The History cable network has apparently bought the rights to the late Alex Haley’s blockbuster mini-series Roots with a view to “reviving the cultural icon for a new audience”, as well as cashing in on Hollywood’s currently trending slavery theme.
I’m old enough to remember Roots’ first airing in the UK in 1977 (I was 11 years old), and it made quite an impression on me. I was drawn immediately to the history and continuity of Haley’s genealogy. The drama involving his ancestor Kunta Kinte and generations of his descendants made each instalment compulsive viewing in our household. The show obviously had a much deeper impact in the US where it touched rawer nerves. Its concluding episodes drew 100 million viewers, almost half of the country, and cemented it as a cultural phenomenon.
When I first started getting into online genealogy around 30 years later I was reminded of Roots and decided to buy the box set on DVD to watch with my own family. The production felt dated, but it was still a gripping story and we got through all 12 hours in one weekend marathon session. I did wonder though how Alex Haley presented his genealogy with such confidence – particularly given the notorious difficulty of tracing ancestors who were enslaved.
Haley acknowledged that his novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the basis of the TV mini-series, was a mix of fact and fiction. Actually, he was charged with plagiarism in 1977 and had to settle out of court with anthropologist Harold Courlander to the tune of $650,000. It was found that Roots had ‘borrowed’ whole passages from Courlander’s 1967 novel The African, a fictional story about a young African boy who is captured, endures the horrors of the mid-Atlantic passage, and is sold into slavery in America.
Haley was, however, clear on the reliability of his genealogy. In the final chapter of Roots he wrote: “To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families’ carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.”
According to Haley’s research, he is the 4 x great-grandson of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka tribesman of the Gambia, West Africa, who was taken and sold into slavery. Kunta was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte around 1750 in the village of Juffure. Seized by slave traders at the age of 16, he was taken to the slave fort on James Island (renamed Kunta Kinte Island in 2011) on the Gambia River, from where he was transported with 139 other slaves on board the Lord Ligonier slave ship, captained by a Thomas Davies. Kunta was one of 98 who survived the three-month Atlantic voyage to North America, landing in Annapolis, Maryland on 29 September 1767.
Kunta was sold at a slave auction, advertised in the Maryland Gazette, to a Virginia plantation owner, John Waller, and was renamed ‘Toby’. After repeated escape attempts from the plantation in Spotsylvania County, Kunta was punished by having the front half of his right foot cut off. A document dated 1768 records the transfer of the maimed “Negro man slave named Toby” from John Waller to his brother Dr William Waller. In 1789 Kunta married a slave cook in Dr Waller’s house named Bell and they had a daughter the following year whom they named Kizzy (or Keisa in Mandinka).
Within the social limits of the plantation culture, young Kizzy became friends with Dr Waller’s niece Anne, who was about 3 years older and secretly taught Kizzy to read and write. In 1806 Kizzy, at the age of 16, forged a travel pass to aid the escape of a young male slave named Noah. As a punishment for this breach of trust, Dr Waller sold Kizzy away and she never saw her parents again.
Kizzy’s new master was a North Carolina plantation owner named Tom Lea, who raped her and fathered her son, George. When George grew to adulthood, he acquired the nickname ‘Chicken George’ because of duties tending to his master/father’s cockfighting birds, at which he excelled. Lea settled a gambling debt with a rich Englishman by giving him George’s services as a trainer to his own cockfighters. George went to England with Lea’s promises of freedom after he returned. George returned 14 years later (shortly before the start of the Civil War) but only secured his freedom by enticing his aged father into a drunken stupor and stealing his own manumission papers.
Haley’s lineage continues through Chicken George’s son Tom Murray, who was emancipated from slavery in 1865, and grandaughter Cynthia. Cynthia gave birth to Haley’s mother Bertha in 1895. Haley, the seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, was born in 1921.
Dr Gary B Mills and his wife Elizabeth Shown Mills, experts on Southern Black history and genealogy, demonstrated in two articles in 1981 and 1984 how the details of Haley’s epic family history do not stand up to serious scrutiny.
Haley said that his work on Roots involved 10 years of research and travel as he tried to find the sources to back up the family’s “carefully preserved oral history” that he had learned from his grandmother Cynthia and her sisters. Haley turned to an expert in African linguistics who suggested that his handed-down words and phrases came from the Mandinka language and were associated with the moving water of the Gambia River. A student from the Gambia offered to take Haley to West Africa and search the villages named after the families who settled them centuries ago.
According to Dr Mills, Haley’s mistake was to straightaway divulge his full family history to Gambian officials, who then went out into the countryside to question the griots (the official keepers of the villages’ oral histories). Unsurprisingly, one villager, sensing an opportunity, said he remembered the story of Kunta Kinte very well. He was Kebba Kanga Fofana and lived in the village of Juffure where he said Kunta Kinte grew up. Fofana told Haley: “About the time the king’s soldiers came, Kunta went away from this village to chop wood and was never seen again.”
Dr Mills said that Haley’s account of his search in the Gambia was investigated by Professor Donald R Wright, a specialist in African prehistory with extensive experience in the collection of Gambian oral traditions. Wright interviewed Fofana himself and discovered that he was not a griot as he purported to be. Wright said that Fofana: “… showed no inclination to recite long (or short) genealogies of any families. He was eager, however, to speak of the Kunta Kinte episode, to the extent that in the entire interview … Kunta Kinte was the only individual about whom Fofana provided any specific information. Yet I recorded nothing of the kind of information that Haley received.”
A representative of the Gambian National Archives also visited Fofana and taped his oral account of the Kinte genealogy (something Haley did not do). Journalist Mark Ottaway of the London Times heard the tape and compared it with Haley’s published account. There were a number of contradictions between the two, for example, Fofana identified Kunta Kinte’s father as Lamio, while Haley wrote that he was named Omoro. Fofana also stated that Kunta’s brothers were Usula, Suwandi and Omar; Haley wrote that they were Lamin, Suwadu, and Madi.
Professor Wright, who interviewed over a hundred Gambian griots and elders, stated: “From often disappointing experience I learned that … oral traditions of the lower Gambia simply do not contain specific information about real people living before the nineteenth century.”
Of his American search, Haley said: “through plantation records, wills, census records, I documented bits here, shreds there …. By 1967, I felt I had the seven generations of the U.S. side documented.”
But Elizabeth Shown Mills countered: “In actuality, the same plantation records, wills, censuses, legal conveyances, and other record categories touted by Haley not only fail to document his story, they contradict every statement of Afro-American lineage, prior to the Civil War, that appears in Roots.”
According to Haley’s family tradition, Kunta Kinte was brought to America through the port of Annapolis. The oral tradition does not state the year, and port records do not name the forced immigrants from Africa. However, Haley believed that Kunta arrived in Annapolis in 1767 on board the Lord Ligonier.
He based this on two factors:
1. Fofana’s account of Kunta being captured in “the year the King’s soldiers came” to the Gambia.
2. At Lloyd’s of London, Haley said he found ship rolls, lying unopened in long-abandoned cartons, revealing that a ‘Colonel O’Hare’ brought a troop of soldiers to the Gambia in 1767, the same year that a slave ship sailed from the Gambia, bound for the port of Annapolis.
Despite Lloyd’s of London stating that it had no ‘long-forgotten, unopened cartons of ship rolls’ from that era, Haley’s ‘Colonel O’Hare’ was undoubtedly Lt Col Charles O’Hara, appointed commandant of the Africa Corps in Senegal in July 1766. O’Hara went on to be Cornwallis’ second-in-command in the American Revolutionary War, and had the distinction of having been personally taken prisoner by George Washington in 1781 and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1793.
Mark Ottaway of the Times said:
“When I asked Haley why out of all these “king’s soldiers” he should have selected those under O’Hara, he said it was because his researchers in America had indicated that his ancestor must have been shipped to Annapolis before 1768. The only ship he could trace which had made the voyage from the Gambia to Annapolis during the 1760s had done so in 1767. In other words, Haley simply found an African event to fit his American research.”
Having selected the date of Kunta Kinte’s transportation, Haley resumed his search in Richmond, Virginia. He said:
“I pored through microfilmed legal deeds filed within Spotsylvania County, Virginia, after September 1767, when the Lord Ligonier had landed. In time, I found a lengthy deed dated September 5, 1768, in which John Waller and his wife Ann transferred to William Waller land and goods, including 240 acres of farmland … and then on the second page ‘and also one Negro man slave named Toby’.”
This led Haley to exclaim, “My God! … I found you! Kunta Kinte!’
This reaction will chime with any genealogist, but the serious ones will try to avoid claiming the first matching name as an ancestor without corroborating evidence. In line with his family tradition, Haley had indeed found a document showing a slave Toby in the possession of a John Waller. However, this Toby also appeared in at least 6 documents over a 5 year period prior to the arrival of the Lord Ligonier in 1767.
In Haley’s history, Toby didn’t marry or have children for 21 years after his transfer to William Waller’s ownership in 1768. Then in 1789 he married Bell and in 1790 they had Kizzy, who grew to maturity on William Waller’s plantation. The tax rolls show that William Waller inherited his father’s estate in 1763, but he seemed incapable of managing it himself because he deeded it to his brother John in return for the provision of clothes, food, and all other necessities. When John started to squander the estate, William took back what remained. This was recorded in the 1768 document found by Haley – the transfer of 240 acres and a male slave named Toby. There is no further record of Toby after 1768, just as there is no record of when, or even if, he was purchased (i.e. it is more likely he was born into slavery). The tax rolls also show that William Waller sold his land in 1770.
The house of cards collapses at this point. During this key period in the servitude of Haley’s ancestors, William Waller owned no plantation and no slaves.
This makes Haley’s other major distortions almost irrelevant. In Roots, John Waller’s daughter Anne was born in 1786 (but to spice up the plot, she was actually fathered by his brother William) and in 1789 William drafted a will in which he left his slaves “to little Missy Anne”. Such a document does exist, but it was a deed of gift stating that William Waller promised his niece Anne three slaves he expected to receive when his mother died. However, the deed was actually drafted in 1767 – some 22 years earlier than Haley stated. By the time Kizzy was supposedly born, her childhood friend “little Missy Anne” was a married woman with children of her own.
The Millses say that all this leads to “the inarguable conclusion that the 182 pages and thirty-nine chapters in which the Virginia lives of Haley’s ‘ancestors’ are chronicled have no basis in fact. Neither of the two relationships that are crucial to his pedigree (the identity of Kizzy as daughter of Kinte alias Toby, and the relationship of Bell as wife of Kinte and mother of Kizzy) can be established by even the weakest genealogical evidence.”
The North Carolina chapters beginning with Kizzy’s arrival at Tom Lea’s plantation are just as flaky. Various documents exist which identify the slaves owned by Tom Lea, by name, age, sex, and relationship. There is no evidence that any of the slave characters in Haley’s saga were ever owned by Tom Lea, including Kizzy herself.
Tom Lea’s estate file also demolishes another crucial element of Haley’s story, how Chicken George “raised himself from slavery and became a free man”. Chicken George, having returned from his 14 year absence in England (where, incidently, slavery was illegal and where he would have gained automatic manumission under both English and American law) stole his freedom papers while Tom Lea was drunk. In the chronology of the story, this incident was supposed to have occurred sometime after 1856 and before the Civil War. Tom Lea actually died in the winter of 1844-45.
It is not until after the Civil War that actual documentary evidence can be found on any of Haley’s ancestors portrayed in Roots, and even then Haley takes some dramatic licence with the facts.
Whether you think Alex Haley was an out and out fraud, or just over-burdened with “every holy word” of his family’s oral tradition, perhaps doesn’t matter when you consider what Roots became: the self-styled story of millions of black Americans, with Kunta Kinte as their first literary hero.
Even Alex Haley’s close friend, Professor Henry Louis Gates (who hosted TV’s Finding Your Roots), acknowledged this:
“Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination.”
It will be interesting to see how the remake lives up to the original. So long as you take the genealogy and relationships with a huge pinch of salt, it still has considerable charm and the power to move.