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.

More Reading:


i am a waller....more info please


So in reading this I've come to this conclusion. Kunta Kinte is in fact Hopping George who was married to Isabelle (Belle) they have a daughter And gives her the African name Kizzy (Kesia in the native tongue but whose European name from the massa was lost in the passing down of the story) who was in fact playmates with Missy Anne. She (Kintes daughter) has a daughter who she taught to read and write and it's the daughter who forges the traveling pass and is sold off to Lea and is raped by Lea. She has a son who she names George after her Grandfather who is really Hopping George (Kunta Kinte). Again just my thought.


So,for the most part it appears to be fairly correct except the original Waller slave owner who's child/children possibly inherited and loaned/borrowed Kunte/George, Bell and Kizzy/Kesia.?


I'm a Waller with Reynolds as relatives/ancestors, too. My Grandfather's nickname was always "Nig" (we called him Grandaddy Nig; his full name was Edmund Meredith "Nig" Waller, Sr.), likely due to his dark complexion, which my deceased father shared, as do I. Although the rumor was that we were "part Cherokee," I always believed it more likely that I am descended from a slave and the melanin was inherited that way. My father told of our Virginia slave-owning ancestors and their relation to the Alex Haley story/descendants, believing that Haley used the name "Reynolds" because they are closely related. I wish I could find out more about this!


As African American we are all descendants from a slave


Hi! I found your blog through googling top 10 genealogy blogs and I see you haven't posted anything in a few years. That's sad - I'm wondering if you'll be posting again? I understand that life gets in the way but I've found some very helpful information here (from the past) and your viewpoint is interesting. Anyway, I hope that you'll be posting again! :)

Kathy at AncientFaces


That's basically the same conclusion I came to also. It makes sense. I've been to the location of the old Newport plantation which was featured in the original series. It's overgrown marshland now at the junction if the Ma and Ta rivers where they become the Matta river tributary.


This is very interesting and helpful. I am doing a research on Kinte and the Wallers. I live in VA if anyone wants to talk more please email me.


so there's still comments going 8 years after the last post? interesting... the newest comment was less than a month ago too...

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