I actually met Alex Haley in 1989 during the Annual African American Family Reunion held on the Smithsonian Mall in Washington, D.C.. This was the start of a near decade long reign of Afrocentrism (i.e., the popular culture version of the highbrow Afrocentricity theorized by Molefi Kete Asante) when red, black and green medallions with Queen Nefertiti, Africa, and/or a clinched black fist embroidered on it hung from the neck of every truly conscious Afrikan America.
Who can forget those Kufi hats, neckties, and long flowing gowns made out of African print fabrics such as mud and kente cloths. And, of course, those sloganeering tee-shirts we wore (e.g., “Black to the Future,” “Danger: Educated Black Man,” “Too Black/Too Strong”) that bespoke a quest for self-definition and perseverance as the Reagan years were ending. And Malcolm X was everywhere! So when, as a twenty-five year old intellectual in the making, I shook Haley’s hand on the Mall, it was his work in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) that I thought of first.
As a teenager, I watched every episode of the television mini-series Roots. For me, it was a story of the African American experience (as John Hope Franklin called it “From Slavery to Freedom”), but later I would see it as one man’s search for a sense of heritage – for family connections. I visited Juffureh and walked the land of Haley’s Kunta Kinte’s birth and capture respectively. In Juffureh, I was told the story of how the Kinte’s came to The Gambia and how as a teenage boy Kunta was capture by Portuguese traders and taken to St. James Island. He was held on St. James (the first Slave Fort in West Africa) for 14 days before taken to Goree Island and, then, transported to America where he was sold in Virginia (1767).
I also visited St. James Island and walked the ground where many of those who comprised the first generation of Africans to enter the Transatlantic Slave Trade began their horrible nightmare of the “New World.” The Gambia is the home of the biennial Roots Heritage Festival which attracts both continental and Diasporain Blacks. What a peculiar heritage.
It was a great honor to meet a member of the ninth generation of the Kinteh (their spelling) family.I was also thrilled at meeting the Chief of the village – the first female chief in The Gambia. (In photo at left). My chance meeting with Haley twenty years ago was obscured by Malcolm’s hagiography, however, the visit to Juffureh has allowed me to see his Roots as part of our collective heritage. In a real sense, Kunta is (as my grandmother would say) “kinfolk” to all of us.