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|Somerset Homecoming: Recovering A Lost Heritage||Share:|
Somerset Homecoming: Recovering A Lost Heritage
Introduction By Alex Haley
I had just gotten off a cargo ship in Antwerp, Belgium, after four weeks of writing at sea, and I was on a flight to Los Angeles when I saw a story in USA Today about Dorothy Redford and her reunion of slave descendants at a North Carolina plantation.
Dorothy had written to me several times over the previous years about her personal search for her own slave ancestors and her subsequent study of the plantation and its slave community. I had responded with encouragement and what advice I thought might help. When her last letter invited me to attend a homecoming at the site, I wrote back that I could not attend because of my own plans to be at sea.
Now, airborne back to America, I realized I had not yet missed the event. From her letters, I knew what a beautiful piece of work Dorothy had been developing, and I was excited at the possibility of our meeting, of seeing the site she had studied for so long and of witnessing the heartfelt, human gathering she had brought about.
When I got to Los Angeles, I showed the newspaper article to two lifelong friends of mine from our tiny hometown of Henning, Tennessee, and purely upon impulse, we caught the first plane to Norfolk. There we rented a car and drove south into the North Carolina countryside and finally arrived at the Somerset Place plantation in the midst of the celebration.
I was thrilled—thrilled not just at what was happening there that day, but for all the connections that such a gathering of families spoke of—for the thread that ran back through the generations and will most surely run ahead into the future. To see those scores of families, all returned to the soil of their ancestors, resurrecting the spirit of their kin who came before, made me think of what, I believe, was certainly my most dramatic moment in the making of Roots.
We were in Savanna, Georgia, getting ready to film a scene where Kunta Kinte refused to call himself by the name his master had given him. The master had decided Kunta's name would be "Toby." The overseer was giving the word, and he passed it to the old slave who was training the young Kunta.
The old slave was being played by Lou Gossett, and the young slave, of course, by Levar Burton. But no matter what the old slave did, the young one refused to accept another name. Finally, word of his defiance went back via the overseer to the master, who ordered Kunta beaten until he would say his new name was now "Toby."
That was the scene to be filmed that day. Levar was brought out and tied with his wrists to a set of crossed poles, much like an Indian tepee. As he hung there, to his right sat the old slave, Lou Gossett, who was being punished for his inability to get the young slave to say the name and who would be needed to help remove the young slave after what would surely be a terrible beating.
When the director announced "Action!" the overseer came out, dressed in a kind of cloak, proud and furious. He looked at the young one hanging up there by his wrists and he said, "What's your name boy?"
Levar answered quietly, "Kunta."
Smirking, the overseer looked over at a tall, anonymous slave in the background who was holding a whip, and this slave walked out into camera range, raised his arm and began.
The whip they were using was made with loosely woven hemp, nothing that would hurt anybody. But a trained actor knows how to jerk the instant it touches his skin, making the force and sting of the blow appear painfully real. Levar took two blows, then a third, which, with the special effects people's blood capsules breaking, was almost too much to look at.
Then, again, the overseer asked, "What's your name, boy?" Again, now weakly, Levar said, "Kunta."
After three more blows, and more blood, the thirty-five or so of us just out of camera range were so angry we were ready to charge out there and choke somebody.
This time Levar, his head nodding to one side, with no strength left even to lift his chin, said, in a whisper, "Toby, master." And the overseer whirled about, proud, arrogant. "Louder! Let me hear it again. What's your name, boy?"
Barely, Levar whispered, "Toby, master."
Then the tall slave who had done the beating cut Levar down, and Levar slumped into Lou Gossett's lap.
Gossett, an experienced veteran actor, was supposed to embrace the young slave, to comfort him. One camera was to slowly slide out of focus, as an optional way to end that two hour episode.
But what happened is something that people who spend their entire lives around films being made may witness but a few times—when experienced actors or actresses totally forgot who they are and become the role they are portraying, letting what's inside them take over.
When Levar slumped into Lou Gossett's lap, Lou's own body began convulsing. He curled into a near-fetal position, grasping Levar to his own shaking self—and out of Lou's voice box, through his tears, came a hoarse, guttural cry.
"What difference it make what they calls you? You knows who you is, you's Kunta!"
He convulsed again. He let out another, even higher-pitched cry: "Dey's gonna be a better day."
He paused. Silence. Then he repeated it.
"Dey's gonna be a better day!"
Maybe ten seconds passed, then the last film was clicked through three cameras. The only sound was Lou's weeping.
Then he pulled himself back, out of the role, into the present.
"I don't know what happened to me," he said. "I forgot about who I am. I was there, a hundred and fifty years ago, and that was my little Guinea boy. I was supposed to teach him how to be a slave and instead he had taught me how to be a man."
Years have gone by since that afternoon in Savannah, Georgia, but I have never been far from that cry or from those words: "They's gonna be a better day." Because that is the cry that was being cried by all the people—the black people, the white people, the red people, the other people living in the time that scene depicted. That was the cry that was heard on Somerset Place plantation, from one end to the other, and on every other plantation like it. That was the cry that came from people praying not just for themselves, but for their children and for all those who would follow them. That life would be better. That there would be a better day.
What compelled me to come to Somerset Place for its home coming was to see that better day come alive in a setting like that. And it gave me the chance to witness what a marvelous thing my colleague has done. Dorothy's study is the best, most beautifully researched and most thoroughly presented black family history that I know of.
I don't believe I could imagine a better answer to the prayers of her relatives' foreparents—of all our foreparents—than what she has brought together and created at Somerset Place and the story she tells in these pages.
It is all our stories. — Alex Haley
(The above introduction is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1988 The Somerset Place Foundation. All Rights Reserved.)
Somerset Homecoming: Recovering A Lost Heritage • Reviews
"I read this the first time because it was a new genealogy book at my local library. More than just an engaging story about a woman's search for a heritage to pass down to her daughter, it also qualifies itself as the best 'How To' on African-American Genealogy, because in the course of telling her story, Ms. Redford explains how she found her information. I recommend it all the time to friends researching African American family history." - Fayetteville, Georgia.
"Not strictly an informational guide, this book describes the author's search for her family's heritage, a research project that took ten years. Describes the informational, mental, and emotional challenges of this type of work. Redford was able to bring 2000 of her forebear's descendants together at the plantation where their ancestors were slaves." - African American Genealogy Resources.
"There are moments of drama, high humor and sorrow in Redford's odyssey. It's a joy to share her triumph at identifying her forebears, then bringing together 2000 of their descendants in 1986. The homecoming was at Somerset Place, the plantation in North Carolina where their ancestors were slaves. Redford heads a project to rebuild Somerset as a national heritage." - Publishers Weekly.
"Alive with crisp prose, this book tells of Redford's unusual accomplishment of uniting the descendants of black slaves, some of whom were kin, on the antebellum Somerset Plantation in North Carolina where their ancestors had worked, lived, and been enslaved. The consuming passion that pushed Redford through her painful, groping search for identity yields a treasure of black struggle and survival in slavery and afterward, climaxing with a black homecoming carried nationally by the media. This poignant, personal saga of black roots and branches is recommended for Afro-American, Southern, local history, and genealogy collections. A gem." - Library Journal.
"Ms. Redford made the connection to her roots in a North Carolina plantation where one can still see the canals her ancestors dug and the houses they built in the early days of slavery. I have visited the site, and her book and research made what was there almost comprehensible, and helped to bring the people in this book to life for me." - Maurertown, Virginia.