Adventure Travel for the Mildly Adventuresome» The controversy surrounding ‘Roots’

by Wayne Wirtanen, (Part 1 of 3 on The Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

Having never recovered from my addiction to Saturday matinee double features in the 1930s, I still am fascinated by the making of movies and, specifically, the actual filming locations, visiting them (or their representations) whenever possible. If a story has important historical and social value, as the book and the TV miniseries “Roots” had, then it’s all the more interesting.

On a trip I made to The Gambia in West Africa, Oct. 20-Nov. 1, 2007, one of the high points was visiting sites that were featured in Alex Haley’s 1970s book and the subsequent television miniseries that was widely seen around the world.

“Roots” & “the rest of the story”

To refresh your memory, Alex Haley’s book was inspired by his family’s oral history about the life of an African slave from The Gambia, Kunta Kinte, who was claimed to be, some 200 years ago, an early relative of the Haley family. In research for his book, Haley visited The Gambia and the fishing village Jufureh, said to be the home of Kunta Kinte.

A local near the landing dock in Juffureh. In the background are the ruins of a 17th-century, French-built, fortified slaving station. Photos: Wirtanen

Shortly after reaching manhood, the story relates, Kunta Kinte was captured by white slavers and was sent, as were ultimately an estimated 20 million black Africans, to labor on a plantation in the Americas. The profitable slave trade was, in cycles during the 15th to 19th centuries, dominated by the British, Dutch, French or Portuguese.

Although the miniseries’ Gambia sequences actually were filmed in Georgia, USA, it was with great interest that I visited the village of Jufureh as well as James Island and the surrounding areas where Black Africans themselves mostly were responsible for the capture and selling of other black Africans to eager white traders.

This part of West Africa was the principal location of slave-trading ports, and many slave-trading sites have been preserved and/or restored as reminders of this grim period. The British were instrumental in finally forcing the abolition of the African slave trade in 1829.

As described in Haley’s story, the 18th-century black African slave trade and its consequences are generally accepted as reasonably accurate. His epic TV miniseries brought the dramatic realities of life on our pre-Civil War southern plantations to millions of American living rooms in January 1977.

Jufureh, the home village of Kunta Kinte, who is the book’s early principal character, has subsequently, in the 20th century, promoted itself as a tourist destination. The Gambian government has initiated in Jufureh a biennial Roots Homecoming Festival (www.rootsgambia.gm), last held in June 2006.

Jufureh and James Island

Jufureh is a typical, small, African village of individual primitive homes on the Gambia River. From our ship, Hapag-Lloyd’s 4-star expedition ship MS Bremen, we were transported to a small but substantial wooden dock there in groups of six to eight in standard rubber Zodiacs.

On the day of my visit, there was a row of souvenir stands at one edge of the village, but most families were cooking a midday meal over small outdoor fires, paying little attention to the hundred or so visitors wandering about except to respond cheerfully to our “hellos” and to give permission for taking photos when politely asked (with our cameras raised and asking ‘Okay?’).

A Juffureh family cooking breakfast.

The village was quite tidy. Small fish were drying in the sun on horizontal racks. The children were excited to see us, giving shy waves.

I had my photo taken with a very senior village matriarch who claimed to be eight generations descended from the “Roots” character Kunta Kinte. Later in the day, when I inquired, the ship’s lecturer said, “It’s possible. It was 200 years ago. Who can say for sure either way?”

James Island, nearby in mid-river, had been a holding “fortress” for accumulating slaves for shipment downriver to the coastal trading centers. Built in the 1670s, it was subsequently fought over, destroyed and rebuilt several times and held in some sequence by the British, the Dutch, the French and, reportedly, a couple of pirate ships.

The island has been severely eroded and now, at maybe only an acre or two, is a fraction of its original size. Water is lapping very close to the remaining foundations of the heavy stone ruins.

I thought that some large baobab trees close to the water gave the island an exotic, forlorn look.

The rest of the story

Haley’s book and the TV miniseries were wildly popular, presenting in a graphic and realistic way the horrors of the slave trade. The book was translated into 26 languages and sold 8½ million copies. Haley was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and won multiple Emmys for the TV series that riveted us to the tube with its 12-hour marathon presented over eight consecutive nights.

Juffureh village scene.

The “rest of the story” I discovered in October 2007 at lectures on the MS Bremen during our unique cruise featuring The Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands. (Travel and learn!)

Haley’s relating of his family’s origins had been presented as an accurate compilation of facts resulting from 10 years of his genealogical and historic research in Africa and in some of our southern American states.

Soon after publication of the book in 1976, historians and other literary investigators unearthed numerous serious flaws that suggested the unpleasant truth that not only was “Roots” a work that contained fiction, inconsistencies and plagiarism but its text was essentially written by someone else. Critics did allow that as a novel it had some merit.

If you have access to the Internet, reproduce my eye-opening Web surfing by punching up “Alex Haley” on Google. It will lead you to “Alex Haley Hoax,” then to investigator “Philip Nobile” (who claimed that “Roots” was “one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times”) and then to “Village Voice archives” as well as a description of a BBC “Roots” documentary expose that aired in Britain but not the U.S.

Haley died in 1992. Family members continue to deny the validity of the negative issues surrounding the book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”

None of this at this late date diluted the impact on me of the miniseries or of visiting the sites that were typical of the last views seen of Africa by some 20 million unfortunate native Africans.

Hapag-Lloyd itineraries

For information on the itineraries of their four ships, contact Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (631 Commack Rd., Ste. 1A, Commack, NY 11725; phone 877/445-7447 or 631/858-1252, e-mail hapag-lloyd@kainyc.com or visit www.hl-cruises.com). They have been “soft adventure cruising” since 1891. Eighty percent of their passengers are repeat customers.

I was a guest of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises on this trip.

Next month I’ll describe the sights and sensations I experienced while cruising Africa’s little-known Gambia River. Happy trails!