Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, and she directs the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Her forthcoming book, “Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ Runaway Slave,” will be published early next year. Check out her commentaries on episode one and episode two.
“No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.”
This quote, taken from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, flashed repeatedly through my mind during episode three of the newest version of Roots. While the first and second episodes focuses on Kunta Kinte, his kidnapping, his repeated escape attempts, and his building of a family, another character emerges in episode three as a central and driving force. Her name is Kizzy.
She is taught by her father Kunta Kinte to ride horses, to find her way through the woods, to steer small boats, and to survive. She will need all of these skills, together with her exceptional literacy, to provide for herself and her family after she is sold away from her parents to the Lea farm in North Carolina.
It is Kizzy’s first encounter with her new master that brings the experiences of enslaved women front and center. Tom Lea, an alcoholic Irish American farmer teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, sexually violates Kizzy within minutes of meeting her. Her screams of “Kill me! Kill me!” remind viewers of the constant and heavy burden of sexual assault upon the bodies of enslaved women. Rape fueled and expanded the system of human bondage, and Kizzy confronts and survives this most common and brutal form of control and violence perpetrated upon the bodies of women.
She gives birth to Lea’s son, and her inability to embrace her newborn child demonstrates the deeply complicated feelings surrounding motherhood within slavery. She contemplates both infanticide and suicide after her newborn’s arrival, but remembers her duty to family and the strength of her father. Kizzy will later tell her son, nicknamed Chicken George, that in that moment she made a conscious decision. As she tells him, “I decided to live.”
Like millions of enslaved women, Kizzy submits to repeated sexual violence in order to keep her owner content. She does this to keep her son safe from angry reprisals, but makes certain that she will never bear another child by her captor: she consumes herbs and roots to prevent pregnancy.
The presence of family, in particular children, kept millions of enslaved women from attempted escape. In an earlier episode, Belle, Kunta Kinte’s wife, reminds her husband of the difficulties of escaping slavery with children in tow. A baby’s crying and need for comfort and food would too easily expose a runaway family. Toddlers’ little legs and feet could not keep up the rapid pace needed for a successful escape. So Kizzy’s son and grandchildren keep her from leaving the Lea farm. When she meets and falls in love with a free Black man, capable of purchasing her freedom, she refuses his offer. Kizzy explains that even if she were free, she would “die every day,” knowing that her family remained enslaved. So she makes the ultimate sacrifice for her family and rejects the possibility of life as a free woman in order to remain with her loved ones. This decision will haunt her, but positions her to help care for her grandchildren in their greatest hour of need: after the sale of her son, Chicken George.
It was a Mandinka warrior’s mission to raise and protect his family, and in the spirit of her father and her ancestors, Kizzy did just that.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s comments on each episode will appear following the East Coast broadcast each night.
Dunbar and colleagues Kellie Carter Jackson, Daina Berry, and Jessica Millward will also participate in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) at Reddit’s AskHistorians forum on Friday, June 3, aiming to field questions about the history of American slavery, the slave trade, and the representations of slavery.