Themes and Meanings
The oral tradition remains an important part of African American culture; thus the retelling of Haley’s family history becomes the central theme of Roots. Great emphasis is placed on each generation’s handing down of the tale of “the African.” Throughout each retelling, the key words “ko,” “Kin-tay,” and “Kamby Bolongo” are transmitted to a new generation. These words will become the keys with which Haley will unlock and recover his family’s heritage.
Other African-based traditions are expanded upon throughout the novel as well, especially the naming ritual. The Mandinka people believe that a child develops seven traits of the person for whom he or she is named. Kunta was named for his grandfather, a holy man known for his courage and honor. Thus Kunta’s name reflects the characteristics he will evince as a slave: courage, piety, and dignity.
Kunta carries out the Mandinka custom when naming his own child, in an effort to thwart the toubob. By naming the child “Kizzy,” Kunta believes that he has metaphysically ensured that the child will never be sold. In addition, the naming ritual endows the child with a sense of self and dignity. She will always know who she is. Ironically, Kizzy’s sense of self, instilled in her by her father, leads her to aid another slave to escape. She is not permitted to “stay put”; instead, she is sold away.
Another theme present in Roots is the never-ending quest for freedom. The first four generations refuse to allow the dream of freedom to die. In the story of Chicken George, who successfully bargains with his white father for his freedom, this theme is actualized. Chicken George’s gamecocks provide an analogy for the plight of the slaves. Originally from the jungle, the gamecockerel is not like domesticated birds, which are only fit for consumption. Moreover, the gamecock is as fierce and cunning as the ancient jungle cockerels. Like the gamecocks he trains and identifies with, Chicken George has lost none of the qualities passed down from his African ancestors. Also like the gamecock, he shares none of the docility of his domesticated counterparts, the plantation slaves, and like the gamecock, he is owned by the massa.
Another analogy employed in the novel is that of the Rosetta Stone to the oral history that provided the impetus to Haley’s quest. The French scholar Jean François Champollion deciphered the unknown script of the Rosetta Stone by matching it with the known Greek text chiseled in it. Haley’s fascination with the Rosetta Stone and its history induced him to postulate that by discovering the origin of the phonetic snatches orally transmitted by his family, he, like Champollion, could crack the linguistic code and recover his early familial history.
Subsequently, the themes of the perpetuation of oral history, the quest for freedom, and Haley’s search for his family’s origins become inextricably intertwined. Through the use of multinarrative structure, symbolism, and analogy, the novel’s themes address the shared heritage of all African Americans.