Chapter Section 3 The Southern Colonies: Plantations and Slavery
Literature Selection from Roots by Alex Haley
After years of research, Alex Haley (1921–1992) wrote the book Roots to tell the story of several generations of his family. Haley combined both fact and fiction to make the story come alive. Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was kidnapped from Africa and brought to the United States as a slave. In this excerpt, Kunta is learning about life on the farm where his white owner has taken him. Kunta has already tried to run away once. Because of that, the owner keeps chains on Kunta’s ankles to prevent another escape.
With each passing day, the hobbles (1) on his ankles made it more and more difficult and painful for Kunta to get around. But he kept on telling himself that the chances of gaining freedom depended upon continuing to force himself to do whatever was wanted of him, all behind a mask of complete blankness and stupidity. As he did so, his eyes, ears, and nose would miss nothing—no weapon he might use, no toubob (2)
weakness he might exploit—until finally his captors were lulled into removing the cuffs. Then he would run away again.
Soon after the conch horn blew each morning, Kunta would limp outside to watch as the strange black ones (3) emerged from their huts, the sleepiness still in their faces, and splashed themselves with water from buckets drawn up in the well nearby. Missing the sound of the village women’s pestles (4) thumping the couscous (5) for their families’ morning meals, he would enter the hut of the old cooking woman and bolt
down whatever she gave him—except for any filthy pork. (6)
As he ate each morning, his eyes would search the hut for a possible weapon he might take without being detected. But apart from the black utensils (7) that hung on hooks above her fireplace, there were only the round, flat tin things upon which she gave him what he ate with his fingers. He had seen her eating with a slender metal object that had three or four closely spaced points to stab the food with. He wondered
what it was, and thought that although it was small it might be useful—if he could ever catch her eyes averted for a moment when the shiny object was within reach.
One morning, as he was eating his gruel, watching as the cooking woman cut a piece of meat with a knife he hadn’t seen before and plotting what he would do with it if it were in his hands instead of hers, he heard a piercing squeal of agony from outside the hut. It was so close to his thoughts that he nearly jumped from his seat.
Hobbling outside, he found the others already lined up for work—many of them still chewing the last bites of “breakfast,” lest they get a lashing for being late—while there on the ground beside them lay a swine (8) thrashing about with blood pulsing from its cut throat as two black men lifted it into a steaming pot of water, then withdrew it and scraped off the hair. The swine’s skin was the color of a toubob,he noticed, as
they suspended (9) it by the heels, slit open its belly, and pulled out its insides. Kunta’s nose stifled at the spreading smell of guts, and as he marched off with the others toward the fields, he had to suppress a shudder of revulsion at the thought of having to live among these pagan (10) eaters of such a filthy animal.
There was frost on the cornstalks every morning now, and a haziness hung low over the fields until the heat of the climbing sun would burn it away. Allah’s (11) powers never ceased to amaze Kunta—that even in a place as distant as this toubob land was across the big water, Allah’s sun and moon still rose and crossed the sky; though the sun was not so hot nor the moon so beautiful as in Juffure (12). It was only the people in this accursed(13) place who seemed not of Allah’s doing. The toubob were inhuman, and as for the blacks, it was simply senseless to try to understand them.
When the sun reached the middle of the sky, again the conch horn blew, signaling another lineup for the arrival of a wooden sled pulled by an animal similar to a horse, but more resembling a huge donkey, which Kunta had overheard being spoken of as a “mule.” Walking beside the sled was the old cooking woman, who proceeded to pass out flat cakes of bread and a gourdful of some kind of stew to each person in the line, who either stood or sat and gulped it down, then drank some water dipped from a barrel that was also on the sled. Every day, Kunta warily smelled the stew before tasting it, to make sure he didn’t put any swine meat into his mouth, but it usually contained only vegetables and no meat that he could see or smell at all. He felt better about eating the bread, for he had seen some of the black women making corn into meal by
beating it in a mortar (14) with a pestle of stone, about as it was done in Africa, although Binta’s (15) pestle was made of wood.
Some days they served foods Kunta knew of from his home, such as groundnuts, and kanjo—which was called “okra”—and so-so, which was called “black-eyed peas.” And he saw how much these black ones loved the large fruit that he heard here being called “watermelon.” But he saw that Allah appeared to have denied these people the mangoes, the hearts of palm, the breadfruits, and so many of the other delicacies that
grew almost anywhere one cared to look on the vines and trees and bushes in Africa.
Every now and then the toubob who had brought Kunta to this place—the one they called “massa”—rode out into the fields when they were working. In his whitish straw hat, as he spoke to the toubob field boss, he gestured with a long, slender, plaited (16) leather switch, and Kunta noticed that the toubob “oberseer” grinned and shuffled almost as much as the blacks whenever he was around.
Many such strange things happened each day, and Kunta would sit thinking about them back in his hut while he waited to find sleep. These black ones seemed to have no concern in their lives beyond pleasing the toubob with his lashing whip. It sickened him to think how these black ones jumped about their work whenever they saw a toubob, and how, if that toubob spoke a word to them, they rushed to do whatever he told them to. Kunta couldn’t fathom what had happened to so destroy their minds that they acted like goats and monkeys. Perhaps it was because they had been born in this place rather than in Africa, because the only home they had ever known were the toubob’s huts of logs glued together with mud and swine bristles. These black ones had never known what it meant to sweat under the sun not for toubob masters but for themselves and their own people.
But no matter how long he stayed among them, Kunta vowed never to become like them, and each night his mind would go exploring again into ways to escape from this despised (17) land. He couldn’t keep from reviling himself almost nightly for his previous failure to get away. Playing back in his mind what it had been like among the thorn bushes and the slavering dogs (18), he knew that he must have a better plan for
the next time. First he had to make himself a saphie charm to insure safety and success.
Then he must either find or make some kind of weapon. Even a sharpened stick could have speared through those dogs’ bellies, he thought, and he could have been away again before the black one and the toubob had been able to cut their way through the underbrush to where they had found him fighting off the dogs. Finally, he must acquaint himself with the surrounding countryside so that when he escaped again, he would know where to look for better hiding places.
Though he often lay awake half the night, restless with such thoughts, Kunta always awoke before the first crowing of the rooster, which always aroused the other fowl. The birds in this place, he noticed, merely twittered and sang—nothing like the deafening squawks of great flocks of green parrots that had opened the mornings in Juffure. There didn’t seem to be any parrots here, or monkeys either, which always
began the day at home by chattering angrily in the trees overhead, breaking off sticks and hurling them to the ground at the people underneath. Nor had Kunta seen any goats here—a fact he found no less incredible than that these people kept swine in pens—“pigs” or “hogs,” they called them—and even fed the filthy things.
But the squealing of the swine, it seemed to Kunta, was no uglier than the language of the toubob who so closely resembled them. He would have given anything to hear even a sentence of Mandinka, (19) or any other African tongue. He missed his chain mates from the big canoe—even those who weren’t Moslem (20)—and he wondered what had happened to them. Where had they been taken? To other toubob farms such as this one? Wherever they were, were they longing as he was to hear once again the sweetness of their own tongues—and yet feeling shut out and alone, as he did, because they knew nothing of the toubob language?
Kunta realized that he would have to learn something of this strange speech if he was ever to understand enough about the toubob or his ways to escape from him.
1. What does Kunta miss from his homeland?
2. How does Kunta plan to make his next escape attempt successful?
3. Contrasting What makes Kunta so different from the other black people on the farm?
4. Evaluating How important is Kunta’s religion to him? Explain using details from the selection.
1. hobbles: chains put on a person’s legs to make walking
2. toubob: an African name that means white person.
3. the strange black ones: slaves born in the United States, whom Kunta finds strange compared to Africans.
4. pestles (PEHS•uhlz): a club-shaped tool used to grind grain, herbs, or medicines in a container called a mortar.
5. couscous (KOOS•koos): a North African pasta made from wheat.
6. filthy pork: Kunta is Muslim, a follower of the religion of Islam. In that religion, pork and pigs are considered unclean.
7. utensils (yoo•TEHN•suhlz): kitchen tools.
8. swine: a hog or pig.
9. suspended (suh•SPEHND•ihd): hung.
10. pagan (PAY•guhn): someone who has no religion; because the people around Kunta are not Muslim, he considers them pagan.
11. Allah’s: Allah is the Muslim name for God.
12. Juffure: the village Kunta came from in Africa.
13. accursed (uh•KUR•sihd): under a curse; doomed.
14. mortar (MAWR•tur): a bowl-shaped container used with a pestle.
15. Binta’s: belonging to Kunta’s mother.
16. plaited (PLAYT•uhd): braided.
17. despised (dih•SPYZD): hated.
18. slavering (SLAV•ur•ihng) dogs: drooling dogs; the hounds that chased Kunta the last time he tried to escape.
19. Mandinka: the West African language that Kunta speaks.
20. Moslem: another way to spell Muslim.
After years of research, Alex Haley (1921–1992) wrote the book Roots to tell the story of several generations of his family. Haley combined both fact and fiction to make the story come alive. Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was kidnapped from Africa and brought to the United States as a slave. In this excerpt, Kunta is learning about lifeon the farm where his white owner has taken him. Kunta has already tried to run away once. Because of that, the owner keeps chains on Kunta’s ankles to prevent another escape.