The History Channel's adaptation of Alex Haley's 1977 miniseries "Roots" premieres on Memorial Day (Monday, May 30). Below is Haley's essay "Journey to my Roots," which ran in the newspaper's Thursday, Jan. 27, 1974 edition, three years before his miniseries arrived on TV.
My Grandma Cynthia Murray Palmer lived in Henning, Tenn. (pop. 500), about 50 miles north of Memphis. As I grew up there, each summer we would be visited by several women relatives who were mostly around Grandma’s age. Always after the supper dishes had been washed, they would go out to talk in the rocking chairs on the front porch, and I would scrounch down, listening, behind Grandma’s squeaky chair, with the dusk deepening into night, and the lightning bugs flicking on and off above the shadowy honeysuckles. What they most often talked about was the story of our family, which had been passed down for generations.
The furtherest-back person Grandma and the others ever talked of – always in tones of awe, I noticed – they called “the African.” They said that some ship had brought him to somewhere which they pronounced “’Naplis.” They said that then “Mas’ John Waller” bought him for his plantation in “Spotsylvania County, Va.” This African kept on escaping, the fourth time trying to kill the “hateful po’ cracker” slavecatcher, who gave him a choice of punishment: castration or losing one foot. The African took a foot being chopped off with an axe against a tree stump, they said, and he was about to die. But his life was saved by “Mas’ John’s” brother – a “Mas’ William Waller.”
Crippling about, working in “Mas’ William’s” house and yard, in time the African met and mated with “the big house cook named Bell,” and there was born a girl named “Kizzy.” As she grew up, her African daddy often showed her different kinds of things and told her what they were in his native tongue. Pointing at a banjo, the African uttered “ko,” for example, or pointing at a river near the plantation, “Kamby Bolong.”
When addressed by other slaves as “Toby,” the master’s name for him, the African said angrily that his name was “Kin-tay.” And as gradually he learned more English words, he told young Kizzy some things about himself – for instance that he had been not far from his village, chopping wood to make himself a drum, when four men had surprised, overwhelmed and kidnaped him.
So Kizzy’s head held much about her African daddy when, at age 16, she was sold away. Her new “Mas’ Tom Lea” fathered her first child, a boy whom she named George. And Kizzy told George all about his African grandfather. He mated with Matilda; they had seven children. And one of those children, Tom, became a blacksmith, who was bought away by a “Mas’ Murray,” for his tobacco plantation in Alamance County, N.C.
Tom mated there with Irene, a weaver on the plantation. She also bore seven children, whom Tom told about their African great-great grandfather – now the family’s prideful treasure.
The youngest of that second set of seven children was a girl, Cynthia – who became my maternal grandma.
In Washington, D.C., one Saturday in 1965, I just happened to be walking past the U.S. Archives. Across the years I had thought often of Grandma’s old stories – I can’t reason otherwise what diverted me up the archives steps. And when an attendant asked could he help me, I kind of mumbled that I was interested in census records of Alamance County, N.C., just after the Civil War. …
Reading microfilmed roll after roll of it, I was beginning to tire when, in utter astonishment – I looked upon the names of Grandma’s parents. Tom Murray, Irene Murray … older sisters of Grandma’s, as well -- Grandma wasn’t even born yet … names, every one of them, that I’d heard countless times on her front porch.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t believed Grandma. You just didn’t not believe my Grandma. It was simply so uncanny, actually seeing those names in print.
Using one source or another, in 1966 I was able to document at least the highlights of the cherished family story. Then a thought hit me. Those strange, unknown-tongue sounds, always a part of our family’s old story … they were obviously hits of “Kin-tay’s” native tongue. What specific tongue? Could I find out?
An expert researcher friend, George Sims, brought me the name of Dr. Jan Vansina who had spent his early career in West African villages studying oral histories narrated by very old men and had written a textbook, “The Oral Tradition.” So I flew to the University of Wisconsin, where Dr. Vansina was. I told him every bit of the family story.
Then he asked me about the story’s physical relay across the generations, about the kind of gibberish of “k” sounds. Dr. Vansina finally said, “These sounds your family has kept sound very probably of the tongue called ‘Mandinka.’” Among Mandinka stringed instruments, Dr. Vansina said, one of the oldest was the kora.” “Bolong,” he said, was clearly Mandinka for “river.” Preceded by “Kamby,” very likely it meant “Gambia River.”
Dr. Vansina telephoned an eminent Africanist colleague, Dr. Philip Curtin. He said that – the phonetic “Kin-tay” was correctly spelled “Kinte,” a very old clan which had originated in Old Mali.
I knew I must get to the Gambia River.
The first native Gambian I could locate in the U.S. was Ebou Manga, then a junior attending Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He and I traveled to Gambia’s capital, Bathurst, where Ebou and his father assembled eight Gambian government members. I told them Grandma’s stories, every detail I could remember.
“’Kamby Bolong” of course is Gambia River!” I heard. “But more clue is your forefather’s saying his name was ‘Kinte.’” Then they told me that in places in the back country lived very old men, commonly called griots, who could tell centuries of the histories of certain very old family clans.
The Gambian government members said they would make efforts to aid me. I returned to New York dazed. Then one Thursday’s mail contained a letter from one of the Gambian officials, inviting my return.
Monday I was back in Balhurst. The officials said that a griot had been located who told the Kinte clan history – his name was Kebba Kanga Fofana. To reach him, I discovered, required a modified safari _ a launch to get upriver, two land vehicles to carry supplies by a longer land route, and 14 people, including three interpreters and four musicians, as a griot would not speak the revered clan histories without background music.
The boat Baddibu vibrated upriver with me acutely tense: were these Africans maybe viewing me as but another of the pith-helmets? After about two hours, we put in at James Island, for me to see the ruins of once British-operated James Fort, where two centuries of slave ships had loaded thousands of cargoes of Gambian tribespeople. The crumbling stones, the deeply oxidized swivel cannon, even still some remnant links of chains, seemed all but impossible to believe – but there they were to gaze at. We put ashore at the village of Albreda, planning to continue on foot to Juffure, the village of the griot.
Finally, the village’s children, sighting us, flashed an alert. The 70-odd people came rushing from their circular, thatched-roofed, mud-walled huts, with goats bounding about and parrots squawking in the palms. I sensed him in advance somehow, the small man amid them, wearing a pillbox cap and an off-white robe – the griot.
And it hit me like a gale wind: every one of them, the whole crowd, were jet black. A sense of some enormous guilt swept me … a sense of being some kind of a hybrid – a sense of being impure among the pure. It was a very awful sensation.
An interpreter named A. B. C. Salla came to me; he whispered: “Why they stare at you so, they have never seen here a black American.” The impact of that hit me: I was symbolizing for them 25,000,000 of us they had never seen. What did they think of me – of us?
Then abruptly the old griot was briskly walking toward me. His eyes boring into mine, he spoke in Mandinka, as if instinctively I should understand – and A. B. C. Salla translated:
“Yes … we have been told by the forefathers … that many of us from this place are in exile … in that place called America … and in other places.”
I suppose I physically wavered, and they thought it was the heat; rustling whispers went through the crowd, and a man brought me a low stool. Now, the whispering hushed – the musicians had softly begun playing and a canvas-sling lawn seat was being taken by the griot, Kabba Kanga Fofana, aged 73. And he began speaking the Kinte clan’s ancestral oral history; it came rolling across the next hours, 17th and 18th Century Kinte lineage, predominantly what men took what wives and the children they “begot.” I distill here.
The Kinte clan began in Old Mali, the men generally blacksmiths “who conquered fire,” and the women potters and weavers. One large branch of the clan moved into Mauritania, from which one son of the clan, Kairsha Kunta Kinte, a Moslem marabou (holy man), entered Gambia. He lived first in the village of Pakali N’Ding, then moved to Jiffarong village; “– and then he came here, into our own village of Juffure.”
In Juffure, Kairaba Kunta Kinte took two wives. By the second he begot a son, Omoro, who, when he had 30 rains, took as a wife a maiden, Binta Kebba.
“And by her, he begot four sons – Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu, and Madi …
“About the time the king’s soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, when he had about 16 rains, went away from this village, to chop wood to make a drum … and he was never seen again --.”
Goose pimples the size of lemons seemed popping over me. In my knapsack were my cumulative notebooks, the first of them including how in my boyhood, my grandma, Cousin Georgia and the others told of the African “Kin-tay” who always said he was kidnaped near his village – while chopping wood to make a drum …
Somehow, I showed the interpreter; he told the griot, who excitedly told the people; they grew very agitated. Abruptly then they formed a human ring, encircling me, dancing and chanting. Maybe a dozen of the women carrying their infant babies rushed in toward me, thrusting forth the infants into my embracing efforts – conveying, I would later learn, “—the laying on of hands … through this flesh which is us, we are you, and you are us.” The men hurried me into their mosque, their Arabic praying later being translated outside: “Thanks be to Allah for returning the long lost from among us.” Direct descendants of Kunta Kinte’s blood brothers were hastened, some of them from nearby villages, for a family portrait to be taken with me … surrounded by actual ancestral sixth cousins.
When they would let me leave, somehow I wanted to go away over the African land. Dazed, silent in the bumping Land Rover, I heard the cutting staccato of talking drums. Then when we sighted the next village, its people came thronging to meet us. They were all – little naked ones to wizened elders – waving, beaming, amid a cacophony of crying out; and then my ears identified their words: “Meester Kinte!”
Let me tell you something: I am a man. But I remember the surging sob from my feet, flinging up my hands before my face and bawling as not since I was a baby … If you really knew the odyssey of us millions of black Americans, if you really knew how we came in the seeds of our forefathers, captured, driven, beaten, inspected, bought, branded, chained in foul ships, if you really knew, you needed weeping.