The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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....
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Roots Characters. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Kunta Kinte (KEWN-tah KIHN-tay), “the African,” progenitor of the American line of Haley’s family. Kunta, a member of the highly respected Kinte clan of the Mandinka people of Gambia, is captured at the age of seventeen, transported to Annapolis, Maryland, and subsequently sold into slavery. A man of immense courage and spiritual fortitude (he remains a devout Muslim in Christianized America), he never relinquishes his dream of returning to his homeland. He instills in his daughter Kizzy a strong sense of self-worth and dignity, as well as the desire to be free. Kunta teaches his young daughter the Mandinka words of ko (a kora is a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) and Kamby Bolongo (the Gambia River), which eventually is transmitted orally down through seven generations.
Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta and Bell. She keeps her father’s dream alive, even after she is sold to the wretched Tom Lea. After being raped by Lea, she gives birth to their son, whom Lea names George after “the hardest-working nigger I ever saw.” Despite her baby’s sordid conception, light skin, and undignified naming, Kizzy resolves to see him only as the grandson of Kunta Kinte. She perpetuates the dreams and teachings of her father in the rearing of her son.
Chicken George, Kizzy’s...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
The central character in Roots is Kunta Kinte, the forebear of seven generations of the Haley family on the maternal side. Kinte is "the African," born in the village of Juffure in 1750, and kidnapped at age seventeen by slavers when he was cutting a tree for wood to make a drum. Given the name Toby by his white master, Kinte insists, however, on being called Kintay because that is his clan name and he wants to retain his identification. Losing his true name means severing connection with his lineage in Africa. Kinte attempts four times to escape and is captured each time. The last time, he is given the choice of maiming (freedom-mobility) or castration (fertility). He chooses maiming and gives up freedom when half his foot is cut off, but keeps the ability to propagate and continue his clan. At a somewhat old thirty-nine, Kinte marries Bell, a feisty woman who furtively reads newspapers. (In the early 1800s in most areas of the South it was against the law to teach blacks to read.) A daughter is born to Bell and Kinte, and in keeping with family tradition they give her an African "Christian" name, Kizzy Waller. Just as the Griots in the eighteenth-century in Africa chronicled orally the Kinte tribe history, so Kinte passes down orally to his daughter Africanisms that help her identify with her African background. This oral tradition was kept alive when Haley's grandmother and older aunts told Haley when he was a child the family legends of "the...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
Bell is the cook on Master Waller's plantation. Eventually, she becomes Kunta's wife. When she is in labor, she tells Kunta about the two baby girls who were sold away from her when she was younger. In response, he gives their daughter the name Kizzy (the name means "you stay put").
Bell is sometimes exasperated by her husband's African ways and by his refusal to accept Christianity but they have a deeply loving relationship based on mutual respect. Like Kunta, Bell is devastated by the sale of Kizzy.
Nyo is Kunta's grandmother, a woman who cares for the children of the village and fears no one. When he leaves on his first trip away from the village, she gives him a saphie charm to ward off evil spirits.
One of the most colorful characters in Roots, Fiddler is "half-free," as he explains to Kunta, because his former master was drowned and he must stay near another master for protection. He plays his fiddle at parties and learns much about current events. He is the one, for example, who tells the other slaves about the Boston Massacre.
Fiddler is garrulous, likes to drink, and is a staunch friend to Kunta. He saves $700 hoping to buy his freedom, but is devastated to learn that Master Waller wants twice that amount to free him. In his anger and pain, he smashes his fiddle, and his playing is never the same after that....
(The entire section is 1042 words.)