Kunta Kinte dominates the novel, within the narrative of his life story and within the context of the influence his story exerts over his descendants. Kunta is the only fully developed character in the novel. All others are on the periphery of the family narrative or are secondary characters, such as Chicken George, Kizzy, and Tom Murray. Characters such as Bell (Kunta’s wife) and the fiddler (his friend) are one-dimensional. Their sole purpose is to provide points of view that differ from Kunta’s.
For example, Bell represents the docility of the born slave. A strong, mature woman who loves her husband, she nevertheless is constantly disturbed by Kunta’s Africanisms. She takes umbrage when Kunta remarks that she looks like a Mandinka woman. “What fool stuff you talkin’ ’bout? . . . Don’ know how come white folks keep on emptyin’ out boatloads a you Africa niggers!” Like most slaves, Bell has severed any ties or reminders of her African heritage. Furthermore, she regards Kunta’s adherence to Mandinka practices as dangerous, always fearing what the massa’s reaction might be, and with good reason. Bell’s two daughters from a previous marriage were sold. Ever obedient, ever wary, Bell fears the breakup of her new family.
The fiddler represents the talented, enterprising, yet naïve slave who offers a decided contrast to Kunta, who hates and distrusts all toubob. The fiddler’s story reinforces Kunta’s negativity. Essentially cheated out of his right to buy himself, the fiddler dies a broken and embittered old man. The knowledge of white treachery crushes his exuberance, whereas Kunta continues to resist and live.
Because he is the predominant character in the novel, his tale underscores the theme of freedom and the search for dignity. It is through Kunta’s eyes that readers are drawn into the horrors of the slave ship, witness the strangeness of the New World, and encounter the dilemma facing a devout Muslim in a Christian slave culture. Particularly repugnant to Kunta is the American—black and white—penchant for eating pork, considered to be a filthy and profane practice for a Muslim.
By making Kunta the driver for Dr. Waller, Haley is able to expose popular misconceptions about historical personages. For example, on his travels to other plantations, Kunta learns Thomas Jefferson’s real views on the slavery issue: “I heared Massa Jefferson say slavery jes’ bad for white folks as for us’ns, an’ he ’gree wid Massa Hamilton it’s jes’ too much nachel diff’rence. . . . Dey say Massa Jefferson want to see us sot free, but not stickin’ roun’ dis country takin’ po’ white folks’ jobs—he favor shippin’ us back to Africa, gradual, widout big fuss an’ mess.”
The abrupt intrusion of Haley as the first-person narrator at the end of the novel serves a dual purpose. First, it allows Haley to outline explicitly the overarching agenda that permeates Roots. Second, the almost journalistic style employed validates the novel’s historical authenticity and importance.