Descendant of Kunta Kinte reads Haley's `Roots' to pupils

A genealogy primer from author's nephew

November 11, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Chris Haley, great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Kunta Kinte, sat at Annapolis City Dock yesterday afternoon, read aloud from his late uncle's acclaimed book "Roots" and extolled the significance of genealogy and family history in the pursuit of self-awareness.

But first, he had to clear one hurdle: explain who Kunta Kinte was to his rambunctious audience of 16 Annapolis Elementary School third-graders who yelled, "He played in a movie" when Haley mentioned his ancestor's name.

"Well, actually, an actor played his part in a movie," Haley said, smiling. "Kunta Kinte was really good. He was great. He was my -- hold out your fingers, we're going to count them now -- great-great-great-great-great- grandfather."

Haley, 40, of Landover, spoke in Annapolis yesterday as a precursor to the unveiling of a statue honoring Alex Haley at City Dock on Dec. 9. The statue, a life-size bronze rendering of the author sitting and reading to three children of different ethnicities, is the second phase of a $1.05 million memorial honoring the author and Kunta Kinte.

The Haley statue will be next to a large plaque commemorating Kunta Kinte's arrival in Annapolis in 1767 on the ship Lord Ligonier, which the author documented in the partly fictional book.

Leonard Blackshear, an Annapolis businessman and president of the Kunta-Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, said he and Anne Arundel County school officials arranged yesterday's event to demonstrate the importance of teaching children about family history.

"When we don't take the time to share heritage stories with our children, they become rootless, which is a problem we have today," Blackshear said. "Kids today don't know where they've come from and where they're going. If you've learned about the challenges your ancestors have faced and overcome, that gives you the strength to overcome challenges that you face in your own life."

Haley, an associate director of reference services at the Maryland State Archives, apparently succeeded in conveying the importance of family history to the third-graders. Although several of the 7- and 8-year-olds continued to think Kunta Kinte was a famous actor from way back in the 1980s, they said Haley's talk taught them that knowing their histories is important.

Haley got his message across in his half-hour with the children by showing them a copy of the handwritten record of the arrival of the Lord Ligonier and by explaining words like genealogy. ("You have a mother and father, and they had a mother and father, and their mother and father had a mother and father. If you know all those different names, that's what genealogy is.")

When Haley was finished explaining the difficult terms, he gathered the children close, carefully opened his well-worn copy of his uncle's Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of their family history and began: "Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a manchild was born."

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