(The following post is written by Ahmed Johnson, African American genealogy specialist in the Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Division.)
I’d like to begin with a story – a personal story. I remember being in a sociology class at Hampton University and discussing the government’s unfulfilled promise, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to give ”40 acres and a mule” to newly freed black slaves. When my classmates began denying that any families had gotten their due, I raised my hand and informed everyone that, according to my grandmother, our family had in fact received our 40 acres.
The entire class burst into laughter.
Never one to be deterred, when I later joined the Local History and Genealogy section of the Library of Congress, I began conducting research on my family based on the stories told to me by my grandmother. I searched one of the Library’s subscription databases and located a land grant given to my second great-grandfather for 40 acres of land in Clarke County, Mississippi. Grandma was right! Well, almost. We did receive our 40 acres of land, but it was through a land grant and not through a government promise of “forty acres and a mule.”
I tell this story because writer Alex Haley followed the same path to discovery as I did but on a much larger scale. He remembered stories told by his grandmother about an ancestor, an African named Kunta Kinte who landed in a place called Annapolis and was given the name Toby. The African, he learned, called a guitar a “ko” and a river the “Kamby Bolongo.” This oral tradition passed down to Haley by his grandmother formed the basis of his motivation to pursue his family history, culminating with the publication, in 1976, of his seminal novel “Roots.”
In 2012, the Library of Congress brought together a group of curators and subject specialists to develop an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” featuring 88 books by American authors that had a profound effect on American life. A few years later, the Library of Congress asked the public to name “other books that shaped America” and which of the 88 books on the original list were most important to them. That survey formed the basis of the Library’s 2016 exhibit, “America Reads.” Of the top 40 books displayed in the exhibit, which is now available online, “Roots” ranked sixth.
After its publication, “Roots” spent months on the New York Times Best Sellers list, including 22 weeks at No. 1. It received a special citation from the judges of the 1977 National Book Awards and a special Pulitzer Prize. Then, in January 1977, the ABC miniseries “Roots” aired on television: some 85% of American households tuned in to watch some part of it. The book and miniseries stimulated nationwide interest in genealogy and an appreciation for African American history.
Despite the success of “Roots” and its impact on millions of readers and watchers, it has met with its fair share of controversy. Alex Haley was sued by two authors claiming plagiarism – one he settled for more than $600,000 dollars – and many historians and genealogists have questioned the validity of his story. There is no doubt that the book should be read with a critical eye, but as noted Yale Historian Edmund Morgan stated in a 1977 New York Times article, “Roots” is “a statement of someone’s search for an identity…. It would seem to me to retain a good deal of impact no matter how many mistakes the man made. In any genealogy there are bound to be a number of mistakes.”
Ultimately, Haley’s book proved more novel than fact (Haley himself described the novel as “faction” – part fact, part fiction). More importantly, though, “Roots” captured the imagination of millions, inspiring many to pursue their own family history, including me. I watched the movie and read the book – now my career is dedicated to helping others find their roots.
Interested in tracing your own roots? You can start by visiting our Local History and Genealogy website, which includes genealogy search tips, resources and an overview of the services we can provide as you begin your search. If you have specific questions about conducting research into your family’s past, I encourage you to contact me and the Library’s other local history and genealogy staff through our Ask a Librarian service.