(Alex Haley granted the following interview to the editor, Angie LeClercq, of The UTK Librarian on March 11, 1991.)
On April 1st, Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots and a native Tennessean, announced the gift of his personal papers to the UT Libraries.
Here is what Mr. Haley had to say regardig this announcement: “The folks at UT have become somewhat of an extended family for me. That’s part of the reason my papers are at the UT Libraries. It was emotional for me to give them away-like having a child move away from home. But I am of Tennessee. They came from Tennessee, and this is the only place they should be. Now they’re not just my private works and recollections, but a part of the fabric of our state to eventually be shared with other researchers, writers, explorers and dreamers.” ~ Alex Haley. (Excerpt from The Library Development Review, Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1990 / 1991 by James B. Lloyd, Editor & Special Collections Librarian.)
The papers, a fine addition to the Libraries’ Special Collections, cover five decades of Mr. Haley’s distinguished writing career that began as a journalist in the U.S. Navy. Mr. Haley has published many stories and interviews in popular American magazines. His Autobiography of Malcolm X is widely read and assigned on college campuses today. It was Roots, however, the story of seven generations of Mr. Haley’s African and American ancestry, that inspired a generation of ancestor-seeking Americans.
The following interview took place on Mr. Haley’s farm in Norris, Tennessee, where every care and attention has been given to restoring the original 19th century farmhouse and outbuildings.
An Interview With Alex Haley
LeClercq: Is Roots, like Homer’s Iliad, a myth to support the dignity of black people. Is Kunta Kinte, like Odysseus, a mythical hero?
Haley: Gee, I never thought of it as all that lofty. No. Actually, Roots is an outgrowth from the stories that my family … my mother’s family … used to tell with great pride, pride in the fact that they knew their history. And I grew up hearing, from the time I was six … hearing my grandmother and her sisters tell the story that went from them having been reared in Alamance County, North Carolina, by their parents, Tom the blacksmith and their mother, Irene Murray, both of whom were slaves. And then they would go into Tom’s father, who was Chicken George, who was a major source of talk.
They loved to talk about Chicken George. They loved to run him down. You could see they loved him. But they loved to talk about his sinfulness, how he drank liquor, how when he drank he would curse. That’s the first time I ever heard the expression “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
So they told, with many, many little curlicues of details, these people’s stories, and I grew up learning it. Now, why I can be so specific about when I heard it was my grandfather died when I was five, and my grandmother in her grief invited her sisters all to come and visit with her the following summer. So, they did come, every one of them. And so that was how I know when I began to hear. They were never all together again, all the sisters.
To get back to your original question…. I never thought of the development of the story or the story which resulted in anything like that, really. It may be that somebody down the road, way down the road, may apply these sorts of comparisons. But it would not be me….
I began when I got to Africa and realized that people were seeing me as a black American—who in many cases, most cases, they had never seen one—then I began to perceive that what I was really doing was a kind of a book which was in reality the story of all black people. The details would differ from person to person. You know, who was your Kunta Kinte? Which village in West Africa? Captured how? Which slave ship? Across the same ocean into what port of destination? How many survived? Which auction? Which initial plantation? And which master decided which name for, you know, like Toby?
LeClercq: You use black dialect and expressions throughout Roots, and some of the critics objected and found it difficult to read.
Haley: That’s in the nature of critics, for one thing. But, the truth of it is, if one wrote in literal dialect, you couldn’t read it. Most people couldn’t read it. What I try to do is flavor something … so that it gives the feel of the time and of the tone and of the dialect.
And I know some of them because I grew up among people who still spoke dialect. Bertha (my mother) was distressed at my grandmother occasionally using dialect. My grandmother didn’t use it nearly as much as some other people do … did. But they were just talking the way they talked.
And my mother was kind of “Miss Prissy.” Her values and her directions were gathered from having been to college, and she wanted to speak properly. And my grandmother and others would sometimes tease her, and sometimes she and my grandmother would get into really bitter arguments. The most bitter arguments would be when my grandmother was telling these stories … My mother … she didn’t want to know anything about slaves, you know, Africa, such as that. It was just extremely embarrassing to her.
LeClercq: How did you come by your knowledge of cockfighting?
Haley: I read a great deal about cockfights. I was intrigued by … just by the fact that Chicken George was a gamecock fighter and that he had to know a lot. You see, when we talk history, when we deal with something which is historical, we need always to project ourselves as best we can back into that time and know what it was.
At that time cockfighting was like baseball in the South. Cockfighting was very major. There were numerous situations where American cockfighters would take their great expedition to compete with the Mexican cockfighters. At that time there were people who lived and breathed cockfighting. Chicken George was one.
LeClercq: It’s part of our history we’ve forgotten.
Haley: It’s like the cowboys. We grew up hearing, and seeing, and reading about the cowboys. And only in recent years were we given information that, literally, most of the cowboys were blacks. They just got whitewashed in the process. The big guys in the cockfights were whites—it took a lot of money to cockfight. But, there was a great deal of credit and praise given to their black handlers and trainers.
LeClercq: Laws prohibiting teaching blacks to read and write were one response to the uprisings of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey that you weave with such impact into your story. You write about the effect of those uprisings upon society. What impact did they have on Southern society?
Haley: They frightened people to death. In a society where the control factor is fear (and that was what the blacks lived under, absolutely, was fear), it kept blacks more or less in control. So, if the fear broke, there was a just frightful response to it.
LeClercq: Why is it in Southern history that invariably the most racist reactions have come from an appeal to poor whites, from Reconstruction through Populism and even today?
Haley: You see, the poor whites, in many ways, were worse off than slaves. The bottom line reason was, they had no value to anybody. The slaves were tolerated, even though they were virtually, in many cases, hated. They were tolerated because they had the value of being work people. They did the work that was necessary.
The poor whites were viewed by the well-to-do whites with apprehension, and with hatred in some cases. The well-to-do whites were fearful that the poor whites, if they were permitted access, would think they were as good as they were and would try to move into their circles. And, so, that was why the poor white was ostracized.
Of course, the blacks hated the poor whites because the poor whites, in turn, hated the blacks. Everybody wants somebody to step on. And the blacks were the answer for the poor whites.
LeClercq: You have wonderful secondary male figures in Roots, like the Fiddler, the old gardener, Uncle Mingo, and Uncle Pompey. Are they drawn from people in your own life?
Haley: They’re drawn from people I’ve heard about. Fiddler was the only major character in Roots who was not real. He was there because I had to have somebody who would train this African to be a slave. And, also, Fiddler represented something that was so much in the lives of slaves, which was music. He was drawn after Cy Gilliat from Richmond. Cy Gilliat was a man who no ball, no cotillion, was complete without him playing. He dressed in lace, satin, velour—the finest—patent leather shoes. He was—a showman is what he was. Cy Gilliat was a star among black and white alike.
LeClercq: Tennessee writers like Richard Marius, when he writes about the opening of the West, can rely on diaries of those on the trek to the West for first-hand accounts. Are there diaries of slaves and slave life despite the laws making it criminal to learn to read or write?
Haley: They’re hardly any diaries because they couldn’t write. The slaves couldn’t write. But, you see, the one thing that whatever laws could not inhibit was oral history. The various stories that I heard on the front porch in Henning, Tennessee, had come down across four generations. And, if anything, they were probably fuller than they had first been told. They were embellished. I think that probably what stories there were about the African were embellished a bit. And I say this because stories about him had to be told by Chicken George. Now, Chicken George was an embellisher from his soul!
LeClercq: You talk about the aunts and uncles, like Sister Sarah and Miss Malizy, and the extended family. Is that an accurate reflection of the way the slave community functioned?
Haley: By the nature of it, it was an extended family. These people had to be that to survive. They had a grapevine that was like glycerin.
LeClercq: Are there stories that you left out that are not in the final version?
Haley: Oh, yes, absolutely, absolutely. I would bet you I didn’t use half of my research. In fact, one of the things I learned from Roots was: try not to over-research.
I researched nine years, as probably you’ve heard, for Roots. And, if I had … If I knew what I know now, what I would have done is worked out my storyline first and then researched the storyline. As it was, what I got myself into doing without really realizing it was researching slavery. Well, you could research 23 years and 2 months and hardly have scratched the surface of slavery. And the reason that I finally quit, principally, was that I was so in debt that I just couldn’t go on. I had to stop and write this book. And so I stopped and somewhere, from somebody, I borrowed some money and I went to sea. That’s where I wrote. I remember, I went on a ship called the Villanger, a Norwegian cargo ship—huge, like a moving island. And it left Long Beach, California, and went completely around South America and came back to Long Beach. Ninety-one days. And in that time, just kind of writing in a hot heat because I was bursting with story. I wrote from the birth of Kunta Kinte to his capture in that 91 days.
LeClercq: Is Roots and the television series the best kind of insurance policy against revisionists who’d say those kinds of things never happened? You know, there are people who say that Auschwitz didn’t happen.
Haley: They’d say it anyway. They say that about slavery. There were quite a number of people when Roots came out who would write letters or make statements. And one of them was that it was made up, that it never happened, that the whole thing of slavery was an NAACP ploy or something. And I just look at these things as part of the culture in which we live.
I remember one time I interviewed, in Playboy, George Lincoln Rockwell, the Nazi. We spent some really educational time together. And one of the things I remember he told me that I particularly recall was that he said, “You know, the easiest thing in the world to sell is hatred.” And he had built his little organization on that.
And then I remember another thing: he modeled himself after Hitler. And Rockwell had been sort of a painter at one point in his life after he came out of Brown University, and he did not do well at it, as he did not do other things very well. And he reminded me that so had Hitler once been a painter. And he said, “You know, if you just think about it, if somebody had just bought a few of the Führer’s paintings, World War II would probably never have happened.” Which is something to think about.
(The above interview of Alex Haley by Angie LeClercq is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the Spring 1991 issue of The UTK Librarian. © 1991 The UTK Librarian. All Rights Reserved.)