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Alex Haley's Roots Began A Surge In Everyday Genealogy

There's been a tremendous upsurge in interest among Americans, especially black Americans, over the last 25 years in tracing their family histories.


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There's been a tremendous upsurge in interest among Americans, especially black Americans, over the last 25 years in tracing their family histories. This phenomenon is due, in part, to the publication of Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of An American Family which was a best-selling book even before it was turned into an 8-day, 12-hour T.V. miniseries.

Alex Haley and I belonged to the same professional writing organization, The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Although I never met the man personally, I always admired his writing–and especially his research.

Twelve years of research and writing went into Haley's account of seven generations of his family, beginning with the story of his four-times-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Africa and brought to America as a slave in 1767. The book concludes with a description of how, as a child in Tennessee, Haley had listened to his grandmother and great-aunts talking each evening, recounting in pieces the long family narrative that had been passed down for generations. The "furthest-back person" they ever spoke of was "the African," who had been brought on a slave ship to "Naplis" in this country. Although the African had been named "Toby" by his master, they said, he was a proud man who always insisted on calling himself by his African name, "Kin-tay."

Haley's relatives told how Kintay had taught his American-born daughter, Kizzy, some of the words of his native tongue, calling a guitar a "ko" and referring to the river that ran near the place in Virginia where they lived as slaves as "Kamby Bolongo." He told her stories of his people and homeland and related that he had been out in the forest, chopping wood to make a drum, when he was kidnapped into slavery.

Haley's relatives also recalled the stories of each generation descended from Kintay, using the names of individuals and telling what each did and where each lived and how each had carefully passed on the story of the African who was their ancestor.

While on assignment in London, Haley visited the British Museum and saw the Rosetta Stone. a tablet, discovered near Rosetta, Egypt, in 1799, which enabled scholars to ‘‘crack–the hieroglyphics of early written history. It occurred to Haley that, like a personal Rosetta Stone, the African words he had learned as a child were the key to his family's lost origins in Africa.

Doing research in tax offices, archives and libraries, Haley carefully documented the stories he had heard about the American generations of his ancestors. He also consulted an African linguist and learned that the words passed down by his family were of the Mandinka tongue, spoken by the Mandingo people. "Bolongo" meant river, he was told, and "Kamby Bolongo" probably meant the Gambia River.

Eventually, Haley traveled to Gambia, where he met with a griot—a "walking archive of oral history," trained from childhood to narrate the histories of his people. The griot, who knew the "Kinte" clan, recounted the lineage of these people generation by generation from ancient times, telling how they had left a place called Old Mali and migrated into Mauritania and how one Kariaba Kunta Kinte had moved into Gambia and settled in the village of Juffure. The griot said that one of Kariaba Kunta Kinte's grandsons, also named Kunta, had gone to chop wood and was never seen again.

While Haley had been able to find records which verified the stories his relatives told about the American generations of his ancestors, there were no records against which he could check the griot's account. The linguistic clues which led Haley to Gambia leave little doubt that he actually located the tribe of his ancestors. He found considerable evidence in British and American records that identified the ship on which his ancestor "Toby" sailed to America from Gambia in 1767.

Oral history, in the form of stories told by relatives, is the starting point for most genealogical research. It's also the form in which some early genealogies—those of the Irish, Welsh, and Scandinavians—were passed down. In countries like Gambia, where there are no written records to fall back on. Thus, oral history may be the only source of genealogical material.

Haley's stunning accomplishment in piecing together his genealogy and his subsequent fictionalized re-creation of his ancestors lives brought the common heritage of innumerable blacks descended from African slaves to life in terms of one particular family. Roots inspired not only blacks but many others to begin their search for origins. Haley's book is one to read again and again. Without knowing it, he began a new awakening in

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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