(The Inspiration for Roots)
by Alex Haley
[Adapted and abridged from the essay by Alex Haley,
originally published in the New York Times on July 16, 1972 on pages 12-16]
As a boy, Alex Haley spent his summers on his grandmother's front porch in Tennessee,
listening to her and her sisters tell stories of the family's history back through the days ofslavery. The "furthest-back person" they spoke of was an ancestor they called "The African,"
who was kidnapped in his native country, shipped to Annapolis, Maryland, and sold into
slavery. He remembered hearing:
"Yeah, boy, that African say his name was 'Kin-tay'' he say the banjo
was 'ko' and' the river 'Kamby Bolong,' an' he was choppin' some wood to
make his drum when they grabbed 'im!"These stories stayed with young Alex throughout his life. And he became obsessed with
finding his family's roots in Africa.
With the help of some friends and a linguist from West Africa, he learned that some of
the words in his grandmother's stories were like Mandinka words (a language spoken by
some tribes), and that the river she spoke of as 'Kamby Bolong' was probably the Gambia
River. Alexknew that he must get to the Gambia River.
With the help of Gambian officials, he learned that a griot, or oral historian, knew the
history of a Kin-tay family. Could this be his own family? Alex Haley began his own trip up
the Gambia River to find out.
"The boat vibrated upriver, with me very tense. After about two hours, we put in at
James Island, for me to see the ruins of the onceBritish-operated James Fort. Here two
centuries of slave ships had loaded thousand of cargoes of Gambian tribespeople. The
crumbling stones, the deeply oxidized [rusted] cannon, even some remnant links of chain
seemed all but impossible to believe. Then we continued upriver to the left-bank village of
Albreda, and there put shore to continue on foot to Juffure, village of the griot."
"Walking on,I kept wishing that Grandmas could hear how her stories had led me to the
Kamby Bolong (the Gambia River). Finally, Juffure village's playing children, sighting us,
flashed an alert. The 70-odd people came rushing from their circular, thatch-roofed, mudwalled
huts, with goats bounding up and about, and parrots squawking from up in the palms.
I sensed him in advance somehow, the small man amidthem, wearing a pillbox cap and an
off-white robe, the griot. Then the interpreters went to him, as the villagers thronged around
"And it hit me like a gale wind: every one of them, the whole crowd, was jet black. An
enormous sense of guilt swept me - a sense of being some kind of hybrid... a sense of being
impure among the pure. It was an awful sensation.
"The old griot stepped awayfrom my interpreters and the crowd quickly swarmed
around him, all of them buzzing. An interpreter came to me and whispered: "Why they stare
at you so, they have never seen here a black American." And that hit me: I was symbolizing
for them twenty-five million of us they had never seen. What did they think of me - of us?
"Then abruptly the old griot was briskly walking toward me. His eyes boringinto mine,
he spoke in Mandinka, as if instinctively I should understand, and this was translated:
"Yes... we have been told by the forefathers... that many of us from this place are in
exile... in that place called America... and in other places."
... A man brought me a low stool. Now the whispering hushed - the musicians had softly
begun playing kora and balafon, and the griot, aged 73years, took a seat. ...He began
speaking the Kinte clan's ancestral oral history; it came rolling from his mouth across the
next hours... 17th- and 18th-century Kinte lineage details, predominantly what men took
wives; they children they had, in the order of their births; those children's mates and children.
"...It was as if some ancient scroll were printed indelibly within the griot's brain....