(There Are Days When I Wish It Hadn’t Happened by Alex Haley was originally published in the March 1979 issue of Playboy Magazine. It was also later published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
After more than a decade of research, Roots was released to universal acclaim and won the National Book Award of 1977. The book launched a media blitz, claimed best-seller status and culminated in the miniseries that attracted an estimated 130 million viewers. An entry on The Museum of Broadcast Communications website stated, “The show defied industry conventions about Black-oriented programming: executives simply had not expected that a show with Black heroes and White villains could attract such huge audiences. In the process, Roots spawned a new television format—the consecutive-night miniseries.”
For months after publication of Roots, Alex Haley signed at least 500 books a day in the U.S. and has spoken to a daily average of 6,000 people. He has traveled round trip coast-to-coast at least once a week, and has slept at home (a rented house in the Cheviot Hills section of Los Angeles) exactly six times, according to the May 09, 1977 article in People Magazine.
Stardom had taken its toll on Haley where on a 1977 trip to his ancestral village in Africa, he complained: “You’ll find that people who celebrate you will kill you. They forget you are blood and flesh and bone. I have had days and weeks and months of schedules where everything from my breakfast to my last waking moment was planned for me—where I had to make some phony excuse just to go to the bathroom because there was no room in the damned schedule for it! I haven’t been in touch with my deepest friends, and I know they can’t understand how busy you can get—that you don’t have the five minutes for a phone call, that you really become sort of deadened. Someone has you by the arm and is moving you from room to room. Then people grab at you! You’re actually pummeled—hit with books—and you ask yourself, ‘My God, what is this?'”
There Are Days When I Wish It Hadn’t Happened
Nobody’s Knocking Success, But It Sure Looks Different Once You’ve Seen Both Sides
Finally after three a.m., practically out on my feet from exhaustion, I locked my hotel-room door behind me, pulled off my clothes down to my underwear and flopped onto the bed for whatever rest I could manage to get before running to catch the next plane at seven. A few hours before, I’d been among the 80,000,000 Americans who had watched the concluding eighth episode of the original Roots television miniseries, which had ended with me on camera speaking for several minutes to that unprecedented national audience. Of the earlier seven Roots episodes, I’d had to miss six. While they were on, I had been hurrying between airports, hotels and myriad other places in an effort to maintain a blurring schedule of back-to-back appointments in a grueling coast-to-coast promotional tour of interviews, speeches and personal appearances seven days a week, usually from before breakfast to midnight and frequently beyond.
But most assuredly, I wasn’t—and still am not—complaining. After some 20 years of having crossed my fingers every time I mailed to editors something I had written, now Roots, which represented 12 of those years of work, had already sold close to 1,000,000 hardcover copies, and the television miniseries had collectively attracted the largest audience in the history of the medium. I lay there on the hotel bed, thinking about how lucky I was, no matter what bone weariness it involved, and with those ambivalent thoughts I was drifting into sleep when the loud door buzzer jolted the silence. It couldn’t be my wake-up call already! I peered at the night table clock’s luminous dial: 3:30! Again the buzzer sounded.
Stumbling to the door in the darkness, I fumbled it open. A young blond-haired bellboy stood there stiffly, his hands at his sides, swallowing hard and looking very solemnly at me standing in the doorway in my underwear, blinking at him.
“Yes?” I managed.
He stuck out his hand. “Sir, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for America.”
He couldn’t have been more sincere. That’s all he had to say. I wanted to hug him for feeling that way—and to punch him for getting me out of bed. I shook his hand, said I appreciated his saying that, and he marched away.
Then it hit me. So much for anonymity; I guess I’ll be having experiences like that now and then for a while; of course, the TV exposure will cause more people to recognize me than did when it was just my picture on the back of the book jacket. . . .
In retrospect, that bellboy pushing the hotel door’s buzzer was really kind of a signal that at least major aspects of my life were about to change abruptly, maybe forever. Let me tell you what happened: When I stepped out of my cab at Kennedy Airport later that morning, I got a passing glance from one of the busy skycaps, who practically whirled around, did a double take and exclaimed loudly, “Alex Haley!”
Within seconds, I was surrounded by people, jostling, pushing, shoving so hard that I was separated from my bag. I think that skycap must have checked it in for me, for somehow it arrived on the same flight with me in Los Angeles. But right then, that missing bag was the last thing on my mind, amidst all those people yelling my name, shouting, “That’s him! That’s him!” I was confused, bewildered, I believe for the first time in my life actually afraid that I might be about to get hurt. The people, women especially, were grabbing whatever they could get hold of, tugging at my arms, pulling at my clothes. I felt someone’s hand thrust down inside my collar, then I felt my shirt’s top buttons pop off. It was about then that a man in a red American Airlines jacket pushed right alongside me; I heard him say in a low tone, “Stay next to me and follow me,” and he began moving. It was like a football play in slow motion. I sensed with great relief that he knew what he was doing, which I sure didn’t. He’d push with the weight of his body behind his shoulder and thus make a little space, and I’d squeeze into that space right behind him, while constantly exclaiming, “Thank you!” “Yes, ma’am!” “Yes, sir!” with a pen in one hand scribbling some semblance of my name on the pieces of paper that were being thrust at me from all directions. After about five minutes of this, we reached a wall and suddenly the man opened a door I hadn’t noticed and we both sort of popped through it, rather like a champagne cork, and the man quickly shut the door behind us. I remember leaning up against the wall and taking a deep breath and demanding of him, “Man, what the hell’s happening?”
He laughed and said I’d better get used to it, for I’d be seeing a lot more of it. Then he said I’d have to be “preboarded.” I hadn’t ever heard the expression before. After what had just happened, I followed him without a whimper through various doors and corridors, and suddenly there we were, on the plane, which was still empty. I handed him my ticket. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haley,” he said, “but I’d really advise you to upgrade to first class.” He saw my expression and began to explain, saying that in the experience of the airlines, VIPs couldn’t expect much of a peaceful, relaxed flight if they were surrounded by a couple of hundred passengers. My hackles just rose at that; and I felt embarrassed. Wasn’t I the same man I’d been for 50-odd years? I couldn’t remember occasioning any public commotions in all that time. But when the fellow insisted, I gave him my credit card and he went to change my ticket.
I won’t soon forget sitting alone in that first-class cabin, still needing sleep, astounded at the recent rush of events, my mind racing across the memories of all those years I’d lived alone in a little basement room on Grove Street in Greenwich Village, working through the nights, trying to finish magazine articles to pay the worst bills, taking long walks in the predawn hours and wondering if all of it ever would lead me anywhere. Well, it finally had—beyond my ability even to comprehend it—and I found myself wishing that I still had that little basement room, along with the quiet life that had accompanied it, because if that morning’s airport arrival was any evidence, then, just for starters, when in the world was I ever going to be able to sit down again and practice the discipline of being a writer?
Two years later, the blessings have continued to come to me; mixed in among them, though, have been a great many rude awakenings to the hard realities of what fame also brings, including just a few bitter pills.
Through what I might call the early Roots days, I still clung hard to the idea that before long, all of the big to-do was going to calm down and I’d discover myself with the dream come true of having the time and the money to write at my own pace, freed forever of the terrible economic pressures I’d known for so many years. Keeping my heavy list of appointments around the country, I also kept it in my head—like a promised lollipop—that before long, just wait and see, I was again going to be able to enjoy good evenings of visiting and chitchat with close family and friends. I was going to have the leisure to take long trips, to investigate the world. I love to travel, and I had many journeys in mind. I was going to Egypt to see the Pyramids—and ride a camel. I was going to visit North and East Africa. I was going to get a Eurailpass and indulge myself in the beauty of the European countryside. After my 20-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, the kind of travel I love most is on shipboard; I was going to sail the seven seas—on slow freighters.
But what happened? That first year, Roots continued rather like a roller-coaster ride of talk shows, press conferences, magazine profiles, critical accolades, a few critical attacks, autographing sessions attended by thousands, receiving keys to many cities and more than a dozen honorary doctoral degrees (each one a new thrill for someone who didn’t even finish college); being embraced as a friend by celebrities I’d previously written about as a journalist; being a keynote speaker before august assemblies I never imagined would be interested in hearing what I had to say. My lifetime’s most moving moments will have to include receiving special citations from the U.S. Senate, as well as from the House of Representatives, to both of which events I had the same internal reaction I’ve had so many times: wishing fervently that my momma and dad, my grandmas and grandpas—and all the others who came before them, slaves all, across the generations all the way back to Kunta Kinte—could have been with me, sharing such a moment. And then I’d realize that they were. Like my old cousin Georgia from Kansas City used to say, before she ascended to join them, “They all settin’ right up there watchin’ what you do, boy!”
In both a serious and a lighter vein, I’ve also been touched by how many relatives and friends Roots has surfaced for me, many of whom I never previously knew I had. As news of my good fortune began circulating, my inundation of mail, telegrams and phone calls included communications not only from dearly remembered old Service buddies but also from “shipmates” who named ships I never sailed on. Rather similarly, the relatives ranged from not a few with whom I’d long wanted to have direct contact, and just didn’t know where they were, to others who fit best within the proverbial “16th-cousin” category. There is an almost infallibly repetitive pattern in my letters from no-ship shipmates and the 16th cousins: I am roundly congratulated upon my well-deserved success; they’d always known I’d make it one day—and they’re certain I’ll wish to manifest my appreciation of their deep faith in some financial manner. Some of them specifically state the appropriate sums, which have ranged to upwards of $100,000—to pay off their debts, to establish them in a business or some other endeavor, to cover medical treatments for themselves or members of their family or any number of other needs, desires or occasionally sheer fantasies.
I don’t mean to make light of these requests. Most of them are heartfelt and legitimate. But the point is that I simply haven’t the resources to become a charitable institution on a personal basis. And while I’m in this financial area, let me try to point out something very few petitioners ever seem to reflect upon. It’s the case not only with me but with any others of us in the free-lance creative positions about whom one hears the great big dollar sums. In the first place, of whatever we may happen to earn through our efforts, a good half goes to Uncle Sam. Then come other deductions—substantial ones—of a professional nature. What’s left after all that isn’t nearly as impressive as it looked at first. I’m surely not crying poor—for, God knows, I never dreamed I’d ever gross what I now net. With it, I have established a foundation to help people to the degree I can afford, especially those in Africa who desperately need assistance of many sorts. Donations to the foundation, along with others last year, amounted to well into six figures. Beyond that, if I tried to supply even half of the funds for which people have asked, I’d very shortly be needing someone to help me. When my replies to money appeals have tried tactfully to explain this, as often as not a return letter merely requests a smaller amount, and when that isn’t forthcoming, subsequent letters call me names among which “insensitive” and “stingy bastard” are not uncommon, until I have come to feel that by and large, no matter what you do, or what you try to give, you just can’t win nohow.
On the other side of the ledger, I’ve received many offers of money—sometimes a great deal of money—for the use of my name on commercial endorsements, as a sponsor of this or that. Enterprising entrepreneurs have sought the rights to depict me, Kunta Kinte and other Roots figures on enough different kinds of products to fill a pretty thick catalog. When I’ve respectfully declined, they’ve expressed amazement that I’d have such bad judgment as to pass up profits they knew would exceed my wildest dreams. They ignore my own explanation that I’m proud of what Roots has come to mean for a very great many people, and not for any sum would I be likely to host commercial exploitations with their inevitably cheapening result.
If the mail I receive is any evidence, people everywhere have been reached by whatever it is that Roots has to say. After all this time since the book was published, I still get almost 500 letters a week from all over the world—in every one of the 24 languages in which translations have appeared—and most of them express variations of the same message: They want to tell me personally how Roots has changed their attitudes, even their lives, in a positive way.
Once in a while, of course, I’ll get an anonymous letter—this kind always is—that lets me know how far we still have to go before the millennium finally arrives. A typical one, which I received the other day, read: “Dear Haley: Now that you have found out who your ancestors are, why don’t you go back there and take the rest of your kind with you?” End of letter. That sort of thing would discourage me if there weren’t so many more like the one that came in the same mail. It was a deeply touching note from a little boy in Nebraska. From his printing, I’d guess he was about ten years old. He wrote: “Dear Alex Haley, I am sending you some money to put on Kunta Kinte’s grave. I’m sorry about what happened to him. Yours truly. . . .” And beneath that, there were 22 cents in coins he had Scotch-taped to the page. The contrast between those two letters was so diametrical, so emblematic, that I had them mounted side by side and hung them in my study, in case I need to be reminded, as I sometimes do, that neither good nor evil has quite triumphed in this world.
For me, though, it’s still a problem to find the time and the place to buckle down to my craft. Once my phone had been changed the first few times, and my office was discovered, I finally had a friend rent for me—in his name—a little one-room efficiency studio clear across Los Angeles—to become my “hideaway.” But I was soon spotted getting out of my car in the communal garage, whereupon the word circulated, and before long, I’d arrive to find sundry notes shoved under the door, usually asking for appointments to discuss writing or other problems, or large manila envelopes containing manuscripts, along with their authors’ notes of confidence that if I’d spend only a little time in a reading, and perhaps some rewriting, then surely my contacts could get their work published and they’d share with me as much as half of the proceeds. I mean—you know? The hell of it is that those were genuinely nice people and I hated having to return the manuscripts untouched, especially since they did sorely need at the very least a radical rewriting—precisely as my own writing efforts once did. The trouble was, is, that I just haven’t the time to give—even as I wish that I could to my own work. I’ve gotten another hideaway now, and this sounds awful—it embarrasses me to admit it—but the garage is equipped with one of those electronic things that opens the garage door from down the street. I make certain when I arrive that no one’s watching, circling the block, if necessary, then pressing the button. I drive in quickly and the garage door closes behind me. In the connected apartment, I will usually have written well into the wee hours, and often past dawn, before I leave.
One of the most unpleasant surprises about “success” is that time, whether spent at a typewriter or doing whatever else, costs so much more than it did before. The worth of an hour gets highly dramatized when you find yourself so pressured with work that you must decline invitations you’d give your eye teeth to accept, including some from the world’s heads of state. At the moment, I’ve several state invitations as rain checks awaiting only when I can find the time clear to visit. Among the many lessons I’ve learned as a result of Roots, having to make choices like that has taught me how deep is my commitment to writing. I like to think it’s unshakable.
But I badly miss just sitting and chitchatting with friends as I used to do, just running my mouth, or listening to them run theirs. It hurts to hear from friends and relatives whom I really love, who let me know that they’re hurt, feeling that I’ve turned big-headed and cast them aside. I’ll bet that last summer at least 50 old friends, new friends and relatives visited Los Angeles, rightfully expecting that we’d at least share one evening of dinner and reminiscing. But multiply one evening by 50! With me under the pressure of writing another book, assisting in the making of the Roots: The Next Generations 14-hour TV miniseries, not to mention all of the daily etc. of business, I just couldn’t handle it. I spent as much of the summer as I possibly could working in seclusion at a friend’s lodge at Lake Arrowhead. I just couldn’t afford to stay home.
In another area, ironically, I’ve found I can’t afford not to stay home. For years, during my Roots writing, I supported myself, and financed my continued writing on it, by lecturing all over the U.S. about “My Search for Roots.” In fact, I did so much lecturing that many friends prophesied that I’d spend the rest of my life talking a book that I’d never finish writing, and I began to think they were right. I loved public speaking, and I still do—the travel, the contact with people, hearing their responses. But after Roots finally did get written and published, I simply had to quit lecturing, except in rare instances.
It bothered and embarrassed me to be surrounded by security guards as we’d move through crowds of people clamoring to say something or shake hands. I remember one night in Kansas City, a cluster of male fans accosted me standing at a urinal, demanding that I sign autographs for them right then and there. Another time, at a college in San Diego, I arrived so completely beat that I literally fell asleep standing before the microphone with a big audience sitting in front of me; wakening with a start, I wondered, What the hell did I just say? And how long ago did I say it? But they’d apparently thought I was just taking a long thought between sentences or something; at least I was jolted wide-awake in my embarrassment, so I managed to keep talking and finished the “speech.”
But what actually precipitated my quitting the scheduled lectures was that one day my office received a bitter letter from someone saying that while I hadn’t even bothered to acknowledge his group’s request for me to lecture, I’d added insult to injury by turning up to speak recently at another place nearby. By that time, there were unopened canvas bags full of mail piled about the office; I’d never seen those folks’ request, and neither had my cousin, Jennie Haley, who runs my office. Feeling terrible about hurting somebody’s feelings in that way, and not wanting it to happen again if we could help it, I told Jennie and her assistant to drop everything for one day, go through all of those bags, sort out every lecture invitation and promptly answer them. And do you know what we discovered? By the end of that day, we’d stacked into piles atop desks 802 lecture requests—for projected dates roughly within the next six months. That was the day I knew I had to quit. There was no way even to begin to satisfy people’s expectations. Even if out of the 802 I had selected a priority 365, to do one each day for a year, I’d have left those other hundreds of places calling me names, as often happens when requests simply can’t be met. In any case, if I were to lecture for 365 consecutive days—even for the $5000 fee I’m offered now—the relentless traveling involved would sooner or later see me among some cemetery’s more affluent remains.
I lecture now only once in a while, most often at high schools or grade schools; I love those kids. And now and then, when I can, I’ll speak at a prison: Almost every time, I come away feeling very depressed that so many of our sharpest folk—minorities, in particular—are behind bars somewhere. Those, of course, are appearances I make without asking for a fee. I wouldn’t ask for one even if I needed the money. And I don’t.
You have to ask yourself, How much is enough? No matter how much you have, you can eat but one meal at a time, drive but one car at a time, live in but one house at a time, sleep in but one bed at a time, with but one woman—well, I’ve heard of multiple-bedmate situations, but one remains the limit of my own experience. Money cannot buy you one extra hour of life. Assuredly, no amount of money can buy you one single true friend. The primary worthwhile thing that it can buy you is the freedom to quit worrying about money any more—but you can be certain that it will also bring you brand-new money worries of sorts that you never dreamed about before.
I feel pretty well qualified on both sides of the subject by now. For many years, I was deeply in debt—hopelessly in hock to family, friends, banks, the “friendly loan” firms, the credit-card firms; in fact, anybody at all from whom I could borrow a few dollars to keep me going for a while longer. For long periods, the lack of money hounded me, haunted me, dogged my trail, seemed almost to paralyze me with guilt, frustration and a sense of hopelessness. On more than one occasion, I came close to despair—and once the depth of my debts was a factor in my literally contemplating doing myself in. But I hung in there, and finally, incredibly, the book was finished. And even more incredibly, it was a huge success. Was it worth the struggle? Absolutely. But not for the money.
All I’d ever previously dreamed for, materially, was to be comfortable. I’ll change that: really comfortable, with some financial cushion available, should I ever need it. But I tell you the truth: If for some reason I needed to, I believe that I could return to my one room in a Greenwich Village basement tomorrow and be quite content. Most of the trappings of success available to me now, I find, not only hold no intrigue for me but often even embarrass me. When I must ride in a limousine someone has hired to get me around, I tend to sit way back; I wouldn’t want anyone I’d known before all of this happened to maybe spot me in there. And I really prefer eating good home cooking, or in some small, quiet restaurant, to booth number one in some chic bistro with a maître d’ whose instincts have told him even before I finish ordering that my discernment among wines is still not much past the muscadine and persimmon wines that Grandma used to make and bottle every fall.
It wasn’t long ago that I was still considered a bit of a square—and rightly so—even in the way I dress. When all of this started happening, I always wore the corduroy suits I already had and liked so much because they seldom needed pressing, they just wore and wore. My friends began telling me tactfully that I needed new clothes, and I’d ask, “Why? What do you mean? These suits are fine. They’re not shiny yet.” Then, during an “Alex Haley Day” at Harvard University, I was walking along with a friend of mine, a beautiful dresser, and the television cameras were rolling. That night, I happened to see us on the evening news, me in my baggy corduroys and my friend looking as if he’d just stepped from a fashion magazine. The next morning, I called my office and said I needed some new suits. When I got back to Los Angeles, in my living room was this tailor waiting for me, practically bowing alongside this rack he’d brought with maybe 20 suits hanging on it. Right in my house! I’d never even imagined such a thing as that. But they were nice suits, so I decided to get a few. Suits I’d previously bought had ranged up to maybe $150, so I figured I could easily afford about six of them, for around $1000. I picked out six, the smiling tailor duly marked them and left, and by the next noon they were delivered—along with the bill. Well, my eyes just about fell out! The damned things had cost upwards of $600 apiece; and since they had been altered, I couldn’t take them back. I’ve yet to wear one of them. Foolish I may be about it, but I just can’t escape feeling that the suits symbolize something that makes me acutely uncomfortable; I guess my small-town upbringing is still a part of me; I still wear chinos and jeans whenever I can. For better or worse, I’m just more interested in what I am than in what I can put on me.
Much, more recently, I was given as a present a truly beautiful Swiss wristwatch, described as “the ultimate in timepieces,” thin as a silver dollar. I admire it, of course. I just don’t need a wrist decoration that could easily pay someone’s college tuition for a year.
There’s one fringe benefit to success, however, that I cheerfully confess is an unmitigated joy. It has opened for me a magical door to a world of fascinating and powerful people I’d never dreamed I’d ever meet—except, perhaps, in my previous capacity as a journalist. It’s a heady experience to enjoy luncheon or backstage chitchat with such personages as Henry Kissinger and President Carter. At one White House luncheon, Queen Farah of Iran invited me to Teheran: our next conversation was in her palace. In general, this aspect of experiencing success—particularly with the accompanying world-wide recognition that both the book and the television series have brought me—is rather like an Arabian Nights fantasy come true.
You want to try guessing how it feels to have ladies such as Lena Home and Leontyne Price hug you and tell you that they love you for what you’ve written? You want to imagine being kissed on both cheeks by Elizabeth Taylor, and right in front of her husband, John Warner, the former Secretary of the Navy? You want to know how it felt having him say, “Can we have lunch?” to a former U.S. Coast Guard mess boy who used to deliver trays of coffee?
Speak of thrills: Dick Gregory telephoned me, saying that his friend Marlon Brando had asked for my home phone number. Then Brando did call, saying that he held such a high opinion of both Roots and my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, that he wanted to ask, “Is it possible I could play some role in the new Roots series?” I mean, maybe the world’s highest-paid actor volunteering his services? It practically put me on the floor; you can be sure we didn’t waste any time offering him several parts to choose from.
One bond I’ve discovered I share with practically every other public figure is a feeling of kinship and compassion for anyone who finds himself or herself abruptly thrust into the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Celebrity status in this country, particularly in show business and the arts, renders one fair game for the press. But I have been luckier by far than a great many others I know of. The relatively few critical blasts of Roots didn’t really bother me, except when I felt that a particular critic seemed to have gone out of his or her way to cut me unfairly. Some of my keenest critics, in fact, got longhand notes or telephone calls from me, thanking them for the caliber of their comments. The most that one can ask—even when criticized—is that the writer conduct himself with sincerity and with a sense of responsibility to portray his subject as fairly as he can.
I’ve had only a couple of really unfair media experiences, but they’re the kind that give some credence to the old adage about the press putting people on pedestals so they can point out their clay feet. One popular national magazine’s first major article about me was absolutely beautiful; but in the next piece, the editors seemed to feel that some “new” side of me should be presented, and the quotes attributed to me made me sound as if I were some jive-talking, finger-snapping pimp. In another case, a writer for the London Times published an article about Roots that was laced with inaccuracies, innuendoes and outright distortions. I was incensed that the article, which gained swift world-wide circulation, attempted to cast doubt on the authenticity of all those years of the most painstaking and meticulous research efforts. But what really upset me most was that, also, by implication, it clearly sought to impugn the dignity of black Americans’ African heritage. But by now, I’ve come to view it philosophically, as a part of the rites of passage that Roots must endure if posterity is ever to declare it truly a literary landmark, which many are already saying that it is.
Far more troubling than any media brickbats has been the costliest product of success: Like so many who’ve made it big—financially as well as professionally—I’ve become a sitting duck for lawsuits. Six have been lodged against me since Roots came out. The week preceding this writing, three of the suits were dismissed by Federal judges. Two of those suits had alleged that I had copied major portions of Roots from another author’s books. The complainant in the fourth lawsuit alleged that in Roots I wrote not my own story but his story, for which grievance he sought from me the sum of, I kid you not, $100,000,000! Two other suits, also alleging plagiarism on my part, are still awaiting resolution. No matter how unfounded, each and every lawsuit has to be fought—at an enormous cost, in money, in time and in psychic wear and tear. Believe me, there is something terribly hurtful about believing that you’ve tried your best to live your life as a reasonably decent person, working hard, trying to accomplish something worthwhile, and then finding yourself in a witness chair, being grilled day after day by a hostile lawyer with questions loaded with insinuations that at the very least you’re some scheming thief.
I don’t dwell on these unhappy incidents in order to ask for sympathy. No one who’s been blessed with the incredible good fortune I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy has any right to bitch about what it cost. I just wanted to share with you a complex and extraordinary experience that has befallen few people in our time on such a scale. Perhaps it will serve as a reminder that our great god “success,” with its omnipotent trinity of fame, wealth and power, is something we should learn to respect rather than to worship—lest it enslave us.
One moment in my life always comes back to me when I feel the pressures of my own success closing in on me, and it always makes them easier to bear. A friend of mine called me late one night and said he hated to wake me up, but he couldn’t sleep and he had to tell me what he was thinking. He said, “I can’t explain it, except that I just believe that when Kunta Kinte told his daughter Kizzy all about himself, he wasn’t really talking to her, he was talking to you, across the centuries, so you could write what he had to say for all the world to share. And what he had to say was: I lived. And it mattered.” That thought alone makes all the years I worked on Roots, and all of the difficulties I’ve encountered since, more than worth it.
A major apprehension among those who’ve known me for a long time, since before Roots, is: Have I changed? I don’t think so. As I think I’ve shown you, my circumstances have certainly changed—in some ways for the better, in some ways otherwise. But my friends tell me I’m the same person I was before, and that makes me happy. It feels like I’ve passed an examination. But the fact is that I agree with them. I was at peace with myself before Roots, and I’m at peace with myself now—even amidst the crush of burdens and responsibilities that sometimes threatens to submerge me.
Once that crush begins to lighten—after Roots: The Next Generations is aired, after I’ve finished writing Search, my journal of the 12 years that went into the making of Roots—my life is going to change again. I’m going to start accepting some of those invitations I’ve held in abeyance, and catch up with my old friends, and live at a more leisurely pace. I may even allow myself the luxury of sleeping as much as six or seven hours every night.
But I guess my great dream is still that down the line, not too far in the future, I ought to have the things I’ve got to do pretty well in hand, and finally be free to enjoy the rest of my years doing the things I love to do. Like see the world. And with time to do it right. I want to see the Yangtze River. I want to see Morocco. I want to see Kilimanjaro. I still want to see the Pyramids. And, come hell or high water, someday I’m going to ride that camel. ~ Alex Haley.
(There Are Days When I Wish It Hadn’t Happened is presented under the Creative Commons License. It appeared in the March 1979 issue of Playboy. © 1979 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)