The remarkable story of how Alex Haley succeeded in finding out the details of his African slave ancestor, Kunta Kinte

It took remarkably tenacious detective work on Alex Haley’s part to find out the key facts about his African-born ancestor who was kidnapped into slavery. Here is what he found out: a) “Toby” was the name given to Haley’s ancestor by his American slave-owner but his real name was Kunta Kinte; (b) the name and location of the very village in Africa where Kunta was born; (c) the name of the African port he sailed from; (d) the name of the ship he sailed on; (e) the American port where he disembarked; (f) the name and address of the man who bought him at a slave auction; (g) the name and address of his second owner. Haley starts his search with only scraps of information. He notices that most of the words that have been transmitted from generation to generation in his family all seem to have a “k” sound: “Kunta Kinte”, his African ancestor; “Ko”, Kunta’s name for a guitar; “Kamby Bolongo”, his name for a river.

Haley’s first step is to contact a few American professors of African languages. They tell him that Kunta very probably was of the Mandinka people, Moslems who live in Gambia, West Africa. Haley travels to Gambia and makes contact with some well educated Gambians who promise to help him with his search. They tell him that the Kamby Bolongo is the name of the major river that flows through Gambia. They also tell him about the “griots”, African men highly trained in oral history who know the history of all the people in a given village. Haley returns to America and continues his research. Within a few months he receives word from his Gambian contacts: they have located a griot who knows all about the history of the Kinte clan.

Haley flies back to Gambia and ferrets out the very village of Kunta Kinte. He sits down with the griot and an interpreter. Here is the gist of what the griot says: Roughly between the years 1750 and 1760 Omoro Kinte begat four sons, whose names were, in the order of their birth, Kunta, Lamin,
Suwadu, and Madi. (…) About the time the King’s soldiers came, (…) the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from his village to chop wood [for a drum Ed] and he was never seen again.

Haley remembers that his grandmother had mentioned a place she called “Naplis” and he realizes that this has to be Annapolis and that it’s probably there that Kunta and the other slaves disembarked. Haley travels to London for further research and discovers that in 1767 a British military unit was sent to the Fort James slave fort on the Gambia river. This pinpoints the year. And then—bingo!—he finds that on July 5, 1767, a British ship called The Lord Ligonier, captained by Thomas Davies, sailed from the Gambia River. Its destination: Annapolis. Returning to the U.S.A. Haley confirms all of these details at the Maryland Hall of Records. He even finds details of the ship’s cargo: 3265 elephant tusks, 3700 pounds of beeswax, and 98 negroes—forty-two had died during the Atlantic crossing. A year later in Richmond, Virginia he finds a deed that was written up on September 5, 1768 and
which mentions that John Waller and his wife Anne transferred to John’s brother William (…) 240 acres of farmland, (…) and also “one Negro man slave named Toby.”

What persistence and imagination Haley showed! Roots is a fascinating true story and watching the mini-series is an unforgettable experience. Taken together the book and the miniseries give us a good idea of what many American slaves experienced. Roots (the book and the mini-series) would make a great home-based project for your students.

Just this morning (November 14, 2020) I stumbled upon a website hosted by Philip Nobile in which Mr. Nobile claims that Haley plagiarized a lot from an earlier book, “The African” by Harold Courlander. Now I don’t know quite what to think.

I deal with Alex Haley’s Roots, (both the book and the miniseries) in Chapter two of my recent book, Home Study Projects and New Ideas for English Language Arts. Chapter two is about how to use documentary movies to expand one’s English program. I feature five miniseries (and their accompanying book): The Vietnam War (Ken Burns), Dude, Where’s my Country? (Michael Moore), Roots (Alex Haley), The Winds of War (Herman Wouk), The Story of English (Robert McCrum and others). The pages I include from Roots deal with Kunta’s enslavement, his departure from Africa in a slave ship, his efforts to teach his American-born daughter Kizzy many African (specifically, Mandingo) words, and his observations of a slave auction.

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