Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sierra Leone link suspected, confirmed

Alex Haley (1921-1992) When Landri Taylor was 20, he became interested in tracing his people. Of course, when he was 20, he also met Alex Haley.

The author of Roots was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley - where Taylor was a student.

As the younger man would later recall, "It was meeting with him that motivated me to go to Africa and learn more about Africa than was available in books."

So off he went during summer break, meandering through Senegal, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Zaire and Kenya. Soon, what was just supposed to be a lark became a "revelation."

"When I first got there, I felt like I was just an American traveling in foreign countries - like white students going to Europe for the summer.

"But by the time I left, it was a totally different feeling. The people I met embraced me and welcomed me in such a way that I felt I was coming home."

Indeed, as he coiled his way near Sierra Leone, so many people looked like him - bone structure, eyes, noses, ears, height - that he became convinced "my people must have come from here."

Thirty-five years later, he learned he was right.

When last year's DNA test indicated his mother's line had begun with the Mende people of Sierra Leone, Taylor didn't feel joy or revelation so much as "confirmation of what I had felt in my heart all along."

"To tell you the truth, I would have been very surprised if that had not been the case," he said. Kunta Kinte

Still, something was different.

"I felt proud of that fact that now I could pass this information along to my kids," says Taylor, 56, vice president of community affairs for Forest City Stapleton.

All during their growing-up years, his three children had heard stories of their father's watershed trip to Africa, including his suspicions of their origins.

Now that those suspicions have been confirmed, the Taylor children - all adults - feel a subtle but welcome shift.

"It's definitely important to know how it all started, how it all came about," says Kristol Taylor, 25, the youngest.

"I definitely thought it was cool they could somehow link him back that far."

Her father hopes that someday his children can experience what he did those many years ago.

"I can tell them all that I can tell them," he says, "But until they're there at ground zero, crossing the Gambia River, feet on the dirt, looking into the eyes of generations of people - people that can tell you about 500 years of history - well, you just can't explain that to someone."

You just can't explain the joy of knowing just how deep your own roots grow in the soil of the time.

James Island is in the middle of the River Gambia, about two kilometres south of Jufureh and Albreda. On the island are the remains of Fort James. A Dutch nobleman, James, Duke of Courland, built the fort in about 1651. The English captured it in 1661 and the island became known as Fort James or James Island, after James Duke of York. The fort was used as a trading base, first for gold and ivory then for slaves like Kunta Kinte portrayed in the movie "Roots".

Resources: Alex Haley Foundation


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