Commentary: Kunta Kinte and lessons in ‘Do or do not’ | Columnists

Another in an occasional series: Hidden in Plain Sight—Black history in our region.

Over the past couple of years, we might have looked anxiously around us, amidst social distancing and wearing masks to protect ourselves and others, some of us wondering how we are going to pay next month’s rent or mortgage, must less afford food for each night’s meal. We look around and wonder every day, when will we get past this? When will this trying time end? When will we get back to normal?

I have noticed in my life that sometimes there is no getting back to normal. There is only adjusting to the new now. There is only accepting what is and moving forward.

Yes, these are the times that try a man’s soul, but there was someone who I admired who looked at challenging times and spoke words of inspiration. Someone who looked at hardships and yet believed man could still overcome insurmountable challenges. This hero was small, tiny in stature, but spoke words as big as a galaxy. In the face of trying times, the icon said, “No. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda. Surprised? Even in a fictional galaxy far, far away, he spoke words we must hold onto today.

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Hundreds of years ago, Kunta Kinte might have looked over the dock area in Annapolis where a slave ship brought him to a land he knew not, and gave up all hope. Perhaps, for moments, he did. But we know in the final analysis that he did not give up. We know his life was hard, as every enslaved person’s life was hard, but we know he kept on doing. We know that if for no other reason than you are reading words written by his five-times great-grandson, today.

My uncle, Alex Haley, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” the story of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian man who first landed at the City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland, as a slave in September 1767. The novel was made into a television miniseries in 1977 that became a phenomenon, winning nine out of more than 30 Emmy nominations.

My Uncle Alex spent 12 years on the book, nine of them on genealogical research, revealing the amazing Kunta Kinte connection. He was a kind and humble man who, when I was a young boy, would give me $10 bills during his visits to Washington to speak to sold out audiences at the Smithsonian about this family story he was writing.

Some have speculated that Kunta Kinte was a fictional character. I’m confident that the story is real, and about my ancestor’s life in Africa and on the Waller Plantation in Spotsylvania County. It’s about a Black family’s perseverance, through generations, to survive and to value their own existence to the point where one of them found the courage and the resources to write about his story and share the history of his ancestors, which is something all of us have the opportunity to do.

We may not be able to do it with the depth or breadth as my uncle did. We all, however, have the opportunity to speak to someone in our family, to either jot down with a pencil or pen, capture into a tape recorder, send emails, or write a blog about our kinfolk and our lives. I suggest that’s an opportunity we all have which promotes humanity and fellowship, and that it’s within all of us to pursue this uplifting work and respect our own lineage.

We must get past these trying times and do. Do vote. Do protest. Do make your voice heard in whichever way you can. Deliver “good trouble,” as John Lewis said. Kunta Kinte managed to survive so that his descendants might see a better day. I encourage all of us to his legacy by dedicating ourselves celebrate to doing whatever we can to survive today and make a better tomorrow.

Chris Haley is director, Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland at Maryland State Archives, and is the nephew of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” and a descendant of Kunta Kinte. He will be part of a virtual 6:30 pm, March 22 Germanna Community Conversations discussion about the events of “Roots” at Waller Plantation in Spotsylvania County.

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