Tom Brokaw interviews Alex Haley

(Alex Haley spoke with Tom Brokaw on the NBC Today Show and described the nine years of research he did in 58 libraries on three continents to confirm family stories passed down through generations, then the three years it took to write Roots.)

Haley: 12 Year Process of Writing Roots

Alex Haley’s novel of his own roots was 12 years in the writing. Its story begun in 1750 in Gambia, West Africa, with the birth of Kunta Kinte to Binta and Omoro. Kunta grew up free and happy until, at the age of 17, he was taken prisoner by white slave catchers and shipped to America on a vessel commanded by the conscience-stricken Capt. Davies and his cruel third mate, Slater.

Kunta remained rebellious for the rest of his life, making several attempts to escape and eventually losing a foot in the process. Then his daughter, Kizzy, was born. She grew to womanhood and bore a son (after she was raped by her owner), later to be named Chicken George. Chicken George was sent into servitude in England in the 1820s, as rumors of slave rebellions swept the American South. Thirty years later he returned, an old but free man, only to find America on the brink of Civil War.

George’s son, Tom, a blacksmith, was recruited into the army, but after emancipation found that freedom meant little in a land of hooded nightriders and economic exploitation. As the series ended, Tom—the great-grandson of Kunta Kinte—struck out to start a new life in Tennessee, and sow the roots for a better life for his free descendants.

In the following interview with Tom Brokaw, Haley: 12 Year Process of Writing Roots, on the NBC Today Show, Alex Haley describes the nine years of research he did in 58 different libraries on three continents to confirm family stories passed down through generations, then the three years it took to write Roots: The Saga of An American Family.

Haley: 12 Year Process of Writing Roots

(September 28, 1976)

Tom Brokaw, co-host: Americans who can trace their ancestry to the hold of a slave trading ship are justice proud, black Americans, but tracing those roots, that’s a far more formidable task. And yet it has been done by Alex Haley, an American author and journalist who has written a book—a remarkable book called Roots. It is the story of his family, his life. Mr. Haley was a Coast Guardsman, a writer while he was in the Coast Guard, had the title of journalist, which I guess you created. And then helped write the autobiography, or wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Now you have written a book about your family called Roots. You’re a black American. Many black American’s think that their roots began when their ancestors arrived on these shores, that it is far too muddled, far too mysterious to go beyond that. What prompted you to do so?

Alex Haley (Author, Roots): Well the thing that prompted me really was some clues, which had always been contained in a story, which had passed down in our family across generations. It was just sort of an aggregate narrative, which had begun as it turned out with an African, who was brought to this country I would later learn in 1767. He had mated with a cook on that plantation in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and they had a daughter, and the African would tell things to his daughter, which included phonetic sounds that he would use to describe things such as a river. And then he told his daughter his African name.

He also later as he learned to speak English better told her how he had been captured, kidnapped. And these things together with other material came down across the generations. Everyone, that was somebody who carried that story. The daughter told her son who told his children who told their children.

And on this second set of children of which I speak, the youngest was my grandmother. And I grew up in a little town called Henning, Tennessee, about 50 miles north of Memphis. And there, my grandmother told me these stories. And I just had them indelibly in my head rather as I had learned the biblical parables in Sunday school. And then after had I left there I became, well, I went in the Coast Guard as you say, and I was 20 years in the Coast Guard and retired. And when I came out then wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X and got curious about those sounds and the stories that had always been in the family.

Brokaw: Were you compelled to write a book about your ancestors? Were you haunted by the origins of your family during that time?

Haley: Well not at first, it wasn’t that so much, it was just curiosity which became more intense. I think you know any writer is curious and something keeps feeding it. And I did indeed become compelled and subsequently obsessed really.

Brokaw: The dialect, the sounds became your first major clue.

Haley: That’s right they were.

Brokaw: A kind of “K” sound to most of the dialect.

Haley: That’s right, that’s right. One, the most crucial sound that helped me was it was always said that this African in Spotsylvania County, Virginia would point to a river that ran near this plantation; it is in fact the Mattaponi River. And he would always say to his daughter “kamby bolongo” and I would later learn that that and other sounds which were kept in the story were part of the Mandinka tongue spoken by the Mandingo people. And later that sound was translated the “bolongo” meant in Mandinka large moving running stream such as a river. And preceded by the word “kamby,” it probably meant Gambia River, and then that was what gave me a place to go. And I went to the Gambia in West Africa.

Brokaw: But before we get there, this man, this slave, your ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Kunta Kinte came back into your life in a rather dramatic fashion when you were in Washington DC. Walking along and then went into the archives and kind of spontaneously decided to see if you could find out anything about your origins, about your roots.

Haley: That’s right. Yes it was—then I went up in the nation’s archives and I got the census records for Alamance County, North Carolina. And the reason I did that was that my grandmother always had told me about her own birth in Alamance County. And you know her family were there as slaves and so forth. And I found in the microfilm census records, the names of the people she had told me about who were her parents, her mother, father and her older sisters. And then that was the first step, Kunta Kinte was down the line, but he was in the wings you might say.

Brokaw: You came to New York, you found out that from diplomats and other people of the United Nations that it probably was this area of western Africa and you went there.

Haley: That’s right.

Brokaw: And you found a village.

Haley: I did a village called Juffure in the country of the Gambia. And I found there I had been told about by this time old men who in Africa keep histories. They’re called griots. It’s spelled g-r-i-o-t-s. Griots are like walking, living archives. And these are men who all their lives since teenaged have been trained to know one particular long narrative history of a family in meticulous detail. It’s not the cue to the African, it really is universal because you and I and everybody in the viewing audience ancestry goes back someplace there was no writing. And then the only way that information was relayed was memories—miles of older people into the ears of younger people.

Brokaw: One of these men knew the story of Kunta Kinte.

Haley: That’s right he did.

Brokaw: Who had been taken as a slave when he was out finding wood to build a drum?

Haley: That’s right. He knew the story of the entire clan; it took hours to tell the story but when he got to that level of Kunta Kinte he told about this person who had been lost after he went out to chop wood. And I had grown up hearing about an African named Kinte who always said he was chopping wood.

Brokaw: And then through a combination of fact and fiction you have told the story of Kunta Kinte as a slave and the various other members of your family. It was an agonizing experience it took 12 years for you to write.

Haley: That’s right, that’s right it was. It was nine years of research and three years of writing. That’s how it broke down. It was really, really was agonizing.

Brokaw: Can you believe now that the book is out called Roots?

Haley: Hardly, I find myself looking at it like you know, wow. Is that real? Because it seemed for years it was just traveling. I think it has been guessed, and I suppose it’s somewhere near correct, that I must have traveled a half million miles, three continents, working in I think there were 58 different libraries in different places in different languages often times, working with interpreters. Much of it was done in England because that was when this country was the colonies. And so the best records of slave ships and this and that were in England.

Brokaw: Alex Haley the story of his family called Roots, the story of drama and history and one man’s search to find out the source of his family. Thank you very much.

Haley: Thank you very much.

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