Many who have seen the classic 1977 saga “Roots” (which I reference in many of my blog posts) should remember the mini-series sequel, “Roots: The Next Generations”. Between the two, the stories chronicle the life and bloodline from Kunta Kinte (captured and sold into slavery) to his 4th Great grandson Alex Haley, the author of the book.
It’s been some time since most have seen it, but if you remember, the most beautiful scene is the conclusion of the second series. In this scene Haley (played by James Earl Jones) traces his roots all the way back to the series’ initial and central character, Kunta. There, he is welcomed home into the community.
In the closing moments, Haley, overjoyed in finding his home country of his ancestors is stopped before boarding the boat for his return trip home by a Gambian countryman, running and screaming his name. The young man, unable to speak English, informs him that he also has Haley’s family name. He says his full name, then points at Haley, saying “Kinte”, then back at himself and repeating, “KINTE”.
Haley acknowledges him as a distant cousin and extends his hand to shake that of his newfound relative before pulling him in for an emotional, circle-completing embrace.
This, to me, is such a beautiful scene because as the story goes, after 20 years of research, Alex Haley not only connected the line to Kunta Kinte, but found his home country, village and people.
But this is an extremely rare feat for one of African ancestry. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it is difficult to identify family members of the slavery era and damn-near impossible to find the birth names of those taken from Africa, sold into slavery and renamed.
As I’ve said on a few occasions, slave masters had no interest in knowing or preserving a slave’s real name, place of origin or their history. Slaves were property, given the name of the master and forced to learn English in order to understand instructions and communicate effectively. In many cases, they were taught the bare minimum to respond to basic commands.
Information regarding slave marriages, birthdates and even former plantations (those who were separated from their families and sold away) were not recorded, as this information was of no interest to the owners. Rarely was there a situation where a family worked hard to preserve the family name and history as was accomplished in the Roots story.
Haley also had the advantage and good fortune of being born in 1921, so to talk to his elders was to have connection to those who were the children and grandchildren of Tom Harvey, the last generation of the Kinte line to live as slaves. Oh, the stories he must have heard.
I was born in 1967 and unlike Alex Haley, I wasn’t raised in a family that pulled me aside to teach me everything about everyone on my family tree. I heard bits and pieces when relatives got together for dinners and family reunions, but I rarely paid attention. And no, my past was not impressed upon me. Looking back, if I had it all over to do again, I would have sat with my grandmother, who died when I was 9, and my paternal Aunt Elma, who died sooner. I would have asked them a thousand questions, stopped to enjoy my grandmother’s heavenly biscuits (she took the recipe with her to the grave), then I would have asked a thousand more.
By the time I took interest in my family history, my father was gone, along with many of my older relatives. Many of the memories were now lost from the minds of my surviving elders. The one who had the best recollection of our history? She was 80 at this point. Opportunity lost, but I don’t blame myself or anyone else for that matter. That was not the desire of your average child.
Thankfully today, having spoken with our family historian (a distant cousin, of whom I didn’t know existed) I was at least able to learn names of families further up my line. Between that, Ancestry DNA research and the internet for over 10 years, I’ve been able to trace back to my 3rd Great grandparents Isham and Amy Pipkin, born in 1794 and 1796, respectively. As far as the Davis name goes, I was able to trace back to my 2nd Great grandparents Peter and Betsey Davis (1830 and 1835).
You may also remember that I learned that I am 37% Nigerian, 31% Cameroonian/Conganese, 16% Beninese/Togolese and 8% Ghanaian, among other things. It’s funny how it costs over $100 from a DNA identity service to find out what was stripped from my identity after my people were abducted from a land at which they were free people. If anything, it should be free and a courtesy!
Anyway, unless I can find slave owners, purchase records, ship manifests, African locations of procurement, etc, this may be as far as my journey takes me.
But I won’t give up.
And if you’ve begun a journey of your own, neither should you.
The truth is out there, somewhere. The stories of dozens of people in your family line are begging to be heard. So gather what you can, from whomever you can. It doesn’t have to start today, but do it soon, while there are people in your family who DO know. Who remember.
Take pride in your heritage and honor those before you. Those who fought in the Civil rights movement, fought to vote, own businesses, build churches, manage farms, learn to read, obtain freedom, endure the brutality of slavery, survive the grueling Middle Passage journey and those who once lived a life of freedom in a faraway land called Africa – where it all began.
Happy National Roots Day. Know from whence you came…
If you’d like to see the full scene of the finale from “Roots: The Next Generations”, click below:
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