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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Roots Revisited

My introduction to genealogy came in the form of a television miniseries when I was eight. With the publication of Alex Haley's Roots in 1976, and the dramatization of the book that soon followed, genealogy gained in popularity at a rate which made established researchers shudder. With this rush of newbies into the field, standards of scholarship dropped—a phenomenon which echoes to this day across the Internet.

But Haley's own research was thorough and correct: Wasn't it?

In the years after the book's release, it was attacked on all sides by historians, anthropologists, and professional genealogists. One article from 1984, by Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, gives "The Genealogist's Assessment of Alex Haley's Roots."1 The authors make several crippling criticisms of Haley's methods and conclusions.

1. The Gambian griot (tribal story-teller and historian) from whom Haley learned of Kunta Kinte's family and of his capture was not an official griot at all, and previously had given a different account of the Kinte family to another researcher. The discrepancies included a different name for Kunta's father (Lamin, instead of Omoro). Haley had been warned by a Gambian archivist that "to get a long detailed and sustained narrative from [a village] elder is rare."2

2. Haley had identified his ancestor as "Toby," a slave in the Waller family of Virginia, who appears in written records in 1768. He had also concluded that Kunta Kinte came from Gambia (based on the origin of words handed down in his family), and that he had arrived at Annapolis, Maryland. Haley looked for a slave ship arriving at Annapolis from Gambia before 1768, and found the Lord Ligonier, which arrived in 1767. He concluded (upon no other basis) that Kinte was aboard this ship.

3. Dr. William Waller of Virginia did own a slave named Toby, but did not own slaves named Bell (Kinte's wife) or Kizzy (their daughter). In fact, Waller's slave Toby disappeared from the record 22 years before Kizzy's supposed date of birth. (Note: The family is called "Reynolds" in the movie.)

4. "Missy Anne" (famously played by Sandy Duncan in the movie) could not have been Kizzy's childhood friend, as Haley writes. She was married with children by the time Kizzy was born.

5. Tom Lea, the slaveowner who Haley says fathered Kizzy's child Chicken George, did not own the other slaves whom Haley says he owned. There are also other, chronological problems with the account of George's escape from his father's ownership.
On the bright side, Mills and Mills show a connection Haley missed between the Wallers of Virginia and the Leas of North Carolina—the Leas had come from the same corner of Spotsylvania County (the two families may have been related). More exciting, the Waller family of Virginia did own a crippled slave (recall the scene where "Toby" is maimed for his escape attempt), but it was not Toby. It was a man called Hoping [Hopping] George, who was owned by Colonel William Waller—father of brothers William and John Waller whom Haley believed to have owned Kunta Kinte. As "George" was a name common in Alex Haley's family, and Colonel William Waller also owned a slave named Isabell (Kinte's wife was supposedly named "Bell"), this might have been the true ancestor of Haley.

Two major lessons may be drawn from Haley's mistakes and the subsequent efforts to correct them. First, oral tradition is fallible. It's not unusual for one's family history to be mangled as it is passed down from parent to child. People bearing the same name are conflated; whole generations are lost. Second, one doesn't have to rely on oral tradition, even if one's ancestors were denied the benefits of citizenship. It's not impossible to track the ownership and family connections of slaves—it's just difficult.

Who said genealogy was supposed to be easy?

1National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) 72:35ff (Mar. 1984). For a bibliography of critical articles on Roots, see NGSQ 91:266n19 (Dec. 2003).
2NGSQ 72:40.

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