Digging Kunta Kinte

Does it matter if Alex Haley's character really existed?

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Watching [The Root's Editor-in-Chief] Henry Louis Gates Jr. delve into the ancestry of African Americans on PBS recently got me thinking about Alex Haley's Roots, the book that started it all. Both the book and the phenomenally successful mini-series based on it came out during the 1976-77 academic year when I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard preparing for an eventual assignment as TIME magazine's correspondent in Africa.

Like every black person I know, I got caught up in the Roots frenzy. So I was shaken when one of my professors of African history told me that Haley's soul-stirring account of tracing his ancestor Kunta Kinte back to his Gambian home village of Juffure was a fairy tale.

As everyone who has been paying attention knows by now, Juffure wasn't the idyllic bush settlement that Haley depicted. Kunta and his Mandinka relatives did not, as Haley suggested, hide away in Juffure shunning contact with the "toubob"(white man). In fact, by 1750, around the time when Kunta was supposed to have been born, the town had been doing business for generations with the slave traders on James Island, a nearby British post in the Gambia River.

Here's what UNESCO's Gambia Slave Trade Archives Project has to say about it: "When Samba Tall, the founder of Juffure, first came to settle in The Gambia, he found Portuguese there already. This would place Juffure's foundation at some time in the early 1500s. After 1661, the economy and fortunes of Juffure were tied to those of James Island. When the English took over the island and fort, Niumi Mansa gave them permission to have a well and gardens and a trading station at Juffure. Company employees and slaves lived there permanently and it served as an overflow whenever the fort was rendered uninhabitable."

It could even have been, as my Harvard professor claimed, that the headman at of Juffure collected a head tax on every slave that passed through his village. That means that rather then being a native of Juffure, as Haley wrote, his ancestor more likely was a captive from some other tribe who was marched through Juffure on his way to James Island, where he was loaded on a slave ship bound for the New World.

Over the years, the strict factuality of Roots has been challenged persuasively in all sorts of ways, and I am not trying to reopen that controversy. Most people I've talked to seem to agree with Gates, who thinks the book should be regarded as a brilliant "work of the imagination." Even Haley conceded that Roots was a blend of fiction and fact that he labeled a "faction."

It doesn't matter to me at all whether Haley was actually able to trace his roots back to Africa. His real achievement is that he made us proud and curious about our origins in Africa and in slavery, of which many us had been ashamed. It's because of him that so many us began investigating our family trees, using the traditional tools of genealogical research, and more recently the astonishing power of DNA to learn where our forebears hailed from.

Recovering these long-lost legacies is an essential part of rebuilding the collective self-confidence and self-esteem so badly damaged by centuries of slavery, segregation and stigma. Measured against that, who cares if Alex Haley was really descended from Kunta Kinte or if Kunta Kinte actually existed?

And yet….I would love to know where Kunta Kinte really came from because he is such an important mythological figure. One way to find out more would be to exhume Haley, who died in 1992, and subject his remains to DNA testing. While the tests would not reveal the exact identity of Haley's ancestors, they might shed some light on whether any of them really hailed from the Mandinke area of Gambia.

Fortunately, there's no need to subject Haley to such an indignity, because he has living relatives –and one of them, his nephew Chris Haley, took a DNA test last year. (You can see a video of him swabbing the inside of his cheek on rootstelevision.com.) Haley, 45, who works at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis as director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, told me that he took a Y-DNA test that confirmed the family's oral tradition: on his father's father's side, that history "traces us back to the British Isles."

But he has not done the additional tests that could shed new light on his father's mother's side, which his uncle traced back to Kunta Kinte, and he's not planning to. "Why do that if it's already been done?" by his uncle, Chris explained to me. "So what I've done is to go in another direction that can be illuminating for me and for my mother's side of the family."

So I guess we won't be digging up Alex Haley, literally or symbolically. The African roots of the man who started it all will remain a mystery -- and a myth.

Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.