(The Roots Of Haley’s Philosophy by Alex Haley was originally published on December 21, 1988 in The Boston Globe.)
Alex Haley says Christmas comes at any time of the year he finishes a piece of writing and it is accepted by the public.
“It’s a bountiful thing to feel you are reaching people,” he says. “These are my sugar plums.”
Haley, 67, has published his first book in 12 years and his first piece of fiction, A Different Kind of Christmas. He is best known for his saga, Roots, which reportedly earned him $3 million and was translated into 37 languages. It also earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and was made into a miniseries that was seen by 130 million viewers.
Haley was born in New York but grew up in Henning, Tenn. He finished high school at 15 and studied at Elizabeth City Teachers College in North Carolina for two years. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939, starting as a messboy, and retired 20 years later as a chief journalist.
He became a regular contributor to Playboy and Reader’s Digest, and in 1965 he co-wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which sold 6 million copies.
During this conversation over coffee at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Haley pays tribute to his grandparents, who raised him from infancy. His mother died young, and his father, a college professor, worked in the North.
Haley is separated from his third wife.
The Roots Of Haley’s Philosophy
Genealogy, in the broad sense, used to have snob appeal. It was once thought that the only types who could or should trace their beginnings were the royals.
The truth is that the peasant has as much lineage as the prince. The bloodline of the peasant is stronger because of the mixings and crossings. The royals did not cross-breed.
But we’re all the same family. We all hurt. We all bleed. We all laugh. We all cry. Ultimately we are one. We collectively share the planet. We all share the same destiny: Death.
How puny we are sometimes. It’s ridiculous how pompous we get, how selfish. The truth is that our very existence hangs on the gossamer threads of chance.
I like to go out on cargo ships, as a passenger. I write at night, from 10:30 to daybreak. Sometimes at 1:30 or so, I go out for a walk on the deck.
There’s a full moon. The sea is placid. You feel as if you can reach up and touch the moon. You feel the closeness of heavenly bodies.
The ship is just a small island out there. In a flash, the ocean could snap the ship asunder as if it were a matchstick. You become aware of what real power is.
But there’s also power within you. That power is self-pride and self-determination. Both powers grow out of one word: perseverance. You have to make up your mind to do something well, regardless of the discouragements.
Twenty years ago, I started working on Roots. When I first got it into some kind of shape, I talked to some people about it. What I heard was: “You’re nuts!” “You’re foolish!”
I was told that black people should not involve themselves in genealogy. The black scholars I talked to said: “Why resurrect slavery? Let it be!”
After a while, I said to myself: “I am going to pursue my ideas; I’ll just quit talking about them.”
At that time, I had just pennies. I had a budget. I had to worry if I had enough money for food. So I made up my mind that I was going to work hard on Roots and do it well. That was my self-determination.
After Roots came out, I read in the New York Times that it was the biggest seller in one year in the history of United States publishing. That meant a lot to me. It justified my belief that I could compete.
I was seeking the truth. There is a great beauty in truth. The truth is solid. But even solid things can be destroyed. There’s this saying about the truth I wish everyone would remember: “Be assured, if you don’t deal with what is reality, then you may be certain that reality will deal with you.”
My grandfather was my greatest hero. He was tall, dark and strong. When I was very small, he put his index finger out and I grabbed it and dangled on it. We went for walks. I took three skipping steps to his one.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother loved me. She fed me, read to me, told me stories. Even when she switched spanked me she made me feel she loved me.
Right now, I feel Grandma rides on my shoulder. I still don’t go too far apart from the things she told me. To this day, when I see grandmas my impulse is to hug them.
Writers don’t have to study. Writers have to be natural storytellers. My grandmother trained me to tell stories like she did. That’s how it all started.
The biggest repetitive disappointment I had were those rejection slips. I got a lot of them. One day, on a train coming from Washington to New York, I saw a tall, stately black woman walking along the tracks. She reminded me of my Aunt Liz.
I had a small steno pad in my pocket. As the train rolled to New York, I wrote about Liz from old memories. The story stayed on my desk one year. I never gave it a thought. Then I got an agent and she asked to see what I had written.
All I had was a piece on Liz. I showed it to her. One day she called and said: “Good news! I sold that piece to the Atlantic Monthly for $100.” I snatched that $100 like you wouldn’t believe.
Then I realized what I’d really accomplished. I’d broken into an elitist magazine, something I never dreamed I could do.
I’m a great believer in family reunions. Most families come together for tragic situations, like funerals. But there’s a great strengthening in family reunions that happen voluntarily.
It all goes back to the rediscovery of the bloodline. Teen-agers become subdued when they meet relatives that they’ve never met before. An old person holds a young person’s baby. People hug each other spontaneously. Then there are the inevitable family fights.
In the course of the reunion, the old people sit quietly. They withdraw from the conversations. Watch their eyes! They search. They probe. Their eyes proclaim what’s on their mind: “These are my seeds.”
I’ve been blessed by success. Listen to this story my grandmother told me about succeeding.
One day a farmer was walking along and he saw an egg lying on the grass. He had a henhouse. So he took that egg and put it under one of the hens who was sitting on her own eggs.
In due time, the eggs all hatched. But the egg the farmer found produced an eagle. When the eagle was about three weeks old, he looked up and saw something fly across the sky. The eagle said: “I think I can do that!”
But the mother hen said: “You’re a chicken. You can’t fly.” The eagle believed that. He didn’t know he was an eagle. So he lived his whole life as a “chicken.”
A lot of people are like that. They think they’re chickens when they’re really eagles.
I wish success could be made more accessible to more people. A fact about success, or lack of it, disturbs me. There are more black males of college age in prison than in college. That’s a terrible reality.
Maybe a lot of the prisoners didn’t recognize the eagles in their souls.
(The Roots Of Haley’s Philosophy by Alex Haley is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published on December 21, 1988 in The Boston Globe. © 1988 The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.)