I recently got an email from a distant cousin who I met via ancestry.com (a story for another time to be shared with their permission), and they informed me that they’d stumbled on a connection between my ancestors and the story of Kunte Kinte, one of the earliest slaves to be brought to the US, according to author Alex Haley.
The 1977 TV series Roots was based on Haley’s Pulitzer winning book, Roots; The Saga of an American Family.
I replied to my cousin, “Just when I think my head can’t explode one more time…”
I began to read and what I found was interesting. As it turns out, Alex Haley’s research was very flawed. He had traced himself back to Kinte, but he had done so using family lore and some loose fact checking. Historians and experts in the area of Southern and black history have since pointed out all the holes in Haley’s narrative.
That said, the story itself is an important representation of what a slave experience was like.
What is factual are the white participants in the story, which we know because living Waller descendants have their own records, family lore, and documentation.
According to Haley’s story Roots, Kinte is kidnapped from his home in Africa and put on the ship Lord Ligonier. The ship arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, and Kinte was purchased by my sixth-great uncle John Waller and Kinte is renamed Toby.
After being recaptured during the last of his four escape attempts, the slave catchers gave him a choice: he would be castrated or have his right foot cut off. He chose to have his foot cut off, and so off went part of his right foot..
At some point in here, John Waller gives Kinte to his brother Dr. William Waller (another six-great uncle), to settle a debt.
In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, Kinte marries Bell, William Waller’s cook, and together they have a daughter, Kizzy. Kizzy’s existence is questioned by historians because of the timing of things too.
Here are some of the flaws and facts I have come across that historians found.
The Waller family already owned a slave named Toby in 1762, five years before the Lord Ligonier supposedly landed Kunta Kinte in Annapolis.
William apparently didn’t own a plantation but actually was disabled and lived with John on his plantation (not that William couldn’t still own a slave under those circumstances).
I also came across another repeated statement; Dr. William and John Waller’s father Colonel William Waller (1714-1760) owned a slave named Hopping George, a description consistent with a foot injury. Colonel Waller also owned a slave named Isbell, who may be the Bell in Haley family legend.
I recently watched the 2016 remake of Roots, primarily to see what people wore back then. How did they talk? What did they look like? Well, obviously, they’re actors, but it is indeed very surreal to see actors playing people I am related to, if even distantly.
Not that I want a family connection to this story or a story that came out of people in their plantation, but since I’ve been documenting this stuff, it seemed fitting to mention it.