When I was a little boy of about five, I was living with my recently widowed Grandma in Henning, Tenn. Each spring, to fill the void of Grandpa’s absence, she used to invite various female relatives of hers to spend the summers with us. Averaging in her age range, the late 40s and early 50s, they had names like Aunt Plus, Aunt Liz, Aunt Till, Aunt Viney and Cousin Georgia. With the supper dishes washed, they all would go out on the front porch and sit in cane-bottomed rocking chairs, and I would sort of scrounch myself down behind the white-painted rocker holding Grandma. Unless there was some local priority gossip, always they would talk about the same things—snatches and patches of what later I’d learn was the long, cumulative family narrative that had been passed down across the generations.
The farthest-back person they ever talked about was a man they called “the African,” who they always said had been brought to this country on a ship to some place that they pronounced “Naplis.” They said he was bought off this ship by a “Massa John Waller” who had a plantation in a place called “Spotsylvania County, Virginia.” They would tell how the African kept trying to escape, and how on the fourth effort he was captured by two white slave catchers, who apparently decided to make an example of him. Given the choice either of being castrated or having a foot cut off, the African chose his foot.
Massa John’s brother, a Dr. William Waller, was so mad about the maiming that he bought the African for his own plantation. Though now the African was crippled, he could do limited work in the vegetable garden.
Grandma and the others said that Africans fresh off slave ships were given some name by their massas. In this particular African’s case the name was “Toby.” But they said anytime any of the other slaves called him that, he would strenously rebuff them, declaring that his name was “Kin-tay.”
“Toby”—or “Kin-tay”—eventually mated with a woman slave, Bell, the big-house cook. They had a little girl who was given the name “Kizzy.” Then she was around four to five years old, her African father began to lead her around, pointing out different things to her and repeating to her their names in his own native tongue. He would point at a guitar, for example, and say something that sounded like “ko.” Or he would point at the river that ran near the plantation—actually the Mattaponi River—and say what sounded like “Kamby Bolongo.” As Kizzy grew older and her African father learned English better, he began telling her stories about himself, his people and his homeland—and how he was taken away from it. He said that he had been out in the forest not far from his village chopping wood to make a drum, when he had been surprised by four men, overwhelmed and kidnapped into slavery.
When Kizzy was 16 years old, Grandma Palmer and the other Murray family ladies said, she was sold away to a new master named Tom Lea who owned a small plantation in North Carolina. On this plantation Kizzy gave birth to a boy, whose father was Tom Lea, who gave the boy the name of George.
When George got around four or five years old, his mother began to tell him her African father’s sounds and stories until he came to know them well. George earned such a reputation as a gamecock-trainer that he’d been given the nickname “Chicken George.”
Chicken George, when around 18, met and mated with a slave girl named Mathilda who bore him eight children. With each new child’s birth, Chicken George would gather his family within their slave cabin, telling them afresh about their African great-grandfather “Kin-tay.”
The eight children grew up, took mates and had their own children. The fourth son, Tom, was a blacksmith when he was sold along with the rest of his family to a “Massa Murray,” who owned a tobacco plantation in Alamance County, N. C. There, Tom met and mated with a half-Indian slave girl named Irene, who eventually also bore eight children and, with each new birth, Tom continued the tradition his father, Chicken George, had begun, telling his family about their African great-great-grandfather and all those descending from him.
Of that second set of eight children, the youngest was a girl named Cynthia, who became my maternal Grandma, and who was two years old when her father, Tom, and grandfather, Chicken George, lead a wagon train of freed slaves westward to Henning, Tenn., where Cynthia met and at the age of 22 married Will Palmer.
Invariably it would astonish me when the narrative finally got to Cynthia . . . and there I sat looking right at Grandma! As well as Aunt Viney, Aunt Matilda, and Aunt Liz—her older sisters—who had ridden right along with Grandma in the wagon train.
Almost three decades later, while working as a freelance writer, I was sent to London on an assignment by a magazine. Poking about one day in the British Museum between appointments, I found myself looking at the Rosetta Stone.
Discovered in the Nile delta, I learned, the stone’s face had chiseled into it three separate texts, one in known Greek characters, the second in a then-unknown set of characters, the third in the ancient hieroglyphics, which it had been assumed no one ever would be able to translate. But a French scholar, Jean Champollion, matched, character for character, both the unknown text and the hieroglyphics, with the known Greek text and he offered a thesis that the texts read the same. Essentially, he had cracked the mystery of the previously undeciphered hieroglyphics in which much of mankind’s earliest history was recorded.
The French scholar had deciphered a historic unknown by matching it with that which was known. That presented me a rough analogy: In the oral history that Grandma, Aunt Liz, Aunt Plus, Cousin Georgia and the others had always told, I had an unknown quotient in those strange words or sounds passed on by the African. I wondered: What specific African tongue was it? Was there any way in the world that maybe I could find out?
Now over 30 years later the sole surviving one of the old ladies who had talked the family narrative on the Henning front porch was the youngest among them, Cousin Georgia Anderson. Grandma was gone, and all of the others too. In her 80s now, Cousin Georgia lived in Kansas City, Kan. I flew to Kansas City, to See Cousin Georgia.
I think that I will never quite get over her instant response when I raised the subject of the family story. Wrinkled and ailing, she jerked upright in her bed, her excitement like boyhood front-porch echoes:
“Yeah, boy, dat African say his name was ‘Kin-tay’! . . . He say de guitar a ‘ko,’ de river ‘Kamby Bolongo,’ an’ he was choppin’ wood to make hisself a drum when dey catched ‘im!”
I explained to her that I wanted to try to see if there was any way that I could possibly find where our “Kin-tay” had come from . . . which could reveal our ancestral tribe.
“You go ‘head boy!” exclaimed Cousin Georgia. “Yo’ sweet grandma an’ all of em—dey up dere watchin’ you!”
Soon after, I went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and asked for the Alamance County, N. C., census records just after the Civil War. Tiring after studying several of the long microfilm rolls, I found myself looking down there on: “Tom Murray, black, blacksmith—,” “Irene Murray, black, housewife—” . . . followed by the names of Grandma’s older sisters. “Elizabeth, age 6″—nobody in the world but my Great Aunt Liz! At the time of that census, Grandma wasn’t even born yet!
Then living in New York, I returned to Washington as often as I could manage it—searching in the National Archives, in the Library of Congress, in the Daughters of the American Revolution Library. Wherever I was, whenever black library attendants perceived the nature of my search, documents I’d requested would reach me with a miraculous speed. From one or another source during 1966, I was able to document at least the highlights of the cherished family story.
Now the thing was where, what, how could I pursue those strange phonetic sounds that it was always said our African ancestor had spoken. There in New York City, I began arriving at the United Nations around quitting time. It wasn’t hard to spot the Africans, and every one I was able to stop, I’d tell my sounds to. Each of them gave me a quick look, a quick listen, and then took off. I can’t say I blame them—my trying to communicate some African sounds in a Tennessee accent.
Increasingly frustrated, I had a long talk with George Sims, my researcher, who told me about a renowned Belgian linguist, Dr. Jan Vansina who had lived in African villages and written a book called La Tradition Orale. I telephoned Dr. Vansina at the University of Wisconsin where he now taught and he invited me to see him. When I arrived in Madison, Wis., I told him every syllable I could remember of the family narrative heard since little boyhood. Dr. Vansina said, that he felt certain that the sounds were from the “Mandinka” tongue, the language spoken by the Mandingo people. The word ko, he said, could refer to the kora, one of the Mandingo people’s oldest stringed instruments. Dr. Vansina said that without question, bolongo meant, in the Mandinka tongue, a moving water, as a river; preceded by “Kamby,” it could indicate the Gambia River.
Speaking at a seminar held at Utica College, Utica, N. Y., I learned of a Gambian student at nearby Hamilton College, Ebou Manga. I found him in an agricultural economics class. Ebou tentatively confirmed my sounds. In his dormitory room, I told him about my quest. We left for The Gambia at the end of the following week.
Arriving in Dakar, Senegal, the next morning, we caught a light plane to small Yundum Airport in The Gambia. In a passenger van, we rode into the capital city of Banjul (then Bathurst). Ebou and his father, Alhaji Manga—Gambians are mostly Moslems—assembled a small group of men knowledgeable in their small country’s history. I told these men the family narrative that had come down across the generations. When I had finished, they said almost with wry amusement, “Well, of course ‘Kamby Bolongo’ would mean Gambia River; anyone would know that.” They showed a much greater interest that my 1760s ancestor had insisted his name was “Kin-tay.” “Our country’s oldest villages tend to be named for the families that settled those villages centuries ago,” they said. Sending for a map, pointing, they said, “Look, here is the village of Kinte-Kundah. And not far from it, the village of Kinte-Kundah Janneh-Ya.”
Then they told me of very old men called griots, still to be found in the older back-country villages, men who were in effect living, walking archives of oral history. A senior griot would be a man usually in his late 60s or early 70s; below him would he progressively younger griots—and apprenticing boys, so a boy would be exposed to those griots’ particular line of narrative for 40 or 50 years before he could qualify as a senior griot, who told on special occasions the centuries-old histories of villages, of clans, of families, of great heroes.
Since my forefather had said his name was “Kin-tay”—properly spelled “Kinte,” they said—and since the Kinte clan was old and well known in The Gambia, they promised to do what they could to find a griot who might be able to assist my search.
Back in the United States, I began devouring books on African history. It grew quickly into some kind of obsession to correct my ignorance concerning the earth’s second-largest continent. It embarrasses me to this day that up to then my knowledge about Africa had been so limited.
After some weeks, a registered letter came from The Gambia; it suggested that when possible, I should come back. But by now I was stone broke, especially because I’d been investing very little of my time in writing.
Once at a Reader’s Digest lawn party, cofounder Mrs. Dewit Wallace had told me how much she liked an “Unforgettable Character” I had written—about a tough old seadog cook who had once been my boss in the U.S. Coast Guard—and before leaving, Mrs. Wallace volunteered that I should let her know if I ever needed some help. Now I wrote to Mrs. Wallace a rather embarrassed letter, briefly telling her the compulsive quest I’d gotten myself into. She asked some editors to meet with me and see what they felt and, invited to lunch with them, I talked about nonstop for nearly three hours. Shortly afterward a letter told me that the Reader’s Digest would provide me with a $300 dollar monthly check for one year, plus—my really vital need—”reasonable necessary travel expenses.”
I again visited Cousin Georgia in Kansas City—something had urged me to do so, and I found her quite ill. But she was thrilled to hear both what I had learned and what I hoped to learn. She wished me Godspeed, and I flew to Africa.
The same men with whom I had previously talked told me now that a griot very knowledgeable of the Kinte clan had indeed been found—his name, they said, was “Kebba Kanji Fofana.” To see this griot, I had to organize what seemed, at least to me then, a kind of minisafari. It took me three days of negotiating through unaccustomed endless African palaver finally to hire a launch to get upriver; to rent a lorry and a Land-Rover to take supplies by a roundabout land route; to hire a total of 14 people, including three interpreters and four musicians, since I had been told that the griots wouldn’t talk without background music.
In the launch Baddibu, vibrating up the wide, swift “Kamby Bolongo,” I felt queasily, uncomfortably alien. Did they all have me appraised as merely another pith helmet? Finally ahead was James Island, for two centuries the site of a fort over which England and France waged war back and forth for the ideal vantage point to trade in slaves. Asking if we might land there a while, I trudged amid the crumbling ruins yet guarded by ghostly cannon. Picturing in my mind the kinds of atrocities that would have happened there, I felt as if I would like to go flailing an ax back through that facet of black Africa’s history. Then we went on, and upon arriving at a little village called Albreda, we put ashore, our destination now on foot the yet smaller village of Juffure.
There is an expression called “the peak experience”—that which emotionally nothing in your life ever transcends. I’ve had mine, that first day in the back country of black West Africa.
When we got within sight of Juffure, the children who were playing outside gave the alert, and the people came flocking from their huts. It’s a village of only about 70 people. Like most back-country villages, it was still very much as it was 200 years ago with its circular mud houses and their conical thatched roofs. Among the people as they gathered was a small man wearing an off-white robe, a pillbox hat over an aquiline-featured black face and about him was an aura of “somebodiness” until I knew he was the man we had come to see and hear.
As the three interpreters left our party to converge upon him, the 70-odd other villagers gathered closely around me, in a kind of horseshoe pattern, three or four deep all around; had I stuck out my arms, my fingers would have touched the nearest ones on either side. They were all staring at me. The eyes just raked me. Their foreheads were furrowed with their very intensity of staring. A kind of visceral surging or a churning sensation started up deep inside me; bewildered, I was wondering what on earth was this . . . then in a little while it was rather as if some full-gale force of realization rolled in on me: Many times in my life I had been among crowds of people, but never where every one was jet black! My glance fell upon my own hands’ brown complexion and another gale-force emotion hit me; I felt myself some variety of a hybrid . . . I felt somehow impure among the pure; it was a terribly shaming feeling. About then, abruptly the old man left the interpreters. The people immediately also left me now to go crowding about him.
One of my interpreters came up quickly and whispered in my ears, “They stare at you so much because they have never here seen a black American.” When I grasped the significance, I believe that hit me harder than what had already happened. They hadn’t been looking at me as an individual, but I represented in their eyes a symbol of the 25 millions of us black people whom they had never seen, who lived beyond an ocean.
The people were clustered thickly about the old man, all of them intermittently flicking glances toward me as they talked animatedly in their Mandinka tongue. After a while, the old man turned, walked briskly through the people, past my three interpreters, and right up to me. His eyes piercing into mine, seeming to feel I should understand his Mandinka, he expressed what they had all decided they felt concerning those unseen millions of us who lived in those places that had been slave ships’ destinations—and the translation came: “We have been told by the forefathers that there are many of us from this place who are in exile in that place called America—and in other places.”
The old man sat down, facing me, as the people hurriedly gathered behind him. Then he began to recite for me the ancestral history of the Kinte clan as it had been passed along orally down across centuries from the forefathers’ time. Spilling from the griot’s head came an incredibly complex Kinte clan lineage that reached back across many generations: who married whom; who had what children; what children then married whom; then their offspring.
Simplifying to its essence the encyclopedic saga that I was told, the griot said that the Kinte clan had begun in the country called Old Mali. Then the Kinte men traditionally were blacksmiths, “who had conquered fire,”—and the women mostly were potters and weavers. In time, one branch of the clan moved into the country called Mauretania; and it was from Mauretania that one son of this clan, whose name was Kairaba Kunta Kinte—a maraboul, or holy man of the Moslem faith—journeyed down into the country called The Gambia. He went first to a village called Pakali N’Ding, stayed there for a while, then went to a village called Jiffarong, and then to the village of Juffure.
In Juffure, Kairaba Kunta Kinte took his first wife, a Mandinka maiden whose name was Sireng. And by her he begot two sons, whose names were Janneh and Saloum. Then he took a second wife, Yaisa. And by Yaisa, he begot a son named Omoro.
Those three sons grew up in Juffure until they became of age. Then the elder two, Janneh and Saloum, went away and founded a new village called Kinte-Kundah Janneh-Ya. The youngest son, Omoro, stayed on in Juffure village until he was 30 rains—years—of age, then he took as his wife a Mandinka maiden named Binta Kebba. And by Binta Kebba, roughly between the years 1750 and 1760, Omoro Kinte begat four sons, whose names were, in the order of their birth, Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu and Madi.
The old griot had talked for nearly two hours up to then, and perhaps 50 times the narrative had included some detail about someone whom he had named. Now after he had just named those four sons, again he appended a detail, and the interpreter translated—
“About the time the King’s soldiers came”—another of the griot’s time-fixing references—”the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from his village to chop wood . . . and he was never seen again. . . .” And the griot went on with his narrative.
I sat as if I were carved of stone! ! ! This man whose lifetime had been in this back-country African village had no way in the world to know that he had just echoed what I had heard all through my boyhood years on my Grandma’s front porch in Henning, Tenn. . . . of an African who always had insisted that his name was “Kin-tay”; who had called a guitar a “ko,” and a river within the state of Virginia, “Kamby Bolongo;” and who had been kidnaped into slavery while not far from his village, chopping wood to make himself a drum.
I managed to fumble from my dufflebag my basic notebook, whose first pages containing Grandma’s story I showed to an interpreter. After briefly reading, clearly astounded, he spoke rapidly while showing it to the old griot, who became agitated; he got up, exclaiming to the people, gesturing at my notebook in the interpreter’s hands, and they all got agitated. They formed a wide human ring around me, moving counterclockwise, chanting softly, loudly, softly; their bodies close together, they were lifting their knees high, stamping up reddish pulls of the dust. . . .
The woman who broke from the moving circle was one of about a dozen whose infant children were within cloth slings across their backs. Her jet black face deeply contorting, the woman came charging toward me, her bare feet slapping the earth, and, snatching her baby free, she thrust it at me almost roughly, the gesture saying “Take it!” . . . and I did, clasping the baby to me. Then she snatched away her baby; and another woman was thrusting her baby, then another, and another . . . until I had embraced probably a dozen babies. I wouldn’t learn until maybe a year later that I was participating in one of the oldest ceremonies of human-kind, called ‘The laying on of hands!’ In their way, they were telling me ‘Through this flesh, which is us, we are you, and you are us!’ ”
Later the men of Juffure took me into their mosque built of bamboo and thatch, and they prayed around me in Arabic. The crux of their prayer was translated for me: “Praise be to Allah for one long lost from us whom Allah has returned.”
Since we had come by the river, I wanted to return by land. As I sat beside the wiry young Mandingo driver who was leaving dust pluming behind us on the hot, rough, pitted, back-country road toward Banjul, there came from somewhere into my head a staggering awareness . . . that if any black American could be so blessed as I had been to know only a few ancestral clues—could he or she know who was either the paternal or maternal African ancestor or ancestors, and about where that ancestor lived when taken, and finally about when the ancestor was taken—then only those few clues might well see that black American able to locate some wizened old black griot whose narrative could reveal the black American’s ancestral clan.
In my mind’s eye, rather as if it were mistily being projected on a screen, I began envisioning descriptions I had read of how collectively millions of our ancestors had been enslaved. Many thousands were individually kidnaped, as my own forebear Kunta had been, but into the millions had come awake screaming in the night, dashing out into the bedlam of raided villages, which were often in flames. The captured able survivors were linked neck-by-neck with thongs into processions called “coffles,” which were sometimes as much as a mile in length. I envisioned the many dying, or left to die when they were too weak to continue the torturous march toward the coast, and those who made it to the beach were greased, shaved, probed in every orifice, often branded with sizzling irons; I envisioned them being lashed and dragged toward the longboats; their spasms of screaming and clawing with their hands into the beach, biting up great choking mouthfuls of the sand in their desperation efforts for one last hold on the Africa that had been their home; I envisioned them shoved, beaten, jerked down into slave ships’ stinking holds and chained onto shelves, often packed so tightly that they had to lie on their sides like spoons in a drawer. . . .
My mind reeled with it all as we approached another, much larger village. Staring ahead, I realized that word of what had happened in Juffure must have left there well before I did. The driver slowing down, I could see this village’s people thronging the road ahead when it suddenly registered in my brain what they were all crying out. They were all crying out together, “Meester Kinte! Meester Kinte! ! ! !”
Let me tell you something: I am a man. A sob hit me somewhere around my ankles; it came surging upward, and, flinging my hands over my face, I was just bawling, as I hadn’t since I was a baby. “Meester Kinte!” I just felt like I was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen.
Flying homeward from Dakar, I decided to write a book. My own ancestors would automatically also be a symbolic saga of all African-descent people—who are without exception the seeds of someone like Kunta who grew up in some African village, someone who was captured and chained down in one of those slave ships that sailed them across the same ocean, into some succession of plantations, and since then a struggle for freedom.
In New York, my waiting telephone messages included that in a Kansas City hospital, Cousin Georgia had died. Later, making a time-zone adjustment, I discovered that she passed away within the very hour that I had walked into Juffure Village. I think that as the last of the old ladies who talked the story on Grandma’s front porch, it had been her job to get me to Africa, joining the others up there watchin’.
Always, Grandma and the other old ladies had said that a ship brought the African to “somewhere called ‘Naplis.” I knew they had to have been referring to Annapolis, Md. So I felt now that I had to try to see if I could find what ship had sailed to Annapolis from the Gambia River with her human cargo, including “the African.”
I needed to determine a time around which to focus search for this ship. In the village of Juffure, the griot had timed Kunta’s capture with “about the time the King’s soldiers came.”
Returning to London, midway during a second week of searching in records of movement assignments from British military units during the 1760s, I finally found that “King’s soldiers” had to refer to a unit called “Colonel O’Hare’s forces.” The unit was sent from London in 1767 to guard the then British-operated Fort James, a slave fort in the Gambia River.
I went to Lloyds of London. In the office of an executive named Mr. R. C. E. Landers, it just poured out of me what I was trying to do. He promised to help as much as he could. It was a blessing, for through Lloyds, doors began to be opened for me to search among myriad old English maritime records.
I can’t remember any more exhausting experience than my first six weeks of seemingly endless, futile, day-after-day of searching in an effort to isolate and then pin down a specific slave ship on a specific voyage, from within cartons upon cartons, files upon files of old records of thousands of slave-ship triangular voyages among England, Africa and America. Along with my frustration, the more a rage grew within me, the more I perceived to what degree the slave trade, in its time, was regarded by most of its participants simply as another major industry.
I hadn’t found a single ship bound from The Gambia to Annapolis when in the seventh week, one afternoon about two-thirty, I was studying the 1,023rd sheet of slave-ship records. A wide rectangular sheet, it recorded the Gambia River entrances and exits of some 30 ships during the years 1766 and 1767. Moving down the list, my eyes reached ship No. 18, and automatically scanned across its various data heading entries.
On July 5, 1767—the year “the King’s soldiers came”—a ship named Lord Ligonier, her captain, a Thomas E. Davies, had sailed from the Gambia River, her destination Annapolis. . . .
Pan Am confirmed their last seat available that day to New York. There simply wasn’t time to go by the hotel where I was staying; I told a taxi driver, “Heathrow Airport!” Sleepless through that night’s crossing of the Atlantic, I was seeing in my mind’s eye the book in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., that I had to get my hands on again—Shipping in the Port of Annapolis, by Vaughan W. Brown.
From New York. the Eastern Airlines shuttle took to Washington; I taxied to the Library of Congress, ordered the book, almost yanked it from the young man who brought it, and went riffling through it . . . and there it was, confirmation! The Lord Ligonier had cleared Annapolis’ customs Sept. 29, 1767.
Renting a car, speeding to Annapolis, I went to the Maryland Hall of Records and asked archivist Mrs. Phebe Jacobsen for copies of any local newspaper published around the first week of October, 1767. She soon produced a microfilm roll of the Maryland Gazette. At the projection machine, I was halfway through the October 1 issue when I saw the advertisement in the antique typeface: “JUST IMPORTED, In the ship Lord Ligonier, Capt. Davies, from the River Gambia, in Africa, and to be sold by the subscribers, in Annapolis, for cash, or good bills of exchange on Wednesday the 7th of October next. A Cargo of CHOICE HEALTHY SLAVES. The said ship will take tobacco to London on liberty at 6s. Sterling per ton.” The advertisement was signed by John Ridout and Daniel of St. Thos. Jenifer.
On Sept. 29, 1967, I felt I should be nowhere else in the world except standing on a pier at Annapolis—and I was; it was 200 years to the day after the Lord Ligonier had landed. Staring across those waters over which my great-great-great-great grandfather had been brought, again I found myself weeping.
The 1766–67 document compiled at James Fort in the Gambia River had included that the Lord Ligonier had sailed with 140 slaves in her hold. How many of them had lived through the voyage? Now on a second mission in the Maryland Hall of Records, I searched to find a record of the ship’s cargo listed upon her arrival—and found it, the following inventory, in old-fashioned script: 3,265 “elephants’ teeth,” as ivory tusks were called; 3,700 pounds of beeswax, 800 pounds of raw cotton; 32 ounces of Gambian gold; and 98 “Negroes.” Her loss of 42 Africans en route, or around one third, was average for slaving voyages.
I realized by this time that Grandma, Aunt Liz, Aunt Plus, and Cousin Georgia also had been griots in their own ways. My notebooks contained their centuries-old story that our African had been sold to “Massa John Waller,” who had given him the name “Toby.” During his fourth escape effort when cornered, he had wounded with a rock one of the pair of professional slave catchers who caught him, and they had cut his foot off. “Massa John’s brother, Dr. William Waller,” had saved the slave’s life, then indignant at the maiming, had bought him from his brother. I dared to hope there might actually exist some kind of an actual documenting record.
I went to Richmond, Va. I pored through microfilmed legal deeds filed within Spotsylvania County, Va., after September 1767, when the Lord Ligonier had landed. In time, I found a lengthy deed dated Sept. 5, 1768, in which John Waller and his wife Ann transferred to William Waller land and goods, including 240 acres of farmland . . . and then on the second page, “and also one Negro man slave named Toby.”
In the 12 years since my visit to the Rosetta Stone, I have traveled half a million miles, I suppose, searching, sifting, checking, crosschecking, finding out more and more about the people whose respective oral histories had proved not only to be correct, but even to connect on both sides of the ocean. Finally I managed to tear away from yet more researching in order to push myself into actually writing this book. To develop Kunta Kinte’s boyhood and youth took me a long time, and having come to know him well. I anguished upon his capture. When I began trying to write of his, or all of those Gambians’ slave-ship crossing, finally I flew to Africa and canvassed among shipping lines to obtain passage on the first possible freighter sailing from any black African port directly to the United States. It turned out to be the Farrell Lines’ African Star. When we put to sea, I explained what I hoped to do that might help me write of my ancestor’s crossing. After each late evening’s dinner, I climbed down successive metal ladders into her deep, dark, cold cargo hold. Stripping to my underwear, I lay on my back on a wide rough bare dunnage plank and forced myself to stay there through all ten nights of the crossing, trying to imagine what did he see, hear, feel, smell, taste—and above all, in knowing Kunta, what things did he think? My crossing of course was ludicrously luxurious by any comparison to the ghastly ordeal endured by Kunta Kinte, his companions, and all those other millions who lay chained and shackled in terror and their own filth for an average of 80 to 90 days, at the end of which awaited new physical and psychic horrors. But anyway, finally I wrote of the ocean crossing—from the perspective of the human cargo.
I think now that not only are Grandma, Cousin Georgia and those other ladies “up there watchin’,” but so are all of the others; Kunta and Bell; Kizzy; Chicken George and Matilda; Tom and Irene; Grandpa Will Palmer, and Bertha, my Mama. ~ Alex Haley.
(A Black American’s Search For His Ancestral African by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the August 1976 issue of EBONY Magazine. © 1976 EBONY Magazine. All Rights Reserved.)