There is much that is significant about "Roots," the 12-hour saga unfolding this week before a television audience that includes nearly half of America's population.
But de word from dat Kunta is not all good.
True, it has taken a long time for the problem of slavery to be raised to a conscious level as graphically as ABC has with its dramatization of Alex Haley's book about his bloodines - an indication perhaps that the country now is emotionally mature enough to handle its continuing loss of innocence.
It's significant, too, that this series comes at a time when historians are seriously re-examining the slave experience. The popular and scholarly studies provide a kind of double-barrelled spotlight with potential for enormous - if unknown - impact.
Like whites, blacks are learning from the result of author Haley's 12-year search; like him, they too were crippled by the absence of knowing. For ignorance about its roots and heritage lead to a misreading of the culture that has evolved here and its relationship to African traditions.
Like Fanta, they young woman with whom Kunta Kinte shares the crossing, many blacks had "put all that African stuff behind" them. The shame of the period produced a conscious forgetfulness.
The bad word about ABC's "Roots" is that the show's negative underprinnings at times show through, and elements that are important to a truer understanding of black experience in America have been omitted:
Item: An early and unsettling pattern of submission is set from the moment Kunta Kinte runs breathlessly back to manhood training, reports that he has just seen white men less than two days' travel away, and is told by the elders only, in effect, to watch his step. Why didn't they fight back? Why didn't they meet and plot resistance? What was the cultural difference that made them noble, but not very takecharge or brave?
Item: From "primitive" Africa to the "Old South is the voyage ABC promise the viewer. How "primitive" is a close-knit family, organized community structure reverence for human life, as opposed to the oppression of the "Old South?" ABC romanticized the American experience, but sterotyped the African.
Item: What was the role of the blacks who took part in the process of enslaving their brothers? The serial doesn't offer a clue to their motivation.
Item: The crossing of the slave ship, the Lord Ligonier, was not a typical one, and some passage scenes in "Roots" are mild when compared to the harsh, stark reality. Seasoning camps en route and breeding camps in the New World were also vital parts of the links that chained men's minds and bodies.
Item: Kunta was os alone in his fight that he appeared to be a rebel in isolation. Behind the blood and suffering, his thirst for freedom is so isolated that he seems, at times, little more than the proverbial "Crazy nigger."
Item: There exists a number of cultural distortions that at first seem petty. But little by little they multiply until they become a disturbing mosaic, a pattern that clouds veracity.
The bad word on the Africans' non-resistance is that the Juffure villagers' Islamic faith (considered by many to be as alien to Africa as Christianity) taught them not to go out looking for trouble, to value life, not death. But there were other Africans who woudl fight to maintain their community, who were organized, who were able to fend off slave traders.
Some of the slavers were black. But "Roots" does not inform viewers that a slave trade that began because of mutual economic motivation between white slavers and some African kings ended wtih pressure, threats and, finally, use of raw power against the co-operating Africans.
During the crossing a typical ship stopped first at an island off Africa, where slaves entered a seasoning camp to be separated from others who spoke the same lanugage and where troublemakers might have had a noisy tongue cut out. Another seasoning camp awaited them on arrival, where they were assigned to a "breaker." Whippings and withdrawal of food were weapons in this psychological war. More attention to the process by which Aricans became slaves and slaves became "niggers" would have helped the viewer's basic understanding.
A related touch was the breeding camp which produced the nicest of all progeny - the American-born slaves such as Fiddler and Bell. No psychological warfare - only the combined might of church and state - was necessary to keep them in line.
More attention here would help explain why the slaves who surrounded Kunta were not of mutual mind. Kunta would have seemed less an isolated resister if a narrative had told the viewer more of the historial context.
The cultural distortions range from the 20th-century touch of boys rollicking like Little Leaguers after a hard day's work of manhood training to the stilted language of the young adult Kunta that sounds more like that of an Indian stereotype than a slave many years in America.
More attention to the African side would have given the television viewer a clearer understanding of the institution of slavery and slavery's successor - sharecropping.
Perhaps it is because television is a wasteland even more barren for blacks that our expectations are over-inflated when a "Roots" comes along.
After all, the critics will point out, a viewer wants drama, not historic exactitude.
In contrast to what has gone before, "Roots" is momentous. It has brought new pride to children; One shy 9-year-old startled his parents by announcing he wanted his birthday party held in his predominantly white classroom because, "I'm not chicken anymore. I'm a man and a warrior."
In Washington, Harvard-educated blacks crept away to vomit during the passage scene and a psychiatrist's young son wanted to knife every white he met by the time the series had reached midpassage - a difficult feat since he attended private school in Virginia.
And there have been memorable cultural messages: Fiddler turning from shuffling clown to crafty manipulator of his fate and the actions of white people, and his warm relationship with Kunta one illustration of the continuity of the slave experience.
The significance of being made to call himself "Toby" was that while he was able to define himself he couldn't really be a slave.
ABC has defined slavery for us, mixing history and Hollywood rather adroitly. Though it has many virtues, it is too bad that this "Roots" doesn't that Haley successfully managed to get into his book.