Black Genealogy After Alex Haley’s Roots

Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, Annapolis, Maryland (Wikimedia Commons)

“A lot has been stolen from Black Americans. A lot has been hidden from Black Americans. And so there is always a longing to know who you are and where you come from.”

-Kathleen Henderson, College Administrator

 

In August 1976, Vanguard Press published American journalist Alex Haley’s 704-page novel, Roots: The Saga of An American Family, which detailed his genealogy from a West African slave born free in 1750 to his fourth great-grandson (Haley). Haley’s book and later television miniseries based on his work fascinated Americans nationwide. Roots was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list within two months of its publication, and book sales reached 1.5 million copies in seven months. After watching the series, Americans, Black and white, were inspired to visit libraries and archival centers to do their own genealogies. Black Americans were infatuated with Haley’s work. They talked about it in everyday conversations and some African Americans even named their newborns Kunta and Kizzy, the names of two of Haley’s ancestors. Roots was a provocative saga about Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka teenager from Juffure, Gambia who in the midst of his manhood training by his elders to become a warrior, husband, and father was kidnapped by European traders, trafficked by ship to Maryland, and sold into slavery to a Virginian planter. Nevertheless, Haley’s bildungsroman about a Muslim African man’s resistance to enslavement, acculturation, and racial oppression to liberate himself captured the hearts of readers and viewers worldwide. By 1977, Haley won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, along with nine Emmys and a Peabody for his miniseries.

Haley’s success with the novel and miniseries not only ignited a cultural phenomenon, but also an interest in African American genealogy for social scientists. Like John Hope Franklin’s 1947 masterpiece, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans which detailed the greatness of pre-1600 African civilizations like Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, Haley’s work reclaimed Black people’s African past. Scholars of African American history such as David A. Gerber, Donald R. Wright, and Helen Taylor offered their praises, criticisms and memories of Haley’s work in journal articles. Decades later, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series, African American Lives publicized genealogical DNA testing that could trace African Americans’ ancestors back to locations and ethnic groups in Africa. Since 1976, the Roots phenomenon stirred mixed reviews from academics, but it reconnected Black people of the diaspora back to Africa and nullified sentiments of frustration, anger, and shame in being the descendants of captives and slaves. Roots gave Black people a window to discovering their own origins beyond colonization and slavery and articulate their experiences outside of a eurocentric framework.

Not long after Roots was published, historian David A. Gerber and literature professor Merrill Maguire Skaggs published articles that respectively lauded and critiqued Haley’s novel. In Gerber’s 1977 article, “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Popular Phenomenon,” he defended Roots by arguing that Haley’s book was meant to remind people that we must refer to our past in order to understand the present and create a comprehensive view of our future.1 However, in Skaggs’ 1978 article, “Roots: A New Black Myth,” she criticized Roots, arguing that the novel cannot recreate the image of Blacks in literature, nor counteract old and negative attitudes about Black Americans because they still survive and have a controlling influence in literature.2 Although both scholars’ opinions of Roots pitted them against each other, they brought up a valid issue about modern-day stereotypes and stigmas attached to Africa.

Since the fifteenth century, European theatrical plays, poetry, and short stories, histories, and treatises like Jacques de Brézé’s “The Hunt,” William Shakespeare’s Othello, and Leo Africanus’ Geographical Histories of Africa rhetorically positioned Africa as inferior to Europe. These multiple forms of literature equated Africanness with not only “backwardness,” but also “blackness,” leading European and American readers to use their Judeo-Christian understanding of language and imagine Africans as “dirty,” “iniquitous,” “deadly,” and “wicked.” In the travel accounts of European explorers and traders like Richard Ligon, Richard Hakluyt, and John Mandeville they often critiqued African bodies and societies to justify the superiority of “white beauty and intelligence,” European intolerance of African cultures, and the European “civilizing mission” of enslavement of the African.3 Although Haley’s story was a mixture of fact and fiction, Roots broke apart the “single story” about Africa by challenging racist stereotypes embedded in America’s classical literature and rooted in its modern media. 

In the 1980s, some scholars who viewed Roots were critical of Haley’s journalistic methodology because it lacked proper archival research to confirm his family’s oral histories. Historian Gary B. Mills and certified genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote a critical article about how Roots is a historically inaccurate source of African American ancestry. In the Mills’ 1981 article, “Roots and the New ‘Faction’: A Legitimate Tool for CLIO?,” they argue that Haley’s book is an improper source for African American history because the names of Haley’s ancestors were changed for the book and some of his information came from other sources, including eighty-one passages from Harold Courlander’s 1967 book, The African. They also claimed that Roots contains several historical inaccuracies, such as the name of the slave ship that allegedly transported his African ancestor to the United States. The scholars concluded that Haley corrupted the historical accounts on his ancestors because he mistakenly relied more on his family’s oral histories (which may contain false information), than primary sources such as wills, and plantation and census records. 

During that same decade, historian Donald R. Wright condemned Haley’s work because the book was based on unreliable primary sources, such as oral histories from African griots in his 1981 article, “Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants.” Wright explained that Haley’s family members told him that his African ancestor’s name was “Kin-tay,” however one of the individuals who claimed to be a griot and recited the Kintes’ history to Haley in 1976 was a self-proclaimed amateur who specialized in storytelling and local entertainment.4 Furthermore, these criticisms indirectly suggested that researchers could be inspired by Haley but should pursue the methodology used by scholars like Charles L. Blockson and Ron Fry who in their 1976 work, Black Genealogy explained how African Americans can use runaway slave advertisements from historical newspapers like The Christian Recorder, slave masters’ record of slaves, and church baptismal records to trace their genealogy. 

In the 1990s, scholars wrote about how Roots reclaimed African agency in the enslavement narrative along with recommending additional archival and non-traditional methods to trace one’s roots. Literature lecturer Helen Taylor reflected on the impact Haley’s novel had on the African American memory of the Middle Passage and slavery nearly twenty years after its original publishing. In Taylor’s 1995 article, “‘The Griot from Tennessee’: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots,” she lamented the loss of many memorized oral histories when the griots in Africa die, but she praised Haley (and refers to him as a griot) for documenting an account of the African American experience that originated in Africa.5 That same year, scholar Paula K. Byers’ book, African American Genealogical Sourcebook outlined a list of archival sources researchers could consult to find African American ancestors: planter records, slave narratives from the 1930s Works Progress Administration, and Freedman’s Bureau records. Additionally, historian John Baker Jr. wrote an article about his first memory of doing his genealogy, his continued work in the field, and his new interest in archaeological work that supplements traditional genealogy. In Baker’s 1997 article, “The Search for My African American Ancestry,” he discussed how his work with archaeologists digging for household goods and personal effects at the Tennessee plantation site, Wessyngton shed light on the lives of the slaves who lived and worked there.6

In the early 2000s three academics, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian Saidiya Hartman, and sociologist Alondra Nelson, all did something reminiscent of Haley’s work three decades ago: they attempted to discover their genealogy and document it. In Gates’ 2006 article, “My Yiddishe Mama,” he discussed the television series, African American Lives he hosted from 2006-2008. Gates described how he and his nineteen prominent guests found their closest ancestors in government, archival and literary records, while using DNA testing to discover their most distant ancestors in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. The highlight of the show was the ability geneticists had to use DNA testing to pinpoint the guests’ African ancestors to groups such as the Mbundu in Angola, the Makua of Mozambique, and the Bamileke of Cameroon. In Hartman’s 2007 book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, she described her extensive search to find “black roots” in Africa. Hartman began her search by travelling along an Atlantic Slave Route in Ghana for a year. Although Hartman did not find an ancestor during her journey, she did discover that the horrors of  African slavery began with the breaking of familial ties via slave capture. In Nelson’s 2008 article, “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,” she described several African American genealogists who traced their ancestry with archival records and then took a DNA test. When the genealogists received the DNA test results revealing their ethnic makeup, they were confused about their race and identity.7 Overall, Nelson’s experiment and the genealogical journeys of Gates and Hartman explored identity-based questions some researchers face when they finally discover who their distant ancestors are. Is one’s identity based on racially-distinct life experiences, monolithic racial histories, genetics-based ancestry or all the above?            

Since Alex Haley’s Roots, African Americans have realized that despite the many challenges present in doing Black genealogy it is possible to reclaim histories that were once degraded, erased, and lost. When I saw Roots for the first time, I was so fascinated by his ability to trace his ancestry back to West Africa that I wanted to discover my genealogy as well. Like many African Americans, I had little knowledge of my ancestors beyond 1865 and felt emotionally and culturally disconnected from my African heritage. When I was finally able to reclaim my African heritage through archival research, online genealogical databases, and DNA testing, I could finally see my ancestors from Nigeria, Benin, and Togo as more than people who were victimized by slavery. My ancestors were people of great strength and resistance who had a history outside of oppression. To have closure about who your ancestors were outside of victimization is more than historical information, but also a kind of freedom to discover where you come from, what your ancestors have achieved and overcome, and who you can become.

  1. David A. Gerber, “Haley’s Roots and Our Own: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Popular Phenomenon,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 87-111.
  2. Merrill Maguire Skaggs, “Roots: A New Black Myth,” Southern Quarterly 17, no. 1 (Fall 1978): 42-50.
  3. Jennifer Morgan, “‘Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 54 (1997): 167-192.
  4. Donald R. Wright, “Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants,” History of Africa 8, (1981): 205-217.
  5. Helen Taylor,“‘The Griot from Tennessee’: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Root,’” Critical Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 46-62.
  6. John Baker Jr., “The Search for My African American Ancestry,” Historical Archaeology 31, no. 3 (1997): 7-17.
  7. Alondra Nelson, “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,” Social Studies of Science 38, no. 5 (Oct. 2008): 759-783.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is a Visiting Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University. Her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson is currently researching race, crime, and policing surrounding the public transportation system in post-1958 Philadelphia.

Comments on “Black Genealogy After Alex Haley’s Roots

  • A fine essay, Thank you.

    Reply
  • One note to add to this excellent overview: Alex Haley’s book, and Henry Louis Gates’s PBS series, have definitely increased interest in genealogical research among African Americans. But there is another piece to this story, especially as it involves DNA testing. Those tests require individuals to give up their own and their families’ genetic information to companies who do a range of things with that information. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are accessing that data in a range of ways. Given the well-documented problems with structural racism within our “criminal justice” systems, the surge in interest in DNA testing as part of genealogical research may have very, very, very dangerous repercussions for individuals and communities of color.

    Reply

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