Roots and Truth in Genealogy

This past week, I’ve had all of my stepsons visiting.  We had a very busy week. Part of our activities this week was to get them watching Roots. I love this series and the book.

But, I also have some great disappointment today that I am pondering over.  Yesterday, I went to the state archives and while there, I photocopied two articles by Gary B. Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills about their work to assess the genealogy behind the Roots story.  The two articles were

  • Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. “Roots and the New ‘Faction’: A Legitimate Tool for CLIO?”, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January, 1981
  • Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots“, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, March, 1984

After reading about their work to trace Haley’s genealogy compared to what is reported in the book, I feel  disappointed in Roots as a book.  I completely understand the great cultural significance of the story of Roots and what is symbolizes – what it *could* look like if we could trace our ancestry back to Africa as in the story of Kunta Kinte.  Roots was an important and needed phenomenon that jump started a lot of people’s interest in understanding where they came from. I don’t believe that could ever be taken away from it.

But, once you start to look at the work of the MIlls’ and the work of others that have also done research in to Haley’s ancestry and work, it becomes fairly obvious rather quickly that there are historical inaccuracies and misinformation in Roots and that there are major limitations in some of Haley’s genealogy processes.

I hypothetically wonder if I were a Haley family member truly interested in applying the highest standards to genealogy research of the family tree, how would I reconcile the historical documentation w/ the book in a way that does not come across as disrespectful of Alex’s work? Even the Alex Haley Foundation’s website has the tree up as presented in Roots, but surely they have to know that this is not entirely supported by the genealogical evidence?  What do you do about misinformation that gets represented to others that may be part of the tree?

A couple of years ago when we were living outside of Memphis we took the kids to the Alex Haley home in Henning, TN where he is buried. At that time, I learned of the controversy around Roots, but did not pursue learning too much more.  However, I remain fascinated, so do plan to continue reading.

Here is a picture of his home and grave that I took when we visited in 2006.

4 thoughts on “Roots and Truth in Genealogy

  1. Hello Taneya,

    I agree that NOTHING should take away from the impact that Roots has had upon our people and country.
    It’s that greater good that I cling to.

    Alex Haley is still a champion and a hero to me.

  2. I’d have to agree. It is disappointing that there are some inaccuracies in his story. However, he did a greater good with the story he told. He made us interested in our past.

  3. What beasutiful pictures. Thanks for sharing. I agree there was some initial disappointment but Roots started a phenomen that won’t quit for African American genealogy and family history. I believe Roots is now considered a fictionalized account of Haley’s family. I still have this niggling thought though, what exacly were the Mills’ motive in researching Haley’s background, resources and research? I have always wondered.

  4. Taneya,
    I agree that despite the inaccuracies, Alex Haley did more for genealogy than any other writer or researcher. I watched Roots when it first came on – I was only 10 at the time. I didn’t fully understand slavery and its impact yet, but I remember being absolutely astounded that HE FOUND HIS ROOTS. I was always told, “oh, they didn’t keep records back then.” Haley inspired me to eventually get interested in genealogy. While it’s a shame that the facts don’t match up to his story, today we’d probably call it a “fictional memoir” – you can’t deny that the book is a great story, just maybe not an accurate genealogical record.
    Thanks,
    Donna

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