Baby Names Show How Huge "Roots" Was in 1977

Jun 1st 2016

As the remake of the miniseries Roots hits the air, America is remembering the impact of the 1977 original. 40 years later, how can we understand the enormous cultural force it carried? Let's try one of the most reliable barometers of America's mindset: baby names.

In 1977 television was a three-network business, dominated by sitcoms like "Happy Days" and "Three's Company" with a smattering of "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Love Boat." Yet the most popular program by far was an eight-part miniseries that told the tragic story of American slavery through the lens of a single family. Roots was an adaptation of a novel by Alex Haley. It followed the saga of Kunta Kinte, a 15-year-old West African boy captured into slavery, portrayed by actor LeVar Burton. A key later character was Kunta's daughter, named Kizzy.

Image via ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Kunta Kinte and Kizzy weren't the likeliest baby names, but they captured parents' hearts. The graphs below show the American popularity of the names from 1970 through 1980, including minor spelling variations (and in the case of Kunta Kinte, both parts of the name). The red vertical lines show the year Roots premiered.

Those are extraordinary leaps. Kizzy jumped all the way from statistically non-existent to the #223 girl's name in America -- and the spelling Kizzie ranked #598. That's a higher debut than Miley 30 years later, when Riley and Kylee were already fast-rising hits. Consider, too, that the #1 movie of 1977 was a little flick called Star Wars. When it came to baby names, Roots eclipsed it.

For a broader sense of impact, take a look at the names of two of the artists behind the series, author Alex Haley and actor LeVar Burton.

Put the four name graphs together, and you have 8,000 namesakes born in the years immediately following Roots. A scattering of other names show up in the statistics as well, including Omoro, the name of Kunta Kinte's father, and Ji-Tu, after actor Ji-Tu Cumbuka. But even those names only scratch the surface of the story.

Roots wasn't just an entertainment, it was a societal milestone that struck deep chords of race, identity and history. The show's baby name effect, too, wasn't about mere publicity. (Note that one prominently featured name, Toby, the name which Kunta Kinte was forced to accept as a slave, actually fell in popularity in 1977.) For many African-Americans, Roots inspired deeper explorations of African cuture, including African-inspired baby names. Names like Aisha, Omari, and Akilah rose.

Even new name inventions were affected. For instance, contemporary African-American boys' names using Le- and La- as a prefix, a la LeVar Burton, hit their all-time peak in 1977. The name Kunta Kinte, too, was echoed in a generation of African-American boys' names ending in -nta and -nte, like Donta and Javonte. The trend had already started before Roots, but Kunta Kinte accelerated it:

The real societal impact of a show like Roots isn't so much the story itself as the echoes it leaves behind. We see some of those echoes in today's proudly diverse naming culture, in which every name -- sometimes, every syllable -- reflects parents' sense of self, heritage, values and dreams.


June 2, 2016 3:41 AM

An absolutely pivotal scene in Roots is the scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped after being caught attempting to escape. The White boss says "I want to hear you say your name: Toby. What's your name?" Kunta Kinte has already been beaten so badly he can barely speak, but he manages to gasp out "Kunta." The boss then has him whipped more, to the point that another slave fears he'll be beaten to death. Finally, when the boss asks again "What's your name?" Kunta Kinte answers "Toby" and is cut down.

It's hard to overestimate the power and impact of that scene. I was three years old when Roots aired and haven't watched it since, but I could almost have quoted that scene even before I looked it up on YouTube (mostly from seeing it excerpted later on television).

That's the moment when Kunta Kinte becomes a slave, rather than a captured person.

This is a powerful, visceral illustration of the link between name and identity. In addition to direct namesakes and parallel constructions, I imagine it helped inspired an entire generation of parents to think more profoundly about what their name choices might mean to and say about their children.