(Alex Haley granted the following interview to Ellensburg Daily Record writer, Arthur Unger, on February 2, 1977.)
Alex Haley is an industry. A sensitive, talented, articulate man—but an industry as well. With more than 750,000 copies of Roots (Doubleday) in print and the 12-hour television version on ABC-TV before an estimated 100 million viewers, author Alex Haley has been concentrating on overseeing the filming, promoting the book and TV show at universities, high schools, club meetings throughout the country, appearing on TV talk shows and, this week, even lecturing before thousands at New York’s Lincoln Center.
But one of the things that impressed me most about Mr. Haley occurred when I heard him speak to a group of more than 50 TV critics this past summer in Los Angeles: his impassioned description of his search for his African identity brought tears to the eyes of many of those series-hardened veterans.
More recently, I caught up with him again in New York City. Since by now, the story of his discovery of the existence of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was captured by slave-traders and brought to America, has become common knowledge we talked about other things. Always though, he managed to return to “Roots” an attracting force which seemed to draw it almost every observation in Mr. Haley’s conversation.
While most of the black community seems to have accepted “Roots” as a true manifestation of black aspiration, aren’t there those who feel that the book gives the impression that all blacks have made it, although there are still a lot of brothers and sisters out there struggling for recognition?
An Interview With Roots’ Alex Haley
“The bigger impact is that for the first time the other part of the story is being told with power, the part that is true of all blacks, the ancestral slavery part. At the same time, there are certainly some blacks who are saying what you are saying. But that’s the way the ball bounces. There’s no way you can do something of the magnitude of ‘Roots’ without attracting people who will kibitz about it, disparage it. That way it gives them their day in the sun. That isn’t peculiar to black people, it’s peculiar to human beings.”
Mr. Haley speaks precisely with just a faint hint of the Henning, Tennessee, accent where he was reared. His intensity is almost over-whelming at times—a listener soon becomes aware he is dealing with one man’s all-consuming obsession. It is a curious mixture of egomania and honest self-assessment.
“During the 1960s we were just trying to get good schools for blacks to enter. Now, through the objections which were raised, there are not many colleges which won’t freely admit blacks. Their attitude is: ‘Come on in, just be quiet.’ In a way, the black studies programs served the same purpose as ‘Roots’—making black people aware of their own heritage. Like all pendulums, it overswung a little. We are still adding to our knowledge of, say, the French Renaissance, and it was not possible to build black studies departments in a matter of weeks. What is happening now is that more books like ‘Roots’ are being written by black authors. Many of the books used to be by white scholars who were very well versed in black history, but there is something further that attaches when it is written by a black person.”
Mr. Haley, the oldest of three sons of a college professor father and a grammar-school-teacher mother obviously finds it hard to identify with lower-class blacks to whom “making it” means any job rather than getting into a previously exclusive college.
Are we coming into a period in America in which each ethnic group will be searching for its own roots?
“I hope so. When I got deep into the black experience I realized I knew very little about it. I got into the plantation side and I realized that there were whites in so many different strata. And the more I studied about white people, the more I realized how little I knew about them. It led me into a new avocation—studying the histories of other ethnic groups. Each has its own thrilling drama. The result for me has been to give me a much broader appreciation of the drama of America. You can’t really join melting pot until you know who you are.”
Will Africans accept the “Roots” image of themselves?
“They should because I don’t know of any popular book which presents ancestral Africa with anything like the positiveness that ‘Roots’ does. Most of us in this country had our image of Africa fixed by ‘Tarzan’ movies. The book and TV show present a very exhaustive picture of a sensitive culture—the laughter, the sorrow, the wisdom.
“And it does not make them demigods—they were just human beings who had a more positive culture than has ever been portrayed.
“For generations we have been a people who subconsciously carried around in our minds the suspicion that we had no past. Or if we did acknowledge a past, we say it negatively. The African was always a caricature, a neo-simian. People are not quick to link up with images like that. So, we had a race afflicted with selfhate and that is devastating. I hope that is all past now.”
What now for Alex Haley?
“The next step is to write what I want and then produce it for TV myself. I will write about the human experience, not just the black experience. I would always want to interweave blacks in some generic way, but to write exclusively about blacks or whites does not interest me.
“I am a hot property and people keep coming to me and offering me jobs that they wouldn’t have dreamed of a year ago.”
Any chance of continuing the “Roots” story since the TV series stops just after the Civil War?
Yes. I’ve heard talk that maybe they’ll do another 12 hours. I’d like to see that.”
How about another book?
“My next book is called ‘My Search for Roots’ which tells the story of this book. It’ll be illustrated, too. I have boxes of material that will make the search a detective story to match any other.”
How about travel? Any further trips to Gambia?
“I certainly do plan to go to the country of my origin. My brothers and I have bought the land around the village from which our forebears came and we plan to make a Kunta Kinte memorial park. The people are Moslems and we are Methodists but we want to give some token gift. And just as meant-to-be things work out, my younger brother is an architect so he will build a mosque for them. My middle brother is chief counsel for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, by the way.”
So, the descendants of Kunta Kinte, a black African kidnapped on a Gambian jungle trial, are returning to the scene of the crime and memorializing it.
“We don’t want to forget what happened and we don’t want Africans to forget what happened. Or the world.” ~ Alex Haley
(The above interview of Alex Haley by Arthur Unger is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the February 2, 1977 issue of Ellensburg Daily Record. © 1977 Daily Record. All Rights Reserved.)