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  • Kunta Kintethe power of a name
  • Erica L. Ball (bio) and Kellie Carter Jackson (bio)

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Arrival in the Unknown. From the series Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad, Movement I: The Unknown World. Mixed media. 48 × 42in. © 2008 Joseph Holston.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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Not long after Kunte Kinte is born, his father, Omoro, holds him carefully outside the confines of their home. All alone, Omoro walks out with his infant son, guided by the light of the moon and the warm light of the campfire that illuminates his home behind him. After walking for what appears to be a long way, Omoro kneels down, and places Kunta on the ground. He then gently unwraps his blankets to reveal the naked infant. Carefully, yet purposefully, he holds his precious son up toward the moonlight and stars. As far as Omoro’s arms can stretch he declares, “Kunte Kinte, behold the only thing greater than yourself.” The vastness before him encompasses the stars, the universe, and the unknown. Years later, when Kunte Kinte is a man, married, and becomes a father to Kizzy, he performs the same ritual with his daughter. He holds her naked up to the night sky and declares her seemingly limitless capacity for greatness. He repeats this ritual also knowing that he was born into freedom while his daughter is born into slavery. Nevertheless, for this special moment between parent and child, all categories seem not to matter. The only one greater than the proud people of the Mandinka is not the village chief nor the master, but God himself.

Similarly, Roots’ greatness remains without peer. Forty years after the debut of the television miniseries that followed Alex Haley’s bestselling novel, few popular productions have captured the hearts and minds of Americans to such an extent. The stunning popularity of Roots and the statistics on Roots viewership remain astounding to contemporary media studies scholars and cultural historians. And for many, Roots will always be more than a book or a miniseries.

Indeed, the past forty years have not lessened the popular appeal of the book or the series. Since the 1990s, the Black Entertainment Network (BET) on cable television has been re-airing the original Roots annually, making the series a holiday tradition in many African American households, akin to the showing of The Ten Commandments every year around Easter. When the popular and critically acclaimed 2015 BET miniseries The Book of Negroes debuted, it could not separate [End Page 43]

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Subjugation. From the series Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad, Movement I: The Unknown World. Mixed media. 48 × 42in. © 2008 Joseph Holston.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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its success from the model that Roots created and revisits each year on the same network.

We can also thank Roots for providing the yardstick against which audiences measure films such as Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, WGN’s Underground, or even documentaries such as Katrina Brown’s Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. In 2016, Mark Wolper, son of film producer David Wolper, reimagined Roots for the History Channel. The remake of Roots found young and older generations watching the classic in a new and challenging moment fraught with the Black Lives Matter Movement, new demands from students of color on college campuses, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the national mall in Washington D.C., and a contentious U.S. presidential campaign. The recreation and telling of Kunta Kinte for twenty-first century audiences has proven to be a necessary outlet for discussing America’s past, present, and future.

The name Kunta Kinte has found a life and legacy even beyond Roots. According to the Rap Genius archive, the name Kunta Kinta has been mentioned over 277 times in the lyrics of hiphop music. From Missy Elliot’s “Work it” to Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” the name has come to represent a symbol of defiance, resistance, and exceptional black manhood. Even the Twitter world has taken to creating...


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