Search For An Ancestor

(Search For An Ancestor was originally published in the January 1974 issue of The Listener—a weekly magazine established by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It later appeared within the second edition of American Vistas 1607 – 1807.)

Many years ago the black poet, Langston Hughes, asked, “What is Africa to me?” The significance of Africa to black Americans has not been constant. Africa is the homeland, the point of origin.

Yet throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Africa was considered by white America an unknown and barbaric continent. It was difficult, therefore, for American blacks to feel proud of their ancient homeland. True, there were some blacks who looked to Africa as a place of refuge and possible resettlement, but most plans to send blacks back to Africa in the nineteenth century originated with whites eager to eliminate the black population and avoid the problems of how the two races could live together.

In the twentieth century two notable blacks, W. E. B. DuBois, an intellectual of outstanding caliber, and Marcus Garvey, a charismatic, popular leader of the 1920s, encouraged their fellow blacks to be proud of the historical connection with Africa. Later on in the century, members of the black power movement of the 1960s, inspired by the all-black leadership in the newly independent African states, donned dashikis and wore Afros and, at a deeper level, looked with new interest at the historical connection of their lives to the African past.

Alex Haley shows in this article how one man embarked on a personal quest for his origins in the remote African past of his ancestors. Reading more like an adventure story than historical research, Haley describes how a few African words passed down through generations in his family led him to the very African village where his forebears lived before he was sold into slavery. Haley’s effort is heartening, not only as one man’s search for his historical roots but also because it offers both inspiration and method for further research into the history of American blacks which for too long has been cut off from the richness of its African past.

Search For An Ancestor

I grew up in a little town called Henning, Tennessee, about fifty miles west of Memphis, and I lived there in the home of my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Every summer my grandmother would have visitors come to our home. They would be older women of the family, her nieces, aunts and cousins, and every single evening that I can remember, they would sit out on the front porch in rocking-chairs, and I would sit behind my grandmother’s rocking-chair and listen to them talking. They would tell about things that had happened to the family when they had been slaves, and they went back and back and back. The furthest-back person they would ever talk about was someone they described as “the African,” and they would tell how this African had been brought on a ship to a place they pronounced as “Napalis.”

They told how he had been bought off that ship by a man whose name was John Waller, who had a plantation in a place called Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and they told how the African had kept trying to escape. The first three times he escaped he was caught, brought back, given a worse beating each time, and then, the fourth time he escaped, he had the misfortune to be caught by a professional slave-catcher. I have since done some peripheral research on the profession of slave-catching and I think there’s never been a more bestial one in the United States. This particular man brought the African back, and it was decided on the spot that he would be given a punishment at the decision of the slave-catcher.

I grew up hearing how the slave was offered the punishment either of being castrated or of having a foot cut off. He chose the foot, and it was cut off with an axe against a tree stump. It was a very hideous act and as it turned out it was to play a major role in keeping the African’s story alive in a black family. In the middle of the 1700s, slaves, particularly male slaves, were sold back and forth so frequently that there was very little sense of family continuity among them. In that part of Virginia they were sold at auction and, on the average, each would bring around eight dollars. At the end of every slave auction there would be what they called a “scrap sale”: slaves who were ill, or otherwise incapacitated, would bring in smaller amounts, generally one dollar or less. When this particular slave managed to survive and then to convalesce, he posed an economic question to his master: slavery, after all, was an economic matter. Although he was crippled and hobbled around, he could do limited work around the house and yard-area of the plantation, so the master decided he would be worth more kept to do this limited work than he would be just sold away for less than one dollar in cash. And so he was kept on one plantation for what turned out to be quite a long period of time.

On that plantation, this slave met and mated with another slave. My grandmother and the others said that she was named Belle, the Big House cook, and of that union was born a little girl, who was given the name Kissy. When Kissy got to be four or five, and could begin to understand things, this African, whenever he got a chance, would take her by the hand (he knew her to be his daughter, she knew him to be her father—an unusual thing in slavery at that point) and lead her round the plantation. He would point out to her various natural objects and tell her the names for them in his native tongue: some sounds for tree, rock, cow. In the slave-cabin area, he would point out a banjo or a guitar and he would say one syllable, ko, and in time the little girl came to associate the sound ko with a banjo or a guitar. On the outer edges of the plantation there was a small river, and when they were out in that area, he would say to her something like Kamby-Bolongo, and the little girl came to know that this sound meant river.

All the Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves gradually learned a word here, a phrase there, of the new language, English. As this began to happen with this particular African, he would tell his daughter more involved things, little anecdotes about himself. He seemed to have a passion for trying to communicate to her a sense of his past. For instance, he would tell her how he had been captured. He told her he had not been far away from his village, chopping wood, when he had been set upon by four men, kidnapped and taken into slavery. The first thing that happened to slaves when they got to a plantation was that they were given an Anglicised name: that was the first step in the psychic dehumanisation of an individual—the removal from that individual of the name he had carried all his life, with which went, as it goes for us today, the sense of who we are. The master had given this African the name of “Toby” but, whenever any of the other slaves used the word “Toby,” he would strenuously reject it and tell them his name was Kin-Tay.

Kissy stayed directly exposed to her father from Africa until she was 16 years old. She had quite a considerable repertoire of knowledge about him, when she herself was sold away to a man named Tom Lea who had a much smaller plantation in North Carolina. It was on that plantation that Tom Lea became the father of Kissy’s first child, a boy who was given the name of George. When George got to be about four or five, Kissy began to tell him the things she had learned from her father. Among the other slave children, his peers, he began to run into the common phenomenon that slave children rarely knew who their fathers were. He had something that made him singular: he had direct knowledge of a grandfather. The boy grew up and, when he got into his teens, became a gamecock fighter: that was a great sport in the Ante-Bellum South. When he was about seventeen, he gained the nickname that he would take to his grave—”Chicken George.”

When he was about eighteen, Chicken George took a mate, another slave, whose name was Matilda, and in time Matilda gave birth to seven children. On another plantation, a generation later, in another section of North Carolina, Chicken George would tell his children the story which had come down from his mother Kissy. Those children grew up, took mates and had children. One of them was named Tom. He became an apprentice blacksmith and was sold to a man named Murray who had a tobacco plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina. He met and mated with a slave whose name was Irene, the weaver on the plantation, and she bore him seven children. Tom the blacksmith would tell his seven children about something virtually unique among the slaves: direct knowledge of a great-great-grandfather. The youngest of his seven children was a little girl whose name was Cynthia, and Cynthia was to become my maternal grandmother. That was how it happened that I grew up in my grandmother’s home in Tennessee, hearing from her that story which had passed down the family about all the rest of the family going back to that African who said his name was Kin-Tay, who called the river Kamby-Bolongo, and the guitar ko, and who said he had been chopping wood when he was captured. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew this story pretty well, having heard it for fully a decade.

I went to school briefly at small Black Land grant colleges around the South where my father was teaching, and when World War Two came along I went into the US Coastguards. It was the time when if you were black and you went into one of the Naval Services in the United States, you went into the Stewards’ Department. You were mess-boy, you cleaned up the state rooms, waited on tables, washed the dishes, and, if you did well, advanced to cook. I became cook on a ship in the southwest Pacific during the war. It was boring. We would be put to sea for two or three months at a time before we could get ashore in Australia or New Zealand. My most precious possession was a portable typewriter. I had learned to type when I was in high school, and I would write letters to everybody I could think of: I would get thirty or forty letters at a time, simply because I wrote so much. Then I began trying to write marine dramas, sea stories. They didn’t sell for a long time, but I kept writing for eight years, until finally a small magazine began to buy some of my stories. I stayed on in the Service, began to write for somewhat larger magazines, and finally, when I was 37, I retired from the Coastguards with 20 years service. At that time, something happened that seems to me to have been the first of a series of miracles that were to make it possible to pull together a document, a book of which I am now at the finishing stages, having to do in an unusual way with black history, black culture, black pride, relating to the whole area of blackness in Africa and the United States and the continuities.

The first thing that happened could scarcely have seemed to have less to do with blackness. Playboy asked me if I would fly over to London to do an interview with a film actress, Julie Christie. There were long gaps when I couldn’t get to see her. One morning I was in the British Museum, and I came upon the Rosetta Stone. I had read how the French scholar, Champollion, had matched the unknown characters on the stone with the Greek, and had finally been able to prove that the demotic and the hieroglyphics had the same text as the Greek. That fascinated me: I would go round in London doing other things, but I would find my mind going back to that Rosetta Stone.

I was on a plane going back to the United States when an idea hit me. What Jean Champollion really did was to match the unknown with the known, and so find the meaning of what hitherto had been unknown. In that story always told in our family there had been a language: the sounds that this African always said when he pointed to different objects. Obviously, many sounds would have been lost in the transmission down the generations, but I could see that the sounds which had survived tended to be hard, angular sounds of the sort that would survive: like ko, Kin-Tay, Kamby-Bolongo. They had to be fragments of some native tongue. Could I possibly find out where these sounds had come from? My research assistant George Simms, came up with a list of people who were very knowledgeable in the field of African linguistics. One of them was at the University of Wisconsin. His name was Doctor Jan Vansina. He had been trained in his native Belgium, and then at the University of London’s Oriental and African Studies department. He had worked in Africa, living in African villages, and had written a book called The Oral Tradition. In the Vansinas’ living-room that evening I told Dr Vansina everything I could remember from the time I was a little boy: every bit of the stories, the sounds, the names of the people, the chronology of the family. As an oral historian, he was particularly interested in the physical transmission of the story from one generation to another. The following morning, Dr Vansina came down with a very serious expression on his face. I learned that he had already been on the phone to knowledgeable colleagues of his. He said that they felt that the greatest possibility was that the sounds represented the Mandinka dialect. I had never heard of such a thing as Mandinka. From his knowledge of it, he began to guess-translate what those sounds had meant. There was a sound that probably meant the beobab tree, generic in West Africa: there was a sound that probably meant cow. I heard about something that could be said to look like a banjo, an instrument called the kora, well-known where Mandinka was spoken. Finally, we came to Kamby-Bolongo: I heard that in Mandinka bolongo would mean river or stream. Preceded by Kamby, very probably it would mean Gambia River. I tend to be, if something hits me just right, very impulsive. It was Thursday morning when I heard the words Gambia River. On Monday morning I was in Africa.

On the Friday morning, I had looked among the names of African students in the United States. From that small country, the Gambia, the one I found who was physically closest to where I was was a fellow called Ebon Manga, attending Hamilton College at Clinton, New York. I hit that campus around 3·30, Friday afternoon, and practically snatched Ebon Manga out of an economics class. We got onto a Pan-American that night and flew to Dakar. From there we got a light plane and flew over to Yanda, near Bathurst. We took a van into Bathurst. Ebon and his father helped to assemble a group of about eight members of the Gambian Government, mature men who met me in the patio of the Hotel Atlantic in Bathurst. There I sat with them, telling them the stories that had been passed down. It gives me the quivers sometimes when I reflect how tissue-thin have been the hinges upon which this whole adventure has swung at one time or another. What these men in the Gambia reacted to most was a sound which I had no idea had any particular meaning. They said: “There may be great significance in the fact that your forefather said his name was Kin-Tay. In our country, our older villages are often named from the families which founded those villages centuries ago.” And they showed me a little map, with names of villages like Kinte-Kundah Janneh-Ya. They also told me about men of whom I had never heard called griots, who were like walking, living archives. A line of griots would know the history of one village, they told me, or of one large family clan. They told me that they would look about to see what griot might be able to help me.

I went back to the United States. About six weeks later, a letter came to me from the Gambia saying that when I was able it might be worth-while for me to return—as casually as that. In about a week I was back in Bathurst. The same men with whom I had talked at the Atlantic Hotel told me that the word had been put out in the back-country, and a griot knowledgeable about the history of the Kinte clan had been found. “Where is he?” I asked. I would have figured, from my experience as an American magazine writer, that the Government should have had him there with a public relations man for me to talk to. They said: “He’s in his village.” In order to see this man, I had to get together a total of 14 people, three of which were interpreters, and four musicians—they told me that, in the back-country, the griots wouldn’t talk without music in the background.

Mud walls, conical-roofed huts, thatched roofs: there were only about seventy people in the village. As soon as I saw a man, I knew somehow that he was the man we had come to see. Small of build with a pill-box hat and off-white robe: I was later to learn that his name was Kebba Kanga Fofana. The interpreter with me went straight to him. Meanwhile I had stepped into a succession of events that were almost traumatic in their emotional effect upon me. First, the people, about seventy of them, crowded very closely around me. I began to notice how they were staring at me. Their brows were forward and the intensity of the eyes was just raking. It was as if they wanted to know me in corpuscular detail. I dropped my eyes: I had this sensation of looking at my own hands, my own complexion, and I had a tremendous feeling within me, like a gale-force wind. I was looking at a crowd of people and, for the first time in my life, everybody in the crowd was jet-black in colour. That just hit me like a sledgehammer. And then, I had this second sledgehammer-type feeling: a kind of guilt, a feeling of being hybrid, of being impure among pure. Then the old man, Kebba Kanga Fofana, began to tell me, through the interpreters, the history of the Kinte clan.

Griots can talk for hours on end, telling the stories they have learned. Every now and then when the griot was spilling out lineage details of who married whom, who had what children and in what order, a couple of centuries ago, he would stop: a translation would come of some little detail about an individual—for example, that in the year of the Big Water he slew a water buffalo. Kebba Kanga Fofana said that the Kinte clan had begun in the country called Old Mali, and a branch of the clan had moved into Mauretania. In Old Mali, the clan had been characterised by the men being blacksmiths as a rule; the women were habitually potters and weavers. There had come out of Mauretania a son of the clan whose name was Kairaba Kunta Kinte. He came from Mauretania to the country of the Gambia. He stopped first in a village called Pakali N’Ding. He went next to a village called Jiffarong, and then to a village called Juffure. It was in Juffure that he took his first wife, a Mandinka maiden whose name was Sireng. By her he begot two sons whose names were Janneh and Saloum. Then he took (Moslem men, plural marriages) a second wife. Her name was Yaisa, and by Yaisa he begot a son whose name was Omoro.

The three sons grew up in the village of Juffure, and when they came of age the older two, Janneh and Saloum, went away and founded a new village called to this day Kinte-Kundah Janneh-Ya. The youngest son, Omoro, stayed there until he had 39 rains; and at the age of 30 rains he took a wife whose name was Binta Kebba. Between 1750 and 1760, there were born four sons to Omoro and Binta Kebba: Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu and Madi. When he named those four brothers, the old man stopped and the interpreter said: “about the time the King’s soldiers came.” That was one of the time-fixing references which griots use. Later, in London, I found the British Parliamentary records, because I had to know the date. He was talking about a group called Colonel O’Hare’s Forces, which had been sent from London to the Gambia River to guard the then British-held fort, James Slave Fort, and the date was right on.

Then Kebba Kanga Fofana said: “About the time the King’s soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from this village to chop wood, and he was never seen again.” I sat there with goosepimples the size of lemons popping over me. He had no way of knowing that what he had told me meshed with what I had heard as a little boy on the front porch of my grandmother’s home in Tennessee.

I suddenly became aware that the people of the village had formed a circle and were moving counter-clockwise around me. They were chanting: up, down, loud, soft. I had been sitting on a chair, and I popped up as if I had been full of helium. All I could do was stand up. Then there came the music that was always in the background. I remember my ears slowly becoming aware that I was hearing sounds I had to recognise from a kora player, who was singing. I was hearing in a way I could understand. I could distinguish the words “Alex Haley.” I could understand Kinte. I didn’t know then that, in the way of griots, my having come to that village, my having been found to be a descendant of that village, was there and then being recorded as part of the village’s history. They carried me into the mosque, and there was a prayer. It was translated as: “Praise be to Allah for one lost long from us whom God has returned.”

We finally had to go back. I had to return to America and, on the road going out, I was full of the emotion of it. We got to the first village, and I saw people lined up on either side of the road. The people in this village already knew what had happened in the village of Juffure. As we came close with the Land-Rover, the driver slowed down, and I was looking down at these people standing on either side waving, a great cacophony of sound coming out of them, from wizened elders to little naked youngsters. I thought it was nothing but caprice: they were there, never having left Africa, and I, symbolising to them all of us in America, happened to be standing up in there simply because of the caprice—which of our forefathers had been taken out. That was the only thing which had made the difference. Then I gradually became aware what the sound was they were crying out: “Mr Kin-Tay, Mr Kin-Tay.” I’m a man, but a sob rolled up from foot-level, and I just flung up my hands and cried as I never had in my life. It seemed to me that if you knew the story of how the black people in America had come there, taken as slaves from all those countries, and you knew the continuity of us as a people, then, whatever else you might do, you really needed to start by weeping, because there were no words and no actions which could ever assuage what had happened in that terrible time in the history of both countries.

That’s the saga of the black people in America, and I had to write it. I had to know everything I could to put into this book. I wanted to find, if I could, the symbolic boat that, it is said, brought 1,500,000 of our forefathers to the USA. To be the proper ship, it had to be the one that brought Kunta-Kinte out of the Gambia River. I knew now about the time “the King’s soldiers had come,” and I had found that Colonel O’Hare’s Forces were his reference. I knew that it had happened in mid-1767. I went to Lloyds of London and I got help from them with the marine records of the 1700s. I searched for seven weeks. One afternoon in the Public Records Office, I was on the 123rd set of slaveship records when I found a sheet with 30 ships’ movements on it. Number 18 was moving out of Gambia River, James Fort. Number 18 was a ship that had stated her destination as Annapolis, Maryland. I knew that Kunta-Kinte had been taken to Annapolis.

In the next ten days I crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, patching together little things I had to find out about that ship. I found she was called the Lord Ligonier, named after a British fieldmarshal. She had been built in 1765 in the New England Colonies. She set sail in 1766, with a cargo of rum, as a new slave-ship to Gravesend. There she sold the rum. The profits were used to buy a cargo, the slaving hardware—the chains, the shackles, the other restraining objects to put on the extra crew—and the extra foodstuffs she would need, and she started sailing to Africa, to the source of what was called the “black gold” of Africa. I was able to follow the ship from the records along the Channel, and it became almost like running along the Channel, watching her. I knew her timbers, I knew her planking was loblolly pine and hackmatack cedar. I knew she had red oak timbers. I knew that the flax in her sails was out of New Jersey. I knew the kind of nails that held her together, how the black lopes were held together with a wedge of oak. I could almost read the captain’s mind as he was driving to get to the African coast.

She went southerly across the Bay of Biscay, down past the Canaries, the Cape Virgins, into the mouth of the Gambia River. She was to spend the next ten months in the Gambia River, slaving. In the course of that ten months she got a cargo of 3,265 elephant tusks, 3,700 pounds of beeswax, 800 pounds of rough raw Gambian cotton, 32 ounces of Gambian gold and 140 slaves. She set sail on Sunday, 5 July 1767, headed directly for Annapolis. Her crossing voyage of about 5,000 miles took two months, three weeks and two days. She arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, on the morning of 29 September 1767.

29 September 1967: I was standing on a pier in Annapolis looking seaward, drenched in tears. It was two hundred years to the day since my forebear had come to that city, and there in Annapolis I went into the tax records to find out what she had come in with. I found she came in with a cargo. She declared the same cargo she had leaving James Fort, Gambia River, except that her original 140 slaves had become 98. Forty-two had died on the crossing, which was about average for the ships making that trip in that period. I knew that when slaves were brought in they were always advertised, and I went down to the microfilm records of the Annapolis media of the time, the Maryland Gazette, and in the issue of 1 October 1967, on page three, was the ad of the agents of the ship, saying that the Lord Ligonier had just arrived under Captain Davies from the River Gambia, with a cargo of fresh, choice, healthy slaves for sale, to be sold the following Wednesday at Meg’s Wharf. Among them was Kunta-Kinte, who had come from the village of Juffure.

One thing remained to complete it. I knew that my grandmother and the others had always said that he had been named Toby by his master, and I knew that every kind of deal involving slaves was a matter of legal records. I went to Richmond, Virginia, and went into the legal deeds of the transactions of the 1760s. I found a deed dated 5 September 1768 between two brothers, John and William Waller, transferring goods between them: on the second page were the words “and also one Negro man slave named Toby.” ~ Alex Haley.

(Search For An Ancestor is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was first published on 10 January 1974 in The Listener. © 1974 BBC. American Vistas 1607 – 1807 © 1971 and 1975 by Oxford University Press Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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