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Book: Identifying Roots

Chapter: Kunta Kinte in American TV, Film, and Music

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.31160


This fourth chapter deploys discourse analysis of Kunta Kinte references in African American TV, Film, and Music. I begin by making clear Haley’s enduring legacy on helping audiences identify black dreams (and nightmares) in America. While a case could be made that Kunta Kinte references in American media are routine, I argue that a discussion of Roots must first recognize that it ushered in a meta-discourse that impressed itself as a core value of American—especially African American—life. To make this point, I look at lyrics from hip hop artists Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar and how they adopt the Kunta Kinte myth to narrate their own success stories. Using theories from Vincent L. Wimbush and James Watts, I characterize this order of scripturalizing as rootinization (cf. routinization). Then I use discourse analysis to survey Kunta Kinte allusions in the thirty years since the Roots moment. Each clip is categorized according to the grammar of uproot, route, and taking root as explained in chapter three. With the help of critical humor theory, this coding further underscores how we can elaborate on operational acts of identification—in this particular case, inter—and intra-racial performance as mediated through appeals to Kunta Kinte.

Uproot characterizes situations where Kunta Kinte is evoked to displace and disorient an other. Haley’s patriarch becomes a slur in which the objectified person is likened to a slave—a person with limited agency in the face of the subject’s arrogated dominance. Examples here include comedian Richard Pryor handling a heckler (1983), the hazing of Eddie Murphy’s fish-out-of water protagonist in Coming to America (1988), Tyler Perry’s tough-love matriarch, Madea in Diary of a Mad Black Woman 2005, and a fictive disciplinary account in Chris Rock’s coming-of-age autobiography, Everybody Hates Chris (2008). In these clips we observe white and black persons alike using Kunta Kinte to astrange black persons from the possibility of complacency (i.e. rootedness) in a social setting.

Route characterizes conflicts wherein “Kunta Kinte” names a frustration where in a party has yet to determine how to navigate a new world situation. Like the protagonist, one learns enough about stymying systemic circumstances to live long enough to express dissatisfaction. Allusions to these liminal sentiments are found in debates about authentic blackness at a black college in A Different World (1990), politics of respectability and uplift in Boyz N the Hood (1991), black cops interrogating an African suspect in the crime drama, The Wire (2003), and a buffoonish repartee in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1991 and 1992). Each of these situations involve black people failing to prove themselves as more empowered (i.e. rooted) than another.

Taking Root heralds a black person’s acquisition of de jure American citizenship. Just as Kunta Kinte finds a way for his bloodline to carry onward in the new world, Americans who call upon his name have the pride of privilege to live in and critique the nation. Instances of this liberty are highlighted in a “Weekend Update” sketch commemorating Root’s 25th anniversary on Saturday Night Live (2002), a Roots parody on Chappelle’s Show (2003), and LeVar Burton’s absurd reprisal of his Kunta Kinte persona on the postmodern sitcom Community (2011). The instances are united in their use of humor and hyperbole to reveal the overstatement of American post-racial discourse.

By further charting the dynamic, verbal aspects of rootedness, the chapter provides a theoretical language for further parsing operational acts of identification. We can more effectively discuss who is uprooting whom, among what concerns are people routing, and on what terms may people take root.

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