Alex Aley and Juffure: the Day He Arrived
Thursday, February 23, 2012
When Alex Haley Arrived
The Author of Roots Reminisces About His First Juffure Visit.
In Juffure: Binta Kinte, Alex Haley, Unknown
In our third and final article commemorating Black History Month, we publish below an essay by the late Alex Haley, the author of Roots. The essay, which would form the basis for Roots, was first published in the New York Times in 1972. It is about Haley's first trip to Juffure. As a child growing up in Tennessee, Haley said he would hear his grandmother and her sisters talk about their family history. He recalled hearing family tales like this:
"Yeah, boy, that African say his name was 'Kin-tay'' he say the banjo
was 'ko' and' the river 'Kamby Bolong,' an' he was choppin' some wood to
make his drum when they grabbed 'im!"
These memories would stay with Haley. He came to know that the words "Kamby" and 'Bolong" in his grandmother's stories, were of the Mandinka language and that they were probably referring to the Gambia River.
Resolved to finding his African heritage, Haley took a trip to The Gambia and went to the village of Juffure to find out. His impressions:
*** *** ***
"The boat vibrated upriver, with me very tense. After about two hours, we put in at James Island, for me to see the ruins of the once British-operated James Fort. Here two centuries of slave ships had loaded thousands of cargoes of Gambian tribespeople. The crumbling stones, the deeply oxidized cannon, even some remnant links of chain seemed all but impossible to believe. Then we continued upriver to the left-bank village of Albreda, and there put shore to continue on foot to Juffure, village of the griot.
"Walking on, I kept wishing that Grandmas could hear how her stories had led me to the Kamby Bolong (the Gambia River). Finally, Juffure village's playing children, sighting us, flashed an alert. The 70-odd people came rushing from their circular, thatch-roofed, mudwalled huts, with goats bounding up and about, and parrots squawking from up in the palms. I sensed him in advance somehow, the small man amid them, wearing a pillbox cap and an off-white robe, the griot. Then the interpreters went to him, as the villagers thronged around me.
"And it hit me like a gale wind: every one of them, the whole crowd, was jet black. An enormous sense of guilt swept me - a sense of being some kind of hybrid... a sense of being impure among the pure. It was an awful sensation.
A Signed Photo (L) of Haley with Binta Kinte in Juffure circa 1979-80, Shortly After Publication of ROOTS
"The old griot stepped away from my interpreters and the crowd quickly swarmed around him, all of them buzzing. An interpreter came to me and whispered: "Why they stare at you so, they have never seen here a black American." And that hit me: I was symbolizing for them twenty-five million of us they had never seen. What did they think of me - of us?
"Then abruptly the old griot was briskly walking toward me. His eyes boring into mine, he spoke in Mandinka, as if instinctively I should understand, and this was translated: "Yes... we have been told by the forefathers... that many of us from this place are in exile... in that place called America... and in other places." ... A man brought me a low stool. Now the whispering hushed - the musicians had softly begun playing kora and balafon, and the griot, aged 73 years, took a seat. ...He began speaking the Kinte clan's ancestral oral history; it came rolling from his mouth across the next hours... 17th- and 18th-century Kinte lineage details, predominantly what men took wives; the children they had, in the order of their births; those children's mates and children.
"... It was as if some ancient scroll were printed indelibly within the griot's brain. Each few sentences or so, he would pause for an interpreter's translation to me. I distill here the essence: "The Kinte clan began in Old Mali, the men generally blacksmiths who conquered fire, and the women potters and weavers. One large branch of the family moved to Mauritania from where one son of the clan, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, a Moslem Marabout holy man, entered Gambia... and moved to our own village of Juffure."
"In Juffure, he took his first wife, a Mandinka maiden, by whom he begot two sons. Then he got a second wife, Yaisa. By her he begot a son, Omoro. Omoro, the youngest son, when he had 30 rains [was 30 years old] took as a wife a maiden, Binta. And by her, he begot four sons - Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu, and Madi..." "About that time the king's soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, when he had about 16 rains, went away from his village, to chop wood to make a drum... and he was never seen again..."
"Goose-pimples the size of lemons seemed to pop all over me. In my knapsack were my cumulative notebooks, the first of them including how in my boyhood, my Grandma and others told of the African "Kin-tay" who always said he was kidnapped near his village while chopping wood to make a drum...
"I showed the interpreter, he showed and told the griot, who excitedly told the people; they grew very agitated. Abruptly then they formed a human ring, encircling me, dancing and chanting. Perhaps a dozen of the women carrying their infant babies rushed in toward me, thrusting the infants into my arms conveying, I would later learn, "the laying on of hands... through this flesh which is us, we are you, and you are us." The men hurried me into their mosque, their Arabic praying later being translated outside:
“Thanks be to Allah for for returning the long lost among us.” Direct descendants of Kunta Kinte’s blood brothers were hastened, some of them from nearby villages, for a family portrait to be taken with me, surrounded by actual ancestral sixth cousins. More symbolic acts filled the remaining day… They called me ‘Meester Kinte! ‘Meester Kinteh!’
Haley with the Kinte Clan During First Juffure Trip, circa 1967
"Let me tell you something. I am a man. But I remember the sob surging up from my feet, flinging up my hands before my face and bawling as I had not done since I was a baby… the jet-black Africans were jostling, staring… I didn’t care, with the feeling surging. If you really knew the odyssey of us millions of Black Americans, if you really knew how we came in the seeds of our forefathers, captured, driven, beaten, inspected, bought, branded, chained in foul ships, if you really knew, you needed weeping."
The Immortalization of Haley
Sculptures of Haley in Annapolis, Maryland (left) Where Kunta Kinte Was Sold and in Knoxville, Tennessee
***Alex Haley was bon in 1921 in Ithaca, New York and died in 1992 in Seattle, Washington, during a speaking tour.