Haley's nephew reads to pupils from `Roots' at Annapolis City Dock

A genealogy primer from descendant of Kunta Kinte

November 12, 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 on Wednesday 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 on Wednesday 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.

County and city officials have contributed $150,000 to the project, and the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, which is planning the memorial, hopes to fund the rest through contributions from the state and private donors.

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. The foundation plans to build a wall next to the statue bearing excerpts from various authors.

Family history

Leonard Blackshear, an Annapolis businessman and president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, said he and Anne Arundel County school officials arranged Wednesday'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," he said.

Becky Schou, principal of Annapolis Elementary, said Haley's talk was especially educational for her third-graders, who began a three-month program this week studying the past, present and future of Annapolis by researching people, places and economics.

The 16 children who met Haley on Wednesday were assigned to research significant people in Annapolis history, Schou said.

"I think they understand their family histories one generation back," Schou said. Hearing Haley talk about his uncle and Kunta Kinte "teaches them that what we are today is the product of what happened before us."

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.

"You should know who borned you," said 8-year-old Mechiko Moulden, "in case anybody asks you."

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.")

From the beginning

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."

Because of production problems in yesterday's editions, this article is reprinted in its entirety.

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