Thursday, February 17, 2011

Put Your Roots Down

The street pulses with sound. Drums of all sizes ring in tandem with massive cowbells and earthen jars whacked with sponges. Songs in more than a dozen languages vie with one another to be heard by spectators. The sweat of a myriad of masquerade dancers soaks the pavement, dripping from cloth, tree bark, papier-mache, leaves, and plastic. All of this bedlam, this jubilation, put on for a group of special tourists, themselves decked out in what they have been told is the traditional garb of their ancestors, themselves sweating and smiling under a pavilion. They are here to recapture their "roots" at the tenth edition of the International Roots Festival in Banjul, The Gambia.

There is something very primal about that idea--the pilgrimage back to the land of one's ancestors, to recapture the significance of our past. But how often does it mean anything? When third or fourth generation Americans of certain European ancestry go back to their "motherlands," what really links them to these people in foreign countries? Maybe there is something intangible, something deep. I, myself, am mostly German, but the only thing German my family ever does is eat egg noodles at holidays, thanks to the efforts of my Grandma Max. I know only the German I have learned through studying music and through popular culture. Oh, and I like German beer, but I tend to think that has more to do with its quality than my genes. For me, I don't feel that revisiting the land of my ancestors would have that much meaning, as I am now thoroughly American. At least European Americans, however, have a distinct path to follow; family trees, genealogies, and even DNA tests can tell us the paths our families took on their way to the New World.

For African Americans, this is rarely, if ever, true. It is a matter of public knowledge that the Africans captured by Arab and African slavers and sold to Europeans were treated as livestock, with little importance being given to their names, backgrounds, and families. All we have are slave logs to go on, but what assurance do we have that the slavers wrote the right names, and how do we know who these people are related to? Kunta Kinte, the now legendary Mandinka whose life Alex Haley documented in his novel Roots, could have come from a number of Kinte families, all up and down the Gambia river. Even if we are to trust that Alex Haley was faultless in his research, which a lot of evidence indicates is not true*, the people of Juffureh, where Kunta Kinte was supposedly born, had strong incentive to supply him with a story. Most of the Gambians I know, especially those in rural villages, consider America and Europe to be places of inexhaustible wealth, and therefore will try to get patronage from any Americans or Europeans they meet. In the case of Juffereh, they received the money to build a new mosque from Haley, so they were certainly rewarded for their stories, regardless of how accurate they were.

I should clarify that I have nothing against Roots if it is taken as what it is--a work of historical fiction. There are inaccuracies, and the core of it is probably not true, but most of it could have happened, and I don't think that Haley had sinister motives. I do feel, however, that he, like many of those who have followed in his footsteps to "Mother Africa," let emotion and a longing for an ancestral home get in the way of reason and logic. While I have nothing against seeking one's beginnings, I am very wary of the mutual exploitation that goes on between African Americans and Africans. The opening ceremony of the Roots Festival that I described above is a prime example. While the cultural groups were spectacular, they added up to a mishmash of West African culture, where there are actually many distinct, complex ethnic groups with their own cultures and traditions. One dance was performed by Igbo from Nigeria. Another was from the Susu of Guinea. Yet another from the Mende, from Sierra Leone. It would be as if I, as a European American, traveled to a random country in Western Europe and was presented with Flamenco Dancing, Celtic folk music, a performance of a Brahms sonata, and served Boeuf Bourgingon, while being welcomed back to my "European Homeland."

I am a fan of African unity in an economic and political sense, but this type of cultural Pan-Africanism only serves to muddle African cultures and diminish the richness and complexity of the African continent in the minds of outsiders. It becomes even more questionable to me when this smorgasbord of Africana is served up in the interest of attracting these "Roots" pilgrims, who are often unaware of the specifics of their African heritage and are seeking to fill that void with a generic "African homecoming."

So how would I remedy these problems? For one, I would encourage anyone who is seriously interested in their own heritage to do more research. I myself, as a white-bread whitey-white toubab, am continuously amazed at the depth and complexity of the cultures of Africa, and I have only spent time in a small pocket of the West. Anyone who actually has African heritage would be better served, in my opinion, to do some research and find out specifics rather than to opt for a pre-packaged, "Mother Africa." Even if you are not sure exactly where your ancestors come from, some research into the sub region-almost all American slaves came from West Africa- should give some ideas about what their lives were like.

As to what the Gambia should do, I think the main thing is to be honest. The Gambia has an enormous wealth of culture and beauty, and it is my opinion that this does not need to be augmented with historical rewrites (such as the claim I have heard made that West Africans were the most technologically advanced societies in the world before the Europeans came) and additional performances from cultures that are not native to this region. Providing more cultural education, encouraging traditional performers by organizing festivals, and providing a vivid, accurate picture of Gambian cultures to the outside world is the path I would recommend. This would encourage tourism, foster cultural pride, and honor the ancestors that so many in the diaspora seek to find.

Picture 1: Fula girls dancing -- from Wulli, The Gambia
Picture 2: Susa dance and drum group, from Guinea Conakry
Picture 3: Mandinka secret society -- from Jarra, The Gambia

*Haley was accused of plagiarism in copying parts of Harold Courlander's work, The African. Also, investigations by genealogist Elizabeth Mills and historian Gary B. Mills, as well as journalist Mark Ottaway, found historical inaccuracies in the novel and threw Haley's sources into considerable doubt.


  1. As always, well-written thoughtful and interesting, Brendan.

  2. Alex Haley settled out of court with the author Harold Courlander for roughly half a million dollars. hmmmmmm.
    Please see Courlander's book written years before, "The African" for some of the sources for Haley's piece.

    Other wonderful books by Harold Courlander include, "Tales of Yoruba" and I think, "The Drum". Great folklorist and author.