinte. I am a descendant of this family, the Wallers. I do not think our family has been hurt in any way by this negative association- we did own slaves (a thing I am not proud of!), but many families who’ve been in the United States since before the Civil War owned slaves. I’ve researched this story backwards/forwards and have been unable to turn up any concrete proof that Haley’s family is linked to the Wallers. I cannot confirm nor deny that my ancestors owned Kunta Kinte (your guess is as good as mine), but I can confirm that John & William Waller were real people. Whatever the case may be, Haley’s tale is still important and should be considered an amazing allegorical work of fiction!

  9. Baby says:

    I just wanted you to know, although I have never did any research think that I also may be related to the wallers, because my mothers fathers last name was waller, and they are from Alabama. I think it would be interesting to be related, just like anomynous it would be great to be a part of history, but I to without a doubt think that slavery was a terrible and heartbreaking time in America, and the people that made themselves a part of it should have been ashamed and hanged

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