Africa To America (Pt. 1 of 5): More Than Just A Slave Journey

Originally posted on Feb. 1, 2019 on Zoot580.Blogspot.com

One of the most harrowing scenes in television/movie history was the abduction of a young slave girl from her family.  It takes place in the 1977 multi award-winning television mini-series “Roots”.  If you’ve never seen the original version, let me bring you up to speed… (Warning: Spoiler alert)

Kunta Kinte (younger version portrayed by LeVar Burton) is the series’ central character.  Born in the Mandinka village of Juffure, in the (Republic of) Gambia, Kunta was kidnapped from his home, taken to America and sold into slavery (circa 1750).  After his first failed escape attempt, he was brutally whipped in front of the entire plantation as a deterrent to anyone entertaining similar ideas.  During the beating, he was ordered to acknowledge his new (slave) name “Tobe” which to this point, he had refused to accept.  With each lash of the whip he was ordered again, to which he answered defiantly, “KUNTA KINTE!”  After several agonizing moments, to stop the pain (and highly likely prevent his eventual death from injury), he finally relented.

Although a slave in a foreign land, his heart always remained in his homeland of Africa.  His strength and courage, he drew from his family, his childhood teachings and the knowledge and experience of what it once had been to be free.  And his name?  His name, “Kunta Kinte”, was his identity.

Years later, Tobe (now played by John Amos) married his caretaker, Bell Reynolds (Madge Sinclair).  Belle had nursed him back to health after the amputation of part of his foot as crippling punishment for another escape attempt.  Together, they had one daughter whom he named “Kizzy” (played by Leslie Uggams), which means “to stay put” in his native tongue.

Much to Tobe’s dissatisfaction, Kizzy cherished a childhood friendship with the master’s daughter, Missy Ann (Sandy Duncan).  Kunta constantly warned that Toubab (West/Central African term for “white” people), could not be trusted, but Kizzy innocently believed differently.  During their youth, Missy Ann had secretly taught her to read and write, which was forbidden among slaves.  Years later, upon being discovered as literate, Kizzy was taken and sold by master William Reynolds (Robert Reed) for forging a traveling document in an attempt to help her then boyfriend Noah (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) escape. 

After her sale and departure, Kizzy was viciously raped and impregnated by her drunken new master, Tom Moore (Chuck Connors), mere moments after arriving at his plantation.

Before I dig too deep, I went so far as to name all of the real actors to share a “side” point:  

The inclusion of so many well-loved “A-List” performers (mainly the Caucasian celebrities) was a bit much for the television audience to digest.  Seeing Reed (Mike Brady from “The Brady Bunch”), Connors (from “The Rifleman”), Sandy Duncan, Lloyd Bridges, Lorne Greene and even Burl Ives (famous narrator and singer of “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”) was more than most viewers could digest and changed public opinions of them for many years.  Just goes to show you how influential a role, scene or movie can be.  If you don’t believe me, ask Danny Glover after his portrayal of “Mistah” in “The Color Purple” or John Torturro as “Pino” in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”.

But I digress.  Back to my message…

When Kizzy was taken, my family watched in shock, sadness and disgust (that scene was talked about in elementary school for WEEKS).  But strangely, that particular moment didn’t affect me like it did most others.  True, I was hurt by what I saw, but I got something else equally painful out of that sequence.  The taking of Kizzy was a segue into a power point of emphasis (that I personally think a lot of people missed).  It occurred immediately AFTER she had been carted away.  Let’s go back to that scene: 

By the way, I’m tired of saying Tobe.  I never liked it anyway.  We’re going straight “Kunta” from here on out.

Bound and secured to the back of the wagon, Kizzy desperately shouted, “Missy Ann!”, hoping her supposed friend would save her.  Her pleas fell on deaf ears as Missy Ann watched apathetically from her window.  Kunta attempted to reach for Kizzy, but was threatened at gunpoint by her captor and backed away.  He then quickly grabbed his panic-stricken wife as she tried to run to their daughter.  Kunta held her on the ground as they helplessly watched Kizzy cry and scream for them, until she faded from sight. 

Just TYPING this got to me a bit.  I had to pause and walk downstairs for some water before getting into what I have to say next.

(Tobe/Kunta tries to console Belle after Kizzy is taken)

Emotionally shattered, Belle eventually pulled herself from the comforting arms of Kunta.  She rose to her feet and watched perplexingly as he remained in stooped position, collecting the dirt below into his right hand.

She painfully asked, “What’choo doin’?”

“Mandinka people,” he explained, “Believe that if you save the dust from someone’s footprints…

…someday they come back.”

Heartbroken and suddenly infuriated, she retorted, “Like namin’ her “KIZZY” was supposed to make her stay PUT!                  …Well either you LIED to me, old man…                              …or YOU been lied to!             That child is GONE from us…                    …and she ain’t never comin’ back!  You hear me???  NEVER!!”

The next moment is what broke me down and still does every time I see it…

Belle walked away as he struggled in the moment, pondering the situation.

Kunta slowly allowed his fingers to separate and sadly watched the dust pour between them, fading into the wind.  He looked around and finally turned his gaze to the skies in total perplexity.  If I had to put words in the expression on his face, I would believe his thoughts to have been, “Merciful Allah, why have you taken everything from me, your servant? Why have you turned your back on my loyalty and my love? Forsaken me, when I need you now, more than ever?”

Kunta Kinta, Mandinka Warrior, proud son of Omoro and Binta Kinte, child of Africa, for the first time in his spirited life…           …sat alone…        …defeated…         …finally, devastatingly and irrevocably broken.

(Kunta Kinte’s final, sorrowful scene of the series)

You can watch the entire scene here.

I don’t know if you ever paid close attention to that specific scene, but the symbolism behind it was incredible: Years of pride and belief in tradition, falling and dissipating in the air in front of him.  THAT contributed to the most powerful and heart-wrenching scenes I have ever watched or read.

You see, being taken from his birth home and surviving his journey from Africa to America was only the beginning for Kunta Kinte and millions of others.  More than just a the Middle Passage journey into bondage and servitude.  Slavery was the abduction and destruction of a human being; the human mind, the human body and the human soul…

But Kinta’s spirit – although broken, it did not die.  Nor did his legacy…

Epilogue: In the subsequent episode, Kizzy eventually found the means to visit her former plantation, many years later.  There, she met an elderly slave who told her of her parents’ fate.  Belle had eventually been taken from Kunta and sold off, which for him was the absolute final straw.  With his soul irreparably shattered, bereft of hope, Kunta Kinte sadly died of a dead spirit and a broken heart.

She also learned that in his final moments he repeatedly uttered the words, “Kamby Bolongo” (meaning “river”), the first African words he ever taught her.

Kizzy walked over to his grave and tearfully spoke final words of love to her father and gave news of her son, “Chicken George” (Ben Vereen).  She added that she had taught George what that she had learned from her father, instructing her son to remember, treasure and pass down for generations to come.  With resolve, now fueled by her own words, she picked up a rock and scratched through the word “Tobe”, inscribed on his tombstone.  Beneath it, she carved the name “KUNTA KINTE”.

Thank you for reading and welcome.  Welcome to Black History Month.  So obviously, I ain’t done.  Not by a long shot. 

To be continued…

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