Roots by Alex Haley – Week 2

This week’s discussion covers Chapters 21-40. I felt a measure of excitement and nervous anticipation about this phase in Kunta’s life and eagerly looked forward to accompanying him during a pivotal part of his adolescence.

“Not a day passed that Kunta and his mates didn’t feel both anxiety and joy at the approach of the next harvest festival, which would end with the taking away of the third kafo—those boys between ten and fifteen rains in age —to a place far away from Juffure, to which they would return, after four moons, as men.”

While Kunta is away at training, he learns lessons in taking orders, unity, survival, hunting. Kunta also muses on how small he is in relation to creation, his country, his Creator, Allah. Kunta also learns how the relationship between young men and their fathers are changing as well. When Kunta and his fellow kafo mates see their fathers for the first time after many moons of manhood training, a shift in this awareness becomes clear to all the young men.

But by the end of this week’s reading–I am having a hard time putting those feelings and emotions in words. So let’s jump into a few points for discussion.

Roots + Rooibos Chai

“Only one boy rushed forward, calling out his father’s name, and without a word that father reached for the stick of the nearest kintango’s assistant and beat his son with it, shouting at him harshly for betraying his emotions, for showing that he was still a boy.

Question: Do you feel this is still an attitude of many men today? Suppressing or controlling emotions viewed as a sign of manhood and maturity. Do you think this might have anything to do with the constant threat of impending danger from the capture by the toubob?

“Kunta’s emotions were in a turmoil; the blows he didn’t mind at all, knowing them to be merely another of the rigors of manhood training, but it pained him not to be able to hug his father or even hear his voice, and it shamed him to know that it wasn’t manly even to wish for such indulgences.

When Kunta comes home the shift in his relationships with those he loves is very evident. His relationship with his mother, brothers and Nyo Boto are all different now. Kunta even moves into his own private quarters. Even the way he greets his father, in a handshake. The unspoken rules of growing up seem to be universal across the ages and cultures.

“Brimming over with joy and pride, Binta felt no need to speak. Kunta did. He wanted to tell her how much he had missed her and how it gladdened him to be home. But he couldn’t find the words. And he knew it wasn’t the sort of thing a man should say to a woman—even to his mother.

Question: How does Kunta awareness of the change in his relationships with those he loves affect him? How do these subtle changes affect him? How are we affected when it happens in our own relationships?

The transition of treating a young person differently than a child is hard road to navigate. Making the transition as a young person yes, even still more. As Kunta observes the Council sessions held by the elders to deal with issues and disputes among the people of the village. The hearing dealing with young Jankeh Jallon makes an indelible impression.

Question: How does the treatment of this young woman with her pale, tan baby effect the whole village? Can all rejoice in her escape from the toubob but treat her as a social outcast because of events beyond her control? What should she do? What do you imagine happens to her and her child? And women like her?

“Kunta was still thinking: about the tan baby with the strange hair, about his no doubt even stranger father, and about whether this toubob would have eaten Jankeh Jallon if she had not escaped from him.”

Right before the last 8 chapters of this week’s reading, I had taken on the introspective attidude of Kunta. I lost my vigilance of what I knew was going to happen; the frenzy and unexpected kidnapping and capture of Kunta. It all happened so quickly and at that moment, everything Omoro told Kunta came rushing back to my mind.

“It took longer, however, for him to learn how to remain vigilant through these long nights. When his thoughts began to turn inward, as they always did, he often forgot where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. But finally he learned to keep alert with half of his mind and yet still explore his private thoughts with the other.

“In a blur, rushing at him, he saw a white face, a club upraised, heard heavy footfalls behind him. Toubob!

“He was fighting for more than his life now. Omoro! Binta! Lamin! Suwadu! Madi! The toubob’s heavy club crashed against his temple. And all went black.

There are no words to describe how horrendous and emotional I was while reading these last few chapters this week. As hard as I tried the reality of this happening compounded over and over again by countless numbers of people and families. Forever changed and devastated by such atrocities against a human being.

Question: Discuss your thoughts and feelings about this portion of the book. Such grotesque brutality, violence and dehumanizing treatment. A number of things happen along with a shift in Kunta’s resolve. Let’s pick one or some and discuss.

“The anguished cries, weeping, and prayers continued, subsiding only as one after another exhausted man went limp and lay gasping for breath in the stinking blackness. Kunta knew that he would never see Africa again.


“Was there any reason to keep hanging onto life here in this stinking darkness?

11 thoughts on “Roots by Alex Haley – Week 2

  1. Grab the Lapels says:

    I believe last week that I discussed rites of passage (or if I didn’t mention it on your blog, Shell, I was thinking about it). There are clear indicators of Kunta growing up; even the way kafos have numbers to suggest ranks. However, in the United States, we lack regularly-occurring rites of passage. Yes, we have 16, 18, 21, marriage, children. However, people may never get married, or they may never have children, or those events may occur long after a person’s 21st birthday. As a result, I get the feeling the desire to grow up is hard because what makes it different from being a child? I know several people who are in their late 20s, live with their parents, work what are essentially summer jobs, and don’t know how to move forward and say, “Now I am an adult.” I believe it is this feeling that led to the concept of “adulting.” Young people are told to move on with their lives, not seeing markers of progress yet seeing an increase in responsibility. Thus, while Kunta was challenged by his new feelings toward his family, I can see why they are important. His mom can’t be his mommy forever, and once he shows her he is a man by bringing home gold, she treats him differently. While I 100% agree that holding in our feelings is toxic, especially among men, I’m also concerned about oversharing. Kunta was given the opportunity to live in his hut, think about how things had changed, observe, and then learn. The way his village has rhythm to the life actually affected me. Sometimes I get anxious when I have free time, so I started washing the dishes by hand each day, putting them in the dishwasher to dry. In Kunta’s village there is always something to do, and trying to mimic that feeling has actually brought me a small sense of accomplishment. After going through manhood training and negotiating his relationship with his mother, it’s especially degrading that the toubob do not recognize Kunta the first time he is scrubbed on deck with the other slaves. In his tribe, his name is called out on a drum. His grandfather, a great man, is his namesake. To strip Kunta of his identity feels like the biggest offense of all. That is, until his bones are showing through his skin and he can’t lift his own hand. They lower his so far down that it feels like his identity comes second to his bodily pain.

    I think I felt the same way about Kunta’s kidnapping that you did. I knew it was going to happen–there’s that famous “your name is Toby” line from the PBS series that everyone knows, so I couldn’t pretend like he wasn’t going to be kidnapped. Also, my book posits that this is a work that represents the stories Alex Haley was told about his family, making it, to some degree, factual. Therefore, I kept waiting at every turn for him to be kidnapped. I kid you not, Shell. For 33 chapters I have been in a tizzy worrying about Kunta, thinking the toubob were in every bush.

    I wasn’t sure what think of the brown baby at the trial. It seemed horrid to turn away the mother, but now I can’t remember if they wanted to turn her away, her baby, or both. However, after the last several chapters spent on the “big canoe,” I can see why they would reject her. No one could tell who was a slatee; it could have been her. And what if her baby grew up to sympathize with the toubob? In a sense, rejecting someone who has been changed by the outside is an effort to protect the entire village, and I didn’t think of that until Kunta was in the holding cell with brown men speaking English.

    My thoughts and feelings in the last chapters are visceral disgust. I have to take breaks to avoid stomach aches. I noticed that Alex Haley continues to write matter-of-factly, which means his journalist roots are showing, but I also think that makes the writing more impactful. When something is written with too much pathos, it’s easy to not take it seriously or chalk it up to hyperbole. But just statements are hard to turn away from. It really stuck with me that Kunta has been trying not to poop for several days, and then Haley writes, “But he could hold it in no longer, and finally the feces curled out between his buttocks.” Even the word choices–feces, buttocks–are really straightforward, and that’s what scared me. To soil yourself because someone has withheld the right to honor your body’s functions is degrading.

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    • booksbythecup says:

      I think those rites of passage are important and in Kunta’s culture and in this time period it’s expected, everyone prepares for it and when the time comes they adjust to the transition.

      I guess I think about my own upbringing and how there was training for certain things I learned from my grandmother especially and it saddens me to see the kids these days miss out on some of the basics of growing up, learning to be responsible but still respectful. I’m constantly reminding myself that things are different but certain things my nieces and nephews seem to take for granted, frustrate me a bit. It’s almost as if they think they are entitled to things because they want them. Whereas when I grew up there was a level of expectation, standards my grandmother and mother held me to and with growing up there were requirements. I couldn’t just come home throw my things down and make demands (I am the aunt who will correct those behaviors because I will try to help them see the connection with what comes with growing up, not things but responsibilities). I was a contributer to the overall functioning of the home and although I couldn’t understand then why I couldn’t take it easy, as an adult I can appreciate the gradual training that came with growing up that was required. I had structure and routines and training of my grandmother (she’s old school in her 80s now) so it saddens me to see the lack of that today. How can a child be a responsible adult if they have not been taught some fundamentals about living, caring for a home, making a budget, because money doesn’t grow on trees, but it’s definitely a lot different. Let me get back to the book.

      You make a good point about the Jankeh Jallon. Since the slatee were unknown I hadn’t considered that she could be “working” with them as a possibility. I couldn’t help but think how she and her baby must have felt, to be home, but unwelcome or unwanted because of something she had no control over. To escape from the toubob but to be shunned from your family and village…It gave me a lot to think about too.

      I think you make a good point about oversharing feelings and emotions. I have tendency to not share much and it can definitely be challenging to open up. In the context of this book (and life) it made me think about how balance is needed there, since Kunta was stolen from his family would that hug from his mother, father, Nyo Boto on his return been something else he could have cherished during his capture. When he was on the boat and had that memory about never seeing his family or his home again it just did something else to me. TO BE TAKEN, STOLEN from all you’ve ever known and why?

      Yes Melanie, I felt the same way with last week’s reading about him being kidnapped. I knew it was going to happen (I know the line too although I haven’t watched the whole series myself) and I was so jumpy. So when I started reading this week I was feeling too comfortable. I literally put my Kindle down and said no, this can’t be happening when it did. I wasn’t ready and I think the way Haley relates this matter of fact depiction reverberates loudly and I was emotionally taxed, it was hard to process what happened this week. I really believe I’ve lost sleep thinking about what happened, looking back at notes I made I still get a sick feeling and I realize we are still in the early part of the book.

      I wanted to ask about some of the things that happened on the ship, the girl who jumped off, the Wolof warrior who fought back? The many who died because of the filth and disease and were thrown overboard. The call to act as one village and one people to survive this ordeal. How does some of the things that happened on the ship that Kunta witnesses, what affect do you think it had on him? And on you?

      Then Haley says this “But his tears soon flooded the shoreline into a gray, swimming mist, for Kunta knew that whatever came next was going to be yet worse.”

      I stopped for a while and started reading again after posting this discussion and yes, it’s been pretty traumatic.

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        The girl who jumped off the ship and all the people who died on the trip over is devastating. I believe slavers used to take on more people than they really could fit because they knew so many would die. The toubob wanted to make that trip “worth it,” not only financially, but in terms of their own misery on that ship. And that’s the messed up part: the slaves are beaten or starved or left in filth-covered sores because they’re viewed as property, like livestock, but they also must be kept alive because a dead slave is worthless to their pockets. To know that Kunta and all the other slaves are held in this type of hell just for a profit, just to pick cotton, just to mend a fence, is such a waste of human life and potential. I Googled how far it is from Gambia to Florida (just picking a state with loads of slaves), and it’s over 4,300 miles. OVER 4,300 MILES JUST TO PICK COTTON. That f-ing blows my mind (sorry for the language). Each time Kunta tries to escape, I am taken right back to his village because he describes how he is like a creature born in the forest, becoming one with it, and he creates a spear and knows the terrain. And yet. And yet he doesn’t understand that the dogs are trained to find him, that he can’t out run men on horses when he doesn’t know what a horse is. That even if he runs 100 miles, another slave master — or even some slaves — will turn him in to this current owner. That the chances of him finding someone to take him on a ship and sail him back the 5.5 months’s-long trip, the over 4,300 miles, is so nearly impossible that I want to throw up.

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      • booksbythecup says:

        A friend asked me last week what I was reading and I told her Roots she said don’t read it, you will hate white people (she’s white). I assured her I would proceed with caution and I wouldn’t hate white people. But I am disgusted by a time in human history when people felt justified in such atrocious behavior and mental attitude. It is never OK to treat someone like they are property or livestock, and yet this story brings the brutality of it all into a harsh and cruel reality. 4,300 miles, on a ship ilike an animal for 5.5 months? 😭

        I often ask myself how do you choose, to willingly sacrifice your life to escape slavery but at the same time, how do you reconcile the fact that the desire to live is natural to everyone, no one wants to die? And the fact that the slave traders didn’t care at all.

        Good discussion this week Melanie. I was about to say something else but it gives me an idea for Week 3’s discussion so I’ll make a note.

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        You know what? If reading a book likes this makes a black person hate or even distrust white people (like me), I feel like it’s my job to be quite about that. I don’t need to defend myself because it’s not the time for me to be “right” or defensive. I taught Malcolm X about a dozen times, and over and over he repeats, “the white man is the devil.” I think about the time and the context and agree — his conclusion does not seem petty or quickly decided. Everything in his left led him to that argument. At the very end of the book, though, he completely changes his mind. Another thing Malcolm says is that it’s the job of white people to go change the hearts of their own communities to help with black causes, not integrate themselves into the black community and feel like a savior or sorts.

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      • booksbythecup says:

        I know she was joking but she even expressed how angry she was after watching Roots. I think it’s all about learning about the past which will hopefully help us in the present and future.

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