How did Alex Haley’s “Roots” influence baby names in 1977?

The character Kunta Kinte (played by LeVar Burton) from the TV miniseries "Roots" (1977).
Kunta Kinte from “Roots

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

The book — which tells a sweeping, multi-generational tale that lasts from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800 — begins with the story of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka teenager who was captured in Africa, transported via slave ship to North America, and sold to a Virginia plantation owner.

In January of 1977, an 8-episode miniseries based on the novel aired on television for 8 consecutive nights (on ABC).

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

It also 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.

Kizzy, Levar, Kunta & Kinte

The characters Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) and Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) from the TV miniseries "Roots" (1977).
Kizzy and Kunta Kinte (© 1977 Ebony)

According to the U.S. baby name data, the top debut names of 1977 were Kizzy and Levar.

Kizzy came from the character Kizzy, daughter of Kunta Kinte, who was featured during the middle episodes of the series.

  • 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.

During the scene in which the newborn Kizzy is named, Kunta Kinte says, “Girl, your name is Kizzy. […] Your name means ‘stay put,’ but it don’t mean ‘stay a slave.’ It will never mean that!”

Here’s how one Florida couple, who welcomed a baby girl in early 1977, decided to name their daughter 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.)

Levar came from actor LeVar Burton, who played the young version of protagonist Kunta Kinte in the first two episodes of 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.)

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

The New York Times reported in March of 1977 that a young couple from Harlem, John and Nefhertiti Reid, had welcomed a baby boy on February 18 and named him Kunta Kinte Reid. He was “one of 20 newborn black boys and girls in New York City last month who were given the names Kunta Kinte or Kizzy.”

Officials in the health departments of several cities reported that 15 babies last month had been named Kunta Kinte or Kizzy in Los Angeles, 10 in Detroit and eight in Atlanta. In Cleveland, male and female twins were named after the two characters.

Related 1977 baby name 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.”


4 thoughts on “How did Alex Haley’s “Roots” influence baby names in 1977?

  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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