Baby Names from Alex Haley’s “Roots”

Kizzy and Kunta Kinte, Roots
Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) and Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) of Roots © Ebony

In late 1976, Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published.

The book tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African man who is captured, brought to North America, and sold as a slave to a Virginia plantation owner.

In January of 1977, an 8-episode TV miniseries based on the novel aired in on ABC.

The televised version of Roots was wildly popular — 9 Emmy Awards, 1 Golden Globe, 1 Peabody, and some of the highest Nielsen ratings of all time.

More importantly, though, it had an unprecedented influence on baby names, inspiring thousands African-American parents to name their babies after Roots characters and actors. Below are some examples.

Levar & Kizzy

The top debut names of 1977 were Levar and Kizzy.

Levar came from actor LeVar Burton, who played protagonist Kunta Kinte in the miniseries.

  • 1979: 175 baby boys named Levar [rank: 645th]
  • 1978: 254 baby boys named Levar [rank: 512th]
  • 1977: 523 baby boys named Levar [rank: 343rd] [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

The names Lavar, Levarr, Lavarr and Lavare also got a boost in 1977. (The last three were debuts.)

Kizzy came from the character Kizzy, daughter of Kunta Kinte.

  • 1979: 269 baby girls named Kizzy [rank: 648th]
  • 1978: 456 baby girls named Kizzy [rank: 439th]
  • 1977: 1,115 baby girls named Kizzy [rank: 223rd] [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

So far, Kizzy’s 1977 debut is the highest baby name debut ever.

Here’s how one couple in Florida decided to name their baby girl Kizzy:

“I identified with Kunta Kinte, and I thought the name Kizzy was a way I could express that,” said Willie Parker of Carol City, a Miami suburb.

His wife, Carrie, initially wanted to name their new daughter Nicole. But Parker said he was especially moved by the scene from the television series in which Kinte names his child and then raises her to the stars and tells her to behold the only thing greater than herself. So, he persuaded his wife to name their child Kizzy.

The names Kizzie, Kizzi, Kizzey, Lakizzy and Kizi also got a boost in 1977. (The last four were debuts.)

Kunta & Kinte

Kunta not only debuted in 1977, but it popped into the top 1,000 for the first and only time that year as well.

  • 1979: 16 baby boys named Kunta
  • 1978: 52 baby boys named named Kunta
  • 1977: 215 baby boys named Kunta [rank: 572nd] [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Kinte also reached the top 1,000 for the first and only time in 1977, after debuting the year before.

  • 1979: 6 baby boys named Kinte
  • 1978: 38 baby boys named Kinte
  • 1977: 104 baby boys named Kinte [rank: 839th]
  • 1976: 5 baby boys named Kinte [debut]
  • 1975: unlisted

Related 1977 debuts include Kuntakinte, Kinta, Quinte, and Kunte.

Fanta, Jitu, Kairaba, Lamin, Omoro & Yaisa

Here are some other Roots-related debuts I’ve noticed.

Fanta, the name of a woman captured and enslaved along with Kunta Kinte (in the miniseries, not in the book):

  • 1979: 31 baby girls named Fanta
  • 1978: 34 baby girls named Fanta
  • 1977: 66 baby girls named Fanta [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Jitu, from Ji-Tu Cumbuka, the name of the actor who played a wrestler in the miniseries:

  • 1979: unlisted
  • 1978: unlisted
  • 1977: 7 baby boys named Jitu [debut & one-hit wonder]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Kairaba, the name of Kunta Kinte’s grandfather:

  • 1979: unlisted
  • 1978: unlisted
  • 1977: 8 baby boys named Kairaba [debut & one-hit wonder]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Lamin, the name of Kunta Kinte’s brother:

  • 1979: unlisted
  • 1978: 7 baby boys named Lamin
  • 1977: 12 baby boys named Lamin [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Omoro, the name of Kunta Kinte’s father:

  • 1979: 8 baby boys named Omoro
  • 1978: 11 baby boys named Omoro
  • 1977: 19 baby boys named Omoro [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Yaisa, the name of Kunta Kinte’s grandmother:

  • 1979: 6 baby girls named Yaisa
  • 1978: 11 baby girls named Yaisa
  • 1977: 17 baby girls named Yaisa [debut]
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: unlisted

Binta, Haley & Toby

These names, already seeing enough usage nationally to appear in the U.S. baby name data, were influenced by Roots as well. Two got a boost, but the third did not…

Binta, the name of Kunta Kinte’s mother:

  • 1979: 10 baby girls named Binta
  • 1978: 11 baby girls named Binta
  • 1977: 16 baby girls named Binta
  • 1976: unlisted
  • 1975: 5 baby girls named Binta

Haley, from Alex Haley, the name of the author:

  • 1979: 512 baby girls named Haley [rank: 414th]
  • 1978: 516 baby girls named Haley [rank: 398th]
  • 1977: 462 baby girls named Haley [rank: 442nd]
  • 1976: 117 baby girls named Haley
  • 1975: 110 baby girls named Haley

Toby, the name given to Kunta Kinte by the plantation owner:

  • 1981: 458 baby boys named Toby [rank: 375th]
  • 1980: 648 baby boys named Toby [rank: 304th]
  • 1979: 666 baby boys named Toby [rank: 299th]
  • 1978: 884 baby boys named Toby [rank: 239th]
  • 1977: 1,060 baby boys named Toby [rank: 209th]
  • 1976: 1,095 baby boys named Toby [rank: 201st]

The usage of Toby declined quickly after Roots aired. Was it already on its way out? Was it pulled down by the slave-name association? Both?


And finally, the name Vereen.

Though it did not return to the data when Roots aired, “[o]ne family in Detroit named their child Vereen, apparently for actor Ben Vereen, who in the television show portrayed Kizzy’s son, Chicken George.”

Source: Merzer, Martin. “Pride in ‘Roots’ Inspiring Blacks to Name Babies After Characters.” Morning Record and Journal 19 Mar. 1977: 14.
Image from Ebony, June 1977, page 76.

4 thoughts on “Baby Names from Alex Haley’s “Roots”

  1. That’s pretty impressive – and really high debuts for those names. Kunta is really unusable these days for obvious reasons, but I kinda like it.

  2. My brother name is Kunta kinte Kalem he was born in 1977 my mom rest her sole got his name from roots and she got Kalem from seven brides for seven brothers

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