Kunta Kinte (1750-1822; also known as Toby Waller) was a Gambian–born American slave. The outline of his life story was the basis for the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by American author Alex Haley, and the television miniseries Roots, based on the book. Haley described his book as faction: a mixture of fact and fiction. After Haley's book became nationally famous, American author Harold Courlander noted that the section describing Kinte's life was apparently taken from Courlander's book The African. Haley at first dismissed the charge, but later issued a public statement affirming that Courlander's book had been the source, and Haley attributed the error to a mistake of one of his assistant researchers. The character in the miniseries was portrayed as a youth by LeVar Burton and as an older man by John Amos.
Kinte was born circa 1750 in the Mandinka village of Juffure, The Gambia.
One day in 1767, while Kunta is searching for wood to make a drum, four men chased him, surrounded him and took him captive. Kunta awakens to find himself blindfolded, gagged, bound, and a prisoner of white men. He and others are put on the slave ship the Lord Ligonier for a three-month Middle Passage voyage to North America.
Kunta survives the trip to Maryland and is sold to a Virginia plantation owner, Master Waller, who renames him "Toby." He rejects the name imposed by his owners and refuses to speak to others.
After being recaptured during the last of his four escape attempts, the slave catchers give him a choice: he can be castrated or have his right foot cut off. He chooses to have his foot cut off, and the men cut off the front half of his right foot. As the years pass, Kunta resigns himself to his fate and also becomes more open and sociable with his fellow slaves, while never forgetting who he was or where he came from.
Kunta married a fellow slave, named Bell Waller and they had a daughter who they named Kizzy (Keisa, in Mandinka), which in Kunta's native tongue means "to stay put" (he named her this to protect her from being sold away). When Kizzy is in her late teens, she is sold away to North Carolina when her master discovers that she had written a fake traveling pass for a young slave boy with whom she was in love (she had been taught to read and write secretly by Missy Anne, the secret daughter of the plantation owner). Her new owner immediately rapes her and fathers her only child, George, who spends his life with the tag "Chicken George", because of his assigned duties of tending to his master's cockfighting birds.
In the novel, Kizzy never learns her parents' fate. She spends the remainder of her life as a field hand on the Lea plantation in North Carolina. In the miniseries, she is taken back to visit the Reynolds plantation later in life. She discovers that her mother was sold off to another plantation and that her father died of a broken heart two years later, in 1822. She finds his grave, where she crosses out his slave name Toby from the tombstone and writes his original name Kunta Kinte instead.
The rest of the book tells of the generations between Kizzy and Alex Haley, describing their suffering, losses and eventual triumphs in America. Alex Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.
Haley's sources for the origins of Kinte were oral family tradition and a man he found in The Gambia named Kebba Kanga Fofana, who claimed knowledge of the Kintes. He described them as a family in which the men were blacksmiths, descended from a marabout named Kairaba Kunta Kinte, originally from Mauritania. Haley quoted Fofana as telling him: "About the time the king's soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from this village to chop wood and was never seen again."
There is an annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival held in Maryland. Kunta Kinte also inspired a reggae rhythm of the same name, performed by artists including The Revolutionaries, and Mad Professor, and an album, Kunta Kinte Roots by Ranking Dread. There is also a band of the same name.
In the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith's character says, in regard to being punished, "Why don't you just do me like Kunta Kinte and cut off my foot?"
On the January 19, 2002 broadcast of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update sketch, host Jimmy Fallon, while reporting on ABC's refusal to show the Roots 25th anniversary special, gave a quick recap on the Roots story, stating: "For those of you who don’t remember Roots, it follows a saga of Kunta Kinte from young African tribesman, to slavery, to becoming literate, and eventually being the top of his class at Starfleet Academy".