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From Freedom To Freedom: African Roots In American Soil
Foreword By Alex Haley
As the author, I have been flattered in the extreme by early reactions from an array of scholars representing institutions across the United States, and even abroad. It appears that Roots likely will have an enduring academic role in the teaching of a variety of disciplines: Afro-American history; history of the United States; anthropology; sociology; and some others.
It is a privilege now to offer this foreword to the readers of From Freedom to Freedom, who will pursue a structured, academic use of this book. The sections which follow have been organized and developed by a faculty team from Miami-Dade Community College, whose expertise has impressed me as of a high order of capability and objectivity.
Those of you who are studying From Freedom to Freedom might have a particular interest in some of the details of how my book Roots was produced, because it will serve as collateral reading.
The final chapter of Roots, Chapter 118, affords a capsuled account of how I grew up in a small town, Henning, Tennessee, hearing my grandmother's narrative account of our family's history until those stories became indelible in my head, much the same as with the biblical parables I heard in Sunday School. Grandma didn't realize, and most assuredly I didn't, that in fact we were engaged in one of the oldest forms of human communication—the transmission of oral history.
Thirty-odd years later, things my grandmother had told me of events as far back as 200 years before those days would prove to be accurate to an astonishing degree. They were even corroborated by professional oral historians, known as griots, and pronounced GREE'os, in West Africa.
Oral history, however, is not peculiarly African, or Afro-American. It is entirely universal. Every living person in this world is descended from ancestors who lived at some time and in some place that had no writing. In that time and in that place, information was transmitted only from the memories of elders through their mouths and into the ears of younger persons. Certain elders, such as the griots, functioned as professional repositories and transmitters of information. Africa's griots had counterparts in every other ethnic culture, the Slavic guslah and the English bard being two examples.
But as technology and mobility have performed their work of radically changing cultures, traditions, and customs, the exclusively oral preservation and communication of history have dwindled and atrophied into cultural artifacts, supplemented by the printing press and electronic transmissions, at least for the most part.
It is highly significant that some of the officials whom I met upon my first visit to The Gambia in West Africa smiled when I registered astonishment at their descriptions of the commonplace memory feats of their remaining griots. "You are so surprised," they said, "because you come from the Western culture, which has become so conditioned to leaning on the crutch of print that you have forgotten how capable is the memory."
We no longer make anywhere near so much use of human memory as we ought to be doing. Memory still works, however, among people everywhere, in limited ways and settings, as it was working in Henning, Tennessee. Indeed, what made Roots possible was the eventual and near-miraculous fusion of a few physically recorded facts in various archives with a few other facts contained only within a narrative which had been passed down by ward of mouth across generations of my maternal family.
The student will appreciate that, in the writing of books, a certain architecture of structure must be accomplished before the actual process of writing begins, and that the structuring of Roots was particularly complicated.
First, there was about a two-year quest involved in the establishment of the family lineage. This search moved backward in time, from myself of the seventh generation to Kunta Kinte, who was born about 1750 in the village of Juffure in The Gambia, in West Africa. With those ancestral facts in hand, there was some initial temptation simply to produce a long magazine article which would present these facts in a somewhat dramatic manner.
But I was deeply intrigued with what I felt to be an immense need within our culture for some source in the greater depth of a book. Such a book, I hoped, could have a chance to reach and appeal to a wide public, and to illumine, for whomever read it, what had been the truths of the long saga of those unique millions of people who are Afro-Americans. This saga has spanned some three centuries, since the time when Africans began being taken on a regular commercial basis for the purposes of their enslavement in the Americas, mainly the United States.
The story of my family would be symbolic of that saga, as would the story, in continuum and detail, of any other black family. No other ethnic grouping on earth has such a common denominator of ancestral pattern: every black American descended from some ancestor who lived in some African village, who got captured in some way, and who crossed the ocean in some slave ship; then to some succession of plantations, up until the Civil War; then the Emancipation; and since then a struggle for freedom, in its various facets.
Reflecting further upon this projected book, it seemed to me that a major reason why freedom has to this day remained relatively within quote marks, where Afro-Americans are concerned, in this American nation of immigrant peoples (with the probable exception of the American Indian, all Americans ancestrally came from somewhere on the other side of an ocean, the Afro-American being the only unwilling immigrant) was because Americans, whether black or white or otherwise, really comprehended scarcely anything of the truth about the culture of the African ancestral source of black people, with the result that blacks have tended variously to manifest shame of their heritage and hence of their contemporary selves, while persons of other ethnic groupings have tended to be derisive. Most Americans' images of Africa and Africans had derived from such films as Tarzan and Jungle Jim—even as Africans whom I have queried told me it was also the cinema which fed their images of black Americans as grinning, shiftless buffoons. These are images which we are struggling yet to disperse.
So what was the truth of the African culture, out of which Afro-Americans' ancestors had come? The book Roots should portray that culture; the narrative should be woven around the life of the growing Kunta Kinte.
Across the next two years, I researched eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African culture, seeking out the most primary sources available in the middle of this twentieth century. Traveling at irregular intervals to The Gambia, I would make trips into various back country villages, usually with two interpreters. I did not seek out griots now, but merely the most senior elders. Through interpreters, I asked these elders a great many questions, always trying to push further back in time; what did they remember their fathers' having told them of the time when their fathers had been boys?
How was honey taken from the beehive trees? How were the various crops planted? Harvested? With what ceremony? What were the day-to-day tasks of women? How were girls trained for the roles of wives and mothers? What about the manhood training for boys? How would one best describe the Council of the Elders? And so on, across many hours, in different villages.
Leaving a village, generally I would next fly to London to pore through documents helpful to my search for the threads of African culture, such as The Travels of Mungo Park and other adventurers' written accounts, including the extremely detailed personal diaries of Quaker and Wesleyan missionaries—keen observers who wrote candidly of what they saw in The Gambia. Being professionally sympathetic, they tended not to be so supercilious as others. Yet they staunchly cast aspersions upon the Africans' religious practices, especially the Islamic, for they were there to proselytize for their own religion.
Two years of search for this African culture resulted in such a formidable array of material that now the question was how it could be incorporated into a book of popular form. Probably four or five scholarly books could have been produced, bearing such titles as "The Cultural History of The Gambia, West Africa, circa 1750-1800." But how on earth to present such a huge pile of static facts without creating essentially a compendium?
An idea was finally arrived at. Kunta Kinte, born in Juffure, remained there, growing up, until he was captured when about sixteen years of age. A purchase was made of sixteen large three-ring binder notebooks, each thickly filled with unlined sheets of paper. I labeled the notebooks "Kunta, Age One," "Kunta, Age Two," and so on, through age sixteen.
The vast array of static, researched, cultural material now was laid out on nearly any flat surface available in my home, on tables and shelves, covering almost every square foot of floor, with only a walkway remaining.
My idea was to siphon into each notebook, representing each successive year, whatever the boy Kunta plausibly could have experienced through any one or any combination of the human senses. Starting with notebook "Kunta, Age One," I went through the entire vast array of material distilling for use that which was applicable as the reactions of a baby of that age, as registered through his faculties of sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste.
That notebook filled, I turned to the notebook for age two, and so on. By the time Kunta was four, in my plausible reconstruction, his mental faculties were portrayed as increasing enough that he could comprehend some more involved things.
The sixteen notebooks eventually were thick with materials. The previously intimidating array of static materials had been distributed across the life of a Gambian boy and youth who lived two centuries ago, yet whose life was just as real to him as yours or mine today.
Now my need was for what editors and writers term a "story line"—the skein of successive activities which would move through the succession of years, with cultural material woven in along the way.
Finally, after what had been a lifetime for me since the days at my grandmother's knee, the actual writing began. It would take three years. The resulting book, Roots, has, I hope, achieved the result that a reader will soon become intrigued with a disarming baby—for babies are universal. I hope the reader will continue to be intrigued, as Kunta has successive experiences as a small boy, and then as a youth. I further hope the reader peripherally will be absorbing a huge amount of facts about African culture and become aware of truths which would probably never have become known to him or her except perhaps through the pursuit of more scholarly books.
It is felt that this understanding of the more or less architectural construction and structuring of Roots will assist the study of From Freedom to Freedom in such a way as to afford better assessment of the cultural and informational contents of Roots.
More or less the same procedures were applied to those sections of Roots which deal with Kunta's experience on the slave ship. Booking myself as a passenger on a freighter bound from West Africa to the United States, I spent each night of the crossing lying on a plank, stripped to my underwear, down within the dark, cold hold. Even so, my experience was sheerest luxury, by comparison with that of Kunta and 139 others within the slave ship Lord Ligonier, but it was the closest I could come in an attempt to sense at least something of their otherwise unimaginable experience.
Still more notebooks of voluminous, categorized materials were drawn upon in order to share with the reader of Roots insight and information on the everyday lives of antebellum slaves as exemplified by Kunta, Bell, Fiddler, Kizzy, and others on the John Waller and thence the William Waller plantations, and later the descendant families and their friends on the subsequent Lea and Murray plantations.
Roots takes us through the Civil War, and into the Reconstruction era, when a wagon train took about twenty ex-slave families to establish new and improved free lives for themselves in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. In that wagon train was Cynthia, then aged two, who was to become my grandmother, the one at whose knee I learned true stories that would not leave my consciousness and which I wish to share.
Each character portrayed within Roots is felt to symbolize many thousands of persons of similar, general personalities and circumstances . . . who once lived in West Africa . . . who were crew and cargo of slave ships . . . and who lived on plantations within the United States. ~ Alex Haley.
(The above foreword by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. From Freedom To Freedom: African Roots In American Soil was edited by Mildred Bain and Ervin Lewis. © 1977 Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
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