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Family: A Humanizing Force
(Family: A Humanizing Force by Alex Haley was published in Volume 1 of the 13-Volume proceedings of the 1980 World Conference On Records: Preserving Our Heritage, held 12-15 August 1980 in Salt Lake City, Utah.)
Family: A Humanizing Force
It is really rare that I am able to speak before an audience where what we collectively share is as clearly defined as it is in this case. There isn't to my knowledge any theme that could have been more appropriate for this vast and really historic assembly than that of family. This is an international assembly, but the theme is still appropriate. This assembly is under the aegis of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that is again as it should be because that church extends internationally with its theme of family.
The obvious reason that I have been given this honor to come here and speak today is because of the book Roots and because of its success. In one sense I am realistic about the success of the book, for the success of a book or the success of any creative work is not all that much because of the author or other creator. The success of it really is determined by the response of the public to that which has been created. And in the case of Roots, the response was simply overwhelming. I have often said that my experience with Roots was like dropping into a whirlpool. There was no way in the world to have dreamed, to have fantasized even, that the response would be anything such as it was.
I had come up with the title Roots for the book simply because in years of writing I had learned that I like one-word titles or titles of the fewest words possible. I had tried different titles for this book, and I had used them as what we call working titles for a while. Eventually, reading through some of the manuscript I had written, I found the word roots recurring in different contexts, and the more I got to thinking about it, the more I thought it could make an interesting title. So I used it, am now I'm so glad because it turned out to have been a title that could be translated around the world with exactly the same meaning wherever it is used. But at Doubleday Publishers my editor, Lisa Drew, put a subtitle on the book: The Saga of an American Family. She could hardly have been more right in divining what the real driving force of this book would be.
After the book was published, I had a shocking experience. Previously my mail had come in a mail box—I got maybe eight letters on a busy day or maybe fifty in a busy week. All of a sudden, my mail began to come in gray canvas sacks, many, many bags of it, mail from all over the country. And as the book began to spread literally around the world, people began writing to me about one thing, and that was family. They were sharing with me materials about their families, about their families' records. They were asking how they could go about tracing their families. It gave me the greatest of pleasure, particularly when I was in Europe, to tell people that the greatest collection of information about families in the world is kept by the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.
The response to the book has given me an absolute conviction that the greatest social common denominator there is among us human beings is that family is the building block of our whole social structure. It is also the greatest humanizing influence we have among us. Hence, again, the theme of this conference could scarcely have been better chosen.
People who are expert in clinically assessing the things that move us human beings have also seized upon the theme of family. Just as one example, only in the past two weeks I was talking with some friends at the Reader's Digest, which has, I believe, the largest magazine circulation in the world and is translated into many, many languages. The publishers are, I learned, bringing out a new magazine; I think it is to come out in September, and its title will be Families. They are not bringing out the magazine by accident. They feel certain that the audience and the response will make worthwhile the sizable investment of a new magazine.
Now, many, many among you know more about genealogy than I ever will know. I just kind of stumbled into it, and I would like to share with you my particular experience. The tracing of any family will differ from the tracing of any other family, but in essence and in spirit the tracing back of one's past is not really much different whether the family comes from Europe, from the Orient, from Africa, or from wherever. We all are alike in that no matter who or where we are on this earth, we all come from some family, we all have some ancestors, we all have some native land. This is another one of our great common denominators.
In my own case, tracing my past began with something that was very commonplace in my family, and that was what we call oral history. I was born in New York but raised in Tennessee. I think of home as a little town called Henning, Tennessee, about fifty miles north of Memphis. It had about 550 people at that time. My grandmother lived there in a large home. My grandfather had just recently died. I was almost five. I had been very, very close to my grandfather. I had not been as close to my grandmother, but I had the kind of grandmother who, if she decided to take you over, would, and there wasn't a whole lot that your mother or anyone else could do about it.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother felt this unbelievable grief. Before, she would just "run her mouth" all the time. Now she became almost mute, silent. She would sit on the front porch in a white wicker rocking chair and just rock. People would pass on the dirt road in front and nod their heads, and they would say, "How do you do, Miss Ciss?" Her name was Cynthia Palmer, and people called her Miss Ciss. And she would say, "I'm just sittin'," which was fairly obvious. She went through a summer that way, and it was very clear that grandma was in some depression. I began to feel, as a little boy might, that I should somehow stick extra close to her because grandpa was gone now. I felt as if I were supposed to protect her.
After a period of months, all of a sudden grandma burst into activity. She was busier than she ever had been before. She began to cook more than we ever could eat. She attacked with a vengeance everything that looked like a piece of lint in the house. She washed everything that was movable. She did everything. Then that particular summer, grandma began what would become a tradition in that household. She was the youngest of eight sisters, who were by now scattered around. I suppose grandma was in her mid-forties. She began to issue invitations, writing letters to her sisters, who lived in various places, inviting them to come and spend part of or, if they could, the whole of the summer. She had a big house, and, Southern hospitality being such as it is, that was all right. And they began to come—ladies I had never seen before who I learned were my great-aunts, my grandmother's sisters. To a little boy in Henning, Tennessee, it seemed very glamorous to hear that someone was from Inkster, Michigan; Carbondale, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; or someplace like that. One came from somewhere called Okmulgee, Oklahoma—I still can't pronounce it too well.
Every evening of those summers a pattern began to develop. After supper, as we called the evening meal, they would filter out onto the front porch, and each would take a seat in a rocking chair. There were lots of rocking chairs. Nobody but grandma ever sat in grandma's rocking chair. I always took my seat right behind grandma's rocking chair. The time would be about dusk, deepening into dark, and there would be lightning bugs flickering around over the honeysuckle vines just beyond the porch. The sisters would all start rocking a little this way, a little that way, as if getting their rhythms together. Most of them dipped snuff, which is a common habit in the South. They would load up their lower lips with Sweet Garrett Snuff, and they would start taking experimental testings with that. Easily, the champion snuff dipper was Aunt Liz from Oklahoma—she could drop a lightning bug at six yards when she felt right. As the evening wore on, they would begin to talk, and I, a little boy, would sit there listening.
When the whole quorum was there, there were all together seven sisters. The oldest sister, whose name was Viney, had died—I never saw her. But her daughter was there. Her name was Georgia, and I learned she was my Cousin Georgia. She was about twenty-some, I was about five or six now, and the others were in their forties and fifties. And every single evening I can remember across those summers, without a particular pattern, they would just talk about their family. They talked about people who were routine to them but exciting to me. They talked about their father, a blacksmith whose name had been Tom Murray, and about their mother, Irene Murray. They talked about this exciting, adventuresome, buccaneer-type character called Chicken George who was always in some kind of trouble or other. They talked about his mother, Kizzy, and then every now and then they would get off onto a subject that they regarded with some awe. They spoke of "that African" or "the African." They would tell about strange sounds he used to make, pointing at different things on the plantation in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and telling his daughter, Kizzy, what they were in his native tongue. They said, for instance, he used to point at a river not far from the plantation, and he would make the sound "Kamby Bolongo"—it was just a sound. They would say he would point at a stringed instrument and he would say, "ko." And there were various other sounds. That was just part of the story. When addressed by other slaves as "Toby," the master's name for him, the African said angrily that his name was Kinte, pronounced "Kin-tay." And as gradually he learned more English, he told young Kizzy some things about himself—for instance, that he was not far from his village, chopping wood to make himself a drum, when four men had surprised, overwhelmed, and kidnapped him.
As I heard all these stories growing up as a little boy, they mixed with other stories that I heard in Sunday School. Every Sunday morning we would hear stories from the Bible. I heard about David and Goliath and Moses and all the people you have heard about. And I suppose that by the time I was twelve, my mind was a kind of jumbled mixture of Chicken George and Goliath and Moses and Tom Murray and so forth. I would have had to consciously separate which people belonged in which set of stories. What I'm trying to illustrate is that I just grew up as children grow up, learning in a kind of indelible way, without things making any particular surface impression on me. We just know things we grow up hearing. In this way, I came to know the story of the family pretty well.
Now I want to skip thirty years, during which time my father took us away to where he was teaching. I went to school some and got terrible grades. It sounds so very noble that I went to serve in the military—as if I were terribly patriotic or something—but it wasn't really that. It's that my father just couldn't understand how a son of his could get Cs and even a C-minus in school. It got so bad that at the end of my freshman or sophomore year in college, I got a D. The following summer, my father called me up and said, "You know, I certainly enjoyed myself in the army in World War I, and I was just wondering how you might regard a hitch in the military." He didn't mean for me to stay a long time. He just thought that if I stayed three years I would, as he put it, mature, and then I could come back to college and get my degree and ultimately become a teacher as he was. That was his dream for all three of his children, that we would become teachers. I was so happy to hear that he wanted me to go into the military. My big job was trying to disguise how happy I was lest he change his mind. I had heard of all these exciting things that soldiers and sailors did, and I sure wasn't doing them on the college campus. So I went into the service. And then the war came, and I couldn't get out. I finally ended up spending twenty years in the service.
Neither was my getting into writing a noble decision. I never really said, "I will be a writer. It was quite accidental. I was on a ship in the southwest Pacific. I was a cook, and I wrote lots of letters to people. We would make ports in Australia, New Zealand, and places like that, and guys on the ship would meet girls. It was known on the ship that I wrote more letters than anybody else. When we would go out to sea, fellows who had met girls wanted to write letters. Lots of them couldn't write very good letters, they felt, so they would come to me and ask me if I would help them write love letters. I began to write love letters for my shipmates, and that was how I got into the business of writing. It just grew from that.
I used to interview my shipmates about their girl friends. I would say, "What does the girl look like?" They'd tell me, and then I'd contrive letters. If a fellow told me the girl's hair was blonde, for example, out in the middle of the ocean I'd cane up with something like "Your hair is like the moonlight reflected on the rippling waves." The girls would get these letters, and my clients would be very appreciative. I became heroic on the ship. From that day to the end of the war, I never fought a soul—all I did was write love letters.
I went from that to trying to write for magazines, and finally by the time I got out of the service, I had begun selling to magazines. Finally, I did my first book, called The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Then one day, a very magic day, I was in Washington, D.C. I had been interviewing somebody about something—I don't even remember what. Walking up the sidewalk, I looked up at this building—the U.S. National Archives. I'm not sure what induced me to walk up the steep steps. I'd never been in there, but of course I knew what an archive was. When I got in, a young man asked if he could help me, and I was taken aback. I wasn't going to say, "Look, lately I've kind of been thinking about some slaves I heard about from my grandmother." (I had been thinking about that because it was the 1960s, when there was a lot of talk about blacks, slaves, and so forth.) Instead, I asked him if I could see the 1870 census records for Alamance County, North Carolina, where my grandmother's family was from. I knew that the first time black people had been named by their names in the census was after the Civil War, which would have been 1870.
They got the census record, put it on a microfilm reader, and I had my first experience at something which literally thousands of you have shared. I don't have to tell you about it—staring down, as you turn the handle, at name after name after name written in that old-fashioned handwriting of census enumerators where the f's look like s's and vice versa, getting fuzzy-eyed and thinking, "Did I already pass them?" You just don't know. Finally, after eight rolls of microfilm, I looked down and—just staggering to me—I saw on this microfilm projection, "Murray, Thomas." Out from his name was his age, and then there was "blacksmith" as his profession. How many times had I heard grandma, Aunt Liz, Aunt Till—all of them—talk about their father, Tom Murray the blacksmith. Right underneath his name was "Irene," his wife, and her age. For Tom, in the "Color" column there was a B for black. For Irene, there was an M, for mulatto. Right underneath her name were the names of their children. There was the first child—Viney. How many times I had heard about Great-Aunt Viney, who had died, the oldest of the eight sisters! I had never seen her. And then there were the others on down the line. It was a new thrill every time I looked at another name and knew that I had sat with that lady on that front porch in Henning, Tennessee. Something that really rocked me was that grandma, the baby, hadn't even been born yet. I was sitting there looking at the family, and grandma hadn't even been born—she was born in 1872! But the thing that shocked me maybe more than that was that the youngest one listed there in 1870 was Elizabeth, age six. She was the one that came from Oklahoma, the snuff dipper. There was no way in the world Aunt Liz could have ever been six years old, in my comprehension. I just couldn't conceive of her having been six years old. That was when I had the first bite of what you all know so well—the genealogical bug, for which there is no cure. And I was on my way.
If I had the time, I would love to go through the details of what happened subsequently, but, in essence, after I had done research there for some days, I found out that I had to refresh myself. My memories were fuzzy—I couldn't remember the boyhood stories except vaguely and broadly because it had been thirty-some years since I'd heard them. And now began the experiences that have led me to say many times that Roots to me, despite all the literary honors it has received, is much more a spiritual experience than a literary one.
I went next to somebody who is in almost all of our families. Most of us have somebody in our family who knows where everybody in that family is. In my family it's my younger brother George, a lawyer. I went to him and told him what I was doing. He said, "You need to talk to Cousin Georgia." It just astonished me to realize that I had not thought about Cousin Georgia. Cousin Georgia was the one who was in her twenties when I was a little boy of six or seven. George said, "She's still living right there in Kansas City, Kansas, 1200 Everett Avenue."
As quickly as I could, I was on a plane to Kansas City, and I'll never forget the experience. Cousin Georgia was now in her sixties, and when I got on that front porch, having not seen her at all in those years, it was if we had just left the front porch in Henning. She looked at me am she said, "Boy, you growed up to be a right good-sized man."
The minute I opened my mouth about the stories on the front porch, Cousin Georgia opened up her mouth, and it was nonstop—talking the way it was there on that porch. I remember sitting there, now a writer taking notes as hard as I could, and thinking to myself how it had been on that front porch. I could see grandma's face, I could see Aunt Till's face, Aunt Plus's face, and all the others who had passed away. Cousin Georgia was the only surviving lady from that front porch.
When she stopped telling the story, it was as if Cousin Georgia had been reading my mind because she looked at me oddly and said, "Boy, your sweet grandma and all the rest of them, they're sittin' up there watchin' you to see what you're goin' to do. Now you get out of here and do what you got to do."
It was as if I was supposed to embark upon same sort of a mission. It was a bleak one, and I didn't know how to feel about it, yet she was saying to me, "Go do something about the family." I was trying to make a living as a writer. There was no money in looking for your family. I didn't know what to do, but I began to pick at this and peck at that and do a little bit here and there in between writing articles. Every now and then I would go back to Cousin Georgia, and she would always tell me, "They're all sittin' up there watchin' you to see what you're goin' to do." And I would go out again.
One time for Reader's Digest I was doing an article about the late, great Mahalia Jackson. When she was going to do a big concert somewhere in a city, often she would just disappear shortly before the concert, particularly if it was a weekend. After a while they knew where to find her. They would go up into the local black community—Harlem, the south-side of Chicago, or wherever—and look in little storefront churches. And somewhere they would find the great Mahalia in some little choir singing her head off. She told me, "You know what I do? In the concerts, I pour everything in me out." Then she said, "Them little places where I started, they're my filling station." Cousin Georgia became my filling station—spiritually, psychically. I'd go back to see her after ranging and searching.
Over the next months, I tried to trace the slender, hardly credible clues of the sounds—phonetic sounds, a few words passed down across generations, attributed to an African who would point to a river and say, "Kamby Bolongo" or point to a guitar and say, "ko." I searched and searched, but how could I find somebody who could tell me if those words were African and, if they were, what kind of African tongue they were in and what, if anything, they meant?
Finally, I contacted Dr. Jan Vansina, the world's most eminent scholar of African oral history. When I finally contacted him by mail, he was in the Belgian Congo. He said he would see me. I met his ship when he came back to New York and then went to the University of Wisconsin, where he was working. It was he and a Dr. Philip Curtin, both experts in African dialects and culture, who told me that the words sounded as if they belonged to the Mandinka tongue spoken in western African cultures. In Mandinka, "Kamby Bolongo," the words this African had said pointing to a river in Virginia, would translate to "Gambia River."
These clues gave me a place to go. I had never heard of The Gambia, Africa, but I had to go. It was an obsession. I couldn't afford to go, but somehow I got myself together, and I was going.
Cousin Georgia—and here is another one of those spiritual movers for me—had a stroke shortly before I was to leave. I had to go see her before I left. I went back to Kansas City, and found that one side of her was paralyzed. She had made them raise her up in the bed. She was obviously in pain, and it was obviously very awkward for her to talk. She was a very religious person. She said to me: "Son, I've been a soldier on God's battlefield all my life. Now I've been hit, but don't you let that stop you. You go ahead and do what you got to do." And it was with that that I went to Africa.
It was in Africa, in The Gambia, that I met the man who ultimately accompanied me with interpreters to a little obscure village on the bank of the Gambia River called Juffure, a village of about seventy-six people. And there I was introduced to an old man called a griot, a walking library, one of the men in Africa who keep the histories. These men have counterparts in every culture on the face of the earth. And through interpreters this man, Kebba Kanji Fofana, seventy-six years old, told me the African story of the Kinte clan, one little sentence of which tied in with exactly what I had heard on that front porch in Henning, Tennessee.
It was so shocking, shaking. I came out of Africa with my knees hardly able to function right. I flew all the way back with my head full of "How could I tell it? How could I contain it? How could I tell that story?"
When I got back to New York, I picked up the phone in customs to call my brother George to tell him I was back. I had hardly begun talking when he said, "Let me tell you before you go on. I've got sad news—Cousin Georgia passed away while you were gone." It was sad news. I wasn't grief stricken, because we knew she was going; she knew she was going. But it was sad.
Two nights later, I was sitting in my little place alone when I received a brown, manila envelope from my brother, who is orderly and neat as lawyers are. He had sent me the Kansas City Star front page which had the story of Cousin Georgia's passing, some sketch of her life, the program they passed out at her funeral at the church, and a xerox copy of the hospital death report. I was looking at these things, musing, reminiscing about Cousin Georgia. I had not seen a hospital death report before, and I was just looking at it when my eye fell on one of the entries, a little oblong block that said, "Time of Death." And there was the time, written in.
It's simply because I travel abroad a lot that I picked up a pen and began to make the time transposition. Where had I been when she had passed away? Then it hit me like a thunderbolt: Cousin Georgia had passed away in a Kansas City, Kansas, hospital literally within the hour that I had set foot in that village in Africa. An idea came to me that will stay with me the rest of my days—that helping me get to Africa had been her mission. She had been the one who was the youngest woman on that front porch when I was the little boy. She had had the better-developed memory. She could retain the story better than I could, and her function was to be the survivor of all those old ladies so that when I came along and became a man and a writer and was interested in that story, she could refresh me and sustain me and be my filling station—psychically, spiritually, as it were—until the day that I would find my way to that village in Africa to make the discovery that would tie together the family of Kunta Kinte on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, linking seven generations, the first time it had ever been done in that particular way. And it seemed that when she knew and He knew her mission was accomplished, Cousin Georgia too had gone up there to sit with all the rest of them watching me to see what I was going to do. It was in that spirit that the rest of Roots was researched and written across a period of twelve years.
The book and the film have been out now about four years, and the results have been such that I'm often, as now, called upon to talk before audiences. I am certainly humbled and sobered to a degree by many of the things which have happened. I do have some thoughts that have come to me out of my many, many exposures to people like yourselves, like myself, who are deeply interested in the matter of genealogy, of family records and family histories.
We are, all of us, here on this rich earth, rich beyond description, that our Creator has given us. Here we are as human beings possessed of the highest order of intelligence, insofar as we know, that there is in existence. It is so apparent, judging by other things we do—we send people to the moon, we send people into space, we send people across the sea, we do unbelievable miracles with this rich world we are on—that with this order of intelligence which we have, we could, if we really wanted to, if we really would, create what would amount to a living utopia for all the peoples of this world to share. But when you look at what we tend to do instead with this rich world and with our intelligence—wars, bombs, all the negatives that we can scramble together—one would wonder that we do not collectively fall on our knees and beg forgiveness.
We have, it seems to me, a kind of universal affliction. As groups we seem to have a pompousness about ourselves—a "we-they" complex. We seem to have a lust to dramatize in separative, negative ways, the differences among us—some of the differences God-given, some of them circumstantial, some of them elective, but nonetheless, things that we dramatize almost to the point that we eliminate from many of our minds how alike we are. We forget that, in fact, we are like many, many millions of ants scurrying about our various cities—our towns being our respective ant hills—yet all of us sharing this one planet earth.
Another image comes to my mind. When I was a boy, I was talking about the world or something, and my dad got an orange to illustrate to me what the world was. He drew in rough terms the continental outlines on the orange. Then he carved out the continental outlines and rotated the orange. And the image of that orange has always stuck with me. I don't know exactly what the answer is to all the problems of the world—the political and all the other problems. That's not my area. But I would like to suggest one area in which we can start to work that has the potential for some really profound effects in this world we share. It seems to me that we should set about trying to sensitize this world, of which we are representatives, to the fact that we are part of a cycle that goes on and on.
I guess I couldn't describe it better than by sharing an idea that I picked up in Africa and used in Roots. The little boy Kunta was four years old; grandmother Yaisa died. He was grief stricken. He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew it was his father, Omoro. His father said to him, "My son, it is permissible for you to be sad, for you loved your grandmother, but grief stricken, no. It is time I taught you something. There are in every village three groups of people. There are first of all those people like your grandmother who now have gone on to spend the rest of time among the ancestors in eternity. The second set of people, my son, are those like you and me who are now walking around talking here in this village where we live, interacting with other people in the village even as our village interacts with other villages. The third set of people of every village are those in your loins and the loins of others like you waiting yet to be born into this village, and that, my son, is how it has been determined that people and villages continue." That is no less true today in Salt Lake City or Peking or Moscow or Buenos Aires or anywhere in the world where we human beings are living. There is that cycle—the ancestors, the we and they walking around talking, and those yet to be born to take our places.
When we talk about families, we're really talking about a little piece of human history. Sadly, most of human history has been lost. When I say that, I mean that when you go back a couple of centuries—past six or seven generations—the major part of recorded history is about the conquerors, the winners, the victors. It is almost impossible to find anything in history that tells you about the so-called little people—the farmers, the miners, the people who worked with their hands, and so forth. They were referred to by two of the most pernicious words imaginable in Europe, serfs and peasants, and those serfs and peasants were the ancestors of the great majority of the people of European derivation in this country today. In Africa we have the same thing, the very great lack of written histories, and I suppose the same would be true at least to some degree in the Orient.
What we have now is an urgent need to collect as much of the oral history that remains as we possibly can. The greatest part of the history of this country is in the memories and minds of older people. Every year in this country about two million people who are sixty-five or older pass away, and with them goes a great big chunk of this country's history. That history is irretrievably lost unless those older people have been interviewed and their memories recorded by members of their family or others who are interested. We are now in a position to do something about family histories.
Apart from collecting our family histories, one of the most important things we can do, I believe, is to spread as widely and as intensively as we can the idea that we should try to hold family reunions, much, much more than we have tended to hold them.
The family, as I said at the outset, is the building block of society, and every time a family meets, that particular building block is solidified. Reunions do magical things within the family itself; they do equally magical things within the component of society of which that family is a part. It is exciting no end to think what worldwide family reunions might, in fact, contribute toward worldwide peace. There is no active world war which could conceivably be so exciting as an active world peace. If we could do these things, we would reach toward that utopia of which I have spoken. Utopia for us human beings may be asking too much, but peace is not asking too much; it is in our grasp; it is possible if we can become aggressive about it. The potential of this idea is too enormous to mention.
I would like to close with one story that always moves me—that with which we ended film portions of Roots. I think that it does not apply just to Africa nor to the black people nor to Roots, but it applies to all of humankind in terms of what it says to us of our potential to make better this world in which we live. It is the very earliest rite of passage experienced by the Mandingo Africans.
On the first brightly moonlit night following the child's birth, the father of the child would take him out alone, and, in a clear place away from their village, the father would raise the child up over his head, with its wriggling little body supported in his palms. As the young child's eyes took in the starry firmament for the first time, the father would speak to his child—the first words ever whispered directly into the infant's ear, the first thing ever spoken directly to him. I feel that when that African father spoke to his child, he was speaking to us all of our potential to work toward peace, to work through the medium of families, to strengthen them and widen their powers and influence. What that father said to his wriggling infant, and I feel also to us, was, "Behold—the only thing greater than thyself." ~ Alex Haley
(Family: A Humanizing Force is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was published in Volume 1 of the 13-Volume proceedings of the 1980 World Conference On Records. © 1980 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)