This week’s reading of Ch 41-60 was about the change in Kunta’s identity from a once free man to a different man, as a Slave. I thought about how slavery steals more than just a person’s freedom.
“And the main thing he wanted him to understand was why he refused to surrender his name or his heritage, and why he would rather die a free man on the run than live out his life as a slave. He didn’t have the words to tell it as he wished, but he knew the brown one understood, for he frowned and shook his head.”
This week’s post will be in the form of a discussion. Melanie @ Grab the Lapels used Google Docs to start a conversation and I’m sharing what we discussed below.
Shell: I would like to say thanks again for joining me on this journey with Kunta. I’m to a point now that I haven’t been able to concentrate on reading anything else this week, which is unusual for me. I usually have several books going at once and I know you do too. Is it just me, has Kunta’s life interrupted yours? I just can’t get him out of my mind.
Melanie: Thank you so much for having me! My husband wanted me to read Roots for years, but I was hesitant. Because I’ve taught Black Lit many times, I’m burnt out on slave narratives. Weirdly, I’m currently reading four books that have life-threatening situations, so they’ve all taken over my brain space. I think the reason Kunta isn’t in my head the same way he is in yours is possibly because I’m hyper aware of the fact that Alex Haley is lulling us into thinking things are going to be okay — nothing life-threatening is happening in the last 15 chapters. I was less hooked as Kunta arrived in Virginia and got off the ship because so many bad things were happening that I felt overwhelmed and a bit desensitized. Every time Kunta tried to escape, though, I was hooked; Haley renewed my sense of hope. I have no idea what’s going to happen in this book other than there’s supposed to be a part during which a white man says, “Your name is Toby!” and he says he’s Kunta Kinte. At least, that’s a famous scene in the PBS version of Roots. In the last 10 or so chapters, Kunta has reached out to his fellow slaves, though notice Haley doesn’t use that word often. By erasing “slave” from the story, a reader could almost forget that they are slaves. I’m hoping for a romance with Bell, the gardner is his friend, and we just left off with Kunta possibly befriending another African. I haven’t read about a whipping in quite a while, and Kunta is almost 40. It’s easy to think that Waller is a “kind master.” I mean, Kunta “should” be happy he’s not further south, which was how slave owners used to psychologically threaten slaves. Horror stories about how bad things were in a number of southern states would keep slaves further north putting on a mask and faking contentment. Did you find yourself thinking Kunta was lucky or even had it good compared to other slaves?
Shell: I’ve never watched the series in its entirety, so the famous line is all I have heard. For me this section has been about transition and understanding. Kunta being stolen and brought to this strange land is much different than the slaves who were born in this land. I’m not thinking as much about the next tragic thing that’s going to happen as much as I’m thinking about the mental transition Kunta and other slaves like him have to come to terms with if they want to survive. Haley’s depiction of Kunta’s many escapes are definitely hopefully in a sense, but we know enough and as Kunta soon learns, he’s not the first to run and probably not the last. I’m absorbing a new mental reality just as much as Kunta. “And the main thing he wanted him to understand was why he refused to surrender his name or his heritage, and why he would rather die a free man on the run than live out his life as a slave. He didn’t have the words to tell it as he wished, but he knew the brown one understood, for he frowned and shook his head.” (328/329). I looked at the removal of the term “slave” from the narrative differently, although they are slaves, Haley dignifies them; they are still people. I know they are slaves as a reader and don’t need to be reminded of that on every page. Kunta also learns how and why other slaves look at the institution of slavery differently than he does. The Fiddler “educates” him on how things are while Kunta processes all of this. Am I glad Kunta’s on another plantation? Yes. Do I think he’s lucky, can anyone enslaved be lucky? I’m glad he’s still alive.
“Kunta did not let his face show his feelings. He was angry and ashamed that anyone could ‘own’ him, but he was also deeply relieved, for he had feared that one day he would be taken back to that other ‘plantation,’ as he now knew the toubob farms were called.” (331)
You mentioned Kunta’s developing relationships with others in this section of the book. He mentioned how he felt lonely and a need for love. How do you think his relationships with them helped Kunta make the transition? I’m curious about his meeting the Ghanaian because it’s been over 20 years since he met someone from Africa. And how does Kunta’s work as a buggy driver further affect him and his overall impression about slavery and the mixing of races?
Melanie: Because the other slaves, like Bell and the fiddler and gardener, were born slaves, I think that they serve as guides to Kunta in a way, because they can teach him how to stay alive. But, they are also ersatz guides compared to the system of civilization in Juffure. The slaves seem guided by fear, as opposed to the rewards and responsibilities of adulthood that gave rhythm to life in the Gambia and a sense of pride to each tribesperson. Even though Kunta speaks to a few other slaves, he’s still largely isolated and keeps to himself. At one point near chapter 60, he mentions that his goal is just to be left alone, which he can accomplish in his role as buggy driver. He hears things because white people don’t recognize him as a person, and that enables him to be the one who delivers news to slave row. In a way, I see this as mimicking those circles around the fire in Juffure, at which the oldest were closest and then the further out the younger the kafo. By the time I got to chapter 60, I felt like Kunta was a different person. His whole life had be worn down to a dull knife compared to the boy who was kidnapped in Africa.
Shell: Yes! The fiddler doesn’t mince words with him and over time Kunta does learn how to stay alive. I agree, Kunta’s a different person. I feel like this section is about a change in identity. Life as a slave steals everything from Kunta. I do wonder what effect Kunta’s meeting the Ghanaian will have on Kunta going forward. Also, how did you find the pacing of this part of the book; did it every feel like 20 years had gone by? Haley’s inclusion of events like The Boston Massacre, the American Revolution? Also, Kunta counting the rains or months was helpful for me in keeping a sense of time.
Melanie: Twenty years went by so fast! I got so used to thinking in moons and rains that months and years felt weird, LOL. I think all the historical references gave me a better sense of the setting. Once a time period is long pre-1800’s, I start lumping it all together as “as long time ago.” Now, I have a better sense of the context. My hope for the next 20 chapters is that Kunta finds uninterrupted love and locates someone who speaks his language.