Alex Haley: The Man Behind Roots (Jeffrey M. Elliot, Alex Haley)
Not long ago, Dr. Jeffrey Elliot was granted an exclusive interview with Alex Haley. “Corralling Haley for a sustained period of time is next to impossible,” says Elliot. “The interview took place over a three day period, comprising approximately ten hours of conversation, part of it spent in transit to and from the television studio where he works, and part at the author’s home in West Los Angeles—a modest, two-story dwelling that bears little evidence of his affluence or status. His home is warn, inviting, lived in—a reflection of the author and his delight in simple virtues and every day pleasures.”
When Elliot asked why Haley chooses to live so modestly. Haley said, “From where you sit, Jeff, you can see, just to your right, two cans of sardines and eighteen cents, ornately framed on the wall. It’s next to the Pulitzer Prize citation and the Spingarn Medal. Let me tell you why that ‘picture’ is there. In 1960, I was living in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. I was literally hanging on by my fingernails, trying to make it as a magazine writer. I was selling just enough to keep going from week to week, sometimes from day to day. In my little cupboard, I had them two cans of sardines which were all I had to eat in the world. And I had eighteen cents in my pocket. That’s not the same eighteen cents on the wall, by the way. I spent the original eighteen cents on a cabbage for dinner that night. I remember thinking at the time, there’s nowhere to go but up. And I put the two cans of sardines in a sack and put it away. Whenever I would move because I didn’t have the rent money, I would always take that sack with me. Six or seven years later I sold my first motion picture rights. That’s when I had those two cans of sardines and that eighteen cents ornately framed as you see them there today.”
Dr. Jeffrey M. Elliot (1948 - 2010) was a senior curriculum specialist at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts who has published numerous interviews with authors, particularly science fiction writers.
Alex Haley: The Man Behind Roots
“My old cousin Georgia told me something,” remarked Alex Haley, “that has galvanized me—and sustained me—ever since: ‘Boy, yo’ sweet grandma and all of ’em—dey up dere watchin’. So you go and do what you got to do.’ ” Apparently, Haley took her words to heart. Indeed, his best-selling book, Roots, may well be the most important book of its kind ever written. Not only has it captured the attention of millions of Americans, but it has given rise to a groundswell of interest in black history.
It is difficult to describe the, impact of Roots on the American psyche. Doubleday, its publisher, scheduled a record 200,000-copy first printing, the largest print run for a hardcover book ever published. That initial run sold out in a matter of weeks, and the book has since gone on to sell well over 1,500,000 copies in cloth. The paperback version set records of its own. Roots has also been translated into twenty-four languages, and is a best-seller in many countries throughout the world. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to American social and political history, Haley was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to the millions of Americans who have read the book version of Roots, approximately 130 million viewers saw at least some part of the television version—this was the largest single TV audience since Gone with the Wind was shown. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences responded by nominating the television play for thirty-seven Emmy awards, an all-time record. The program was chosen as best “limited” series of the season.
Roots’s author, Alex Haley, is a self-taught writer: he developed his talent during a twenty-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard. After retiring from the Guard in 1959, he decided to become a professional writer and journalist. His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, won him national recognition as one of America’s leading writers. Haley has long been known as one of the best interviewers in the business. Indeed, his question-and-answer session with Miles Davis was published as the first “Playboy Interview.” He conducted numerous other interviews for Playboy, including feature pieces on George Lincoln Rockwell, Johnny Carson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry Kissinger.
Several years ago, I wrote to Haley in San Francisco requesting an interview. Roots had only been out for a few weeks, and, like thousands of other letters, my request went unanswered. I wrote again, employing a slightly different approach, but this letter also failed to elicit a response [Haley, as is now well known, was besieged by sackfuls of mail during this period]. I read that Haley had moved to Southern California and had set up an office in Century City, not far from my permanent residence. So I wrote again, this time suggesting another angle for the interview. Still, I received no response. As a result, I pretty much gave up hope of ever reaching the author.
One day while talking to a friend, I learned quite by accident that Haley had rented the house across the street from mine! I worked up my courage and wrote him one more time, this time sending the letter to his new home. The next day I had an unexpected visitor, none other than Haley himself, who informed me that he had never seen my previous letters and that he would be pleased to grant me an interview. Thus began an association that went from stranger to interviewee to friend. But the story does not end there.
After Haley reviewed his schedule, he invited me to his home later that week to do the interview. As is always the case, I brought a tape recorder to the session. And I was glad that I had. Haley was superb—contemplative, gregarious, provocative, illuminating. I hurried home to listen to the tape. The first cassette was perfectly clear. The second tape was . . . the second tape was ruined. Somehow—and to this day I do not know how—the recorder had malfunctioned this one time. It was garbled beyond comprehension.
I felt miserable—and I was at a loss what to say to Haley. I decided to write, telling him what had happened, and delivered the note to his home later that day. After apologizing profusely, I asked for a new interview, but had little hope, knowing the heavy demands on his time.
That evening, knowing that I would be abysmal company, I went alone to a Kenny Rogers concert. All I could think about was Haley and that damn recorder. Midway through the concert, I left. When I arrived home, there was a message waiting: Haley wanted me to call him the next morning at eight o’clock. I dialed his number filled with anxiety, but he proved warm, kind, and understanding. True or not, he told me that something similar had happened to him when he had been an interviewer for Playboy. As busy as he was, his concern was for me.
Haley and I did meet again, several more times, and have continued to meet over the years. One could say many things about Alex Haley, about his eclectic talents as a writer, journalist, interviewer, filmmaker, etc. But these are all abstract things, just so many words. More important than his list of career achievements, at least from my perspective, is what he is as a man. Like Roots, Haley is a striking testimonial to the dignity and nobility of the human spirit. He is us at our best and the best within us. I love Alex Haley—not just Alex Haley the writer, but Alex Haley the man—that wonderful man who came across the street and said, “What can I do to help? Let’s get started!”
Alex Haley Interviewed By Jeffrey M. Elliot
Elliot: Let’s begin by talking about the genesis of Roots. Can you recall the moment when the idea, the concept, the dream came alive in your mind?
Haley: It never came together in a composite way, as I gather you mean. It came in wisps, in nuances, in unrelated happenings. From the time I first began, when I discovered the material in the National Archives, to the time I actually decided to write the book, probably a year elapsed. Considerably more time went by as I conceptualized the book in my mind, but again, only in vague form. I had no idea what direction the book would take as I began my research. At the outset, I thought of the book simply in terms of doing a family history. I had no thoughts of going to Africa to trace my roots. I thought I would merely write a book about my family in this country, which I knew like the back of my hand. But as time went on, I got the idea of going to Africa. Even with the family lineage slant, there wasn’t enough material to put together a book. And I wasn’t sure whether I should try to write an abstract history of the black family or something more personal. Finally, after thrashing it around in my head, and scribbling down some thoughts on paper, I decided that the best way to tell about a people is through an individual, or a family, with whom a reader could identify in personal terms. Eventually, it boiled down to focusing the book around the life of Kunta Kinte—his people, his community, his village, and his culture.
Elliot: Why did your family history fascinate you so, particularly to the extent of investing so many years in trying to understand it?
Haley: My family was always deeply interested in its own history. From my earliest recollections, I can remember sitting on the back porch and listening to my grandmother and others reminisce about the family history. They loved to regale each other with the various stories they knew. The stories themselves were new only to me. I can recall those back porch discussions quite vividly. My grandmother, who lived in Henning, Tennessee, would invite all of the family to her home, where they would sit around and discuss the family history. I listened to everything very intently. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my family coalesced around its history. As I think about it, my family has always been proud of knowing who they were, and they loved to talk about it. It was kind of natural, therefore, that I would pick it up later as I grew up and became a writer. Actually, I didn’t think about writing a book dealing with my family until I began digging into ancestral records at the National Archives that tended to corroborate what they had talked about on my grandmother’s back porch in Henning.
Elliot: Did you ever envision that Roots would have such an enormous impact on the American psyche?
Haley: At the time I wrote Roots, I didn’t think it would have an enormous impact on anything. Of course, I had a great hope for the book, but the extent of my dreams were quite limited. I didn’t go around doing a lot of dreaming. I was more obsessed with finishing the book. In fact, I probably never spent more than a total of six hours projecting its results. I had great faith in the book, obviously, since I had twelve years invested in it, but I never dreamed it would create the sensation it has in terms of the public response. It is said by some people that Roots is the most important book in terms of social change since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If that is true, I can only be humbled by that fact. That’s all you can be. You would have to be the worst kind of fool to go around thinking, “I’m going to write a book that will change the world.” The most one can do, I think, sensibly, is to write the best book that one is capable of writing. You never quite know what it’s going to do. Writing a book is very much like having a baby. Once it’s published, it takes off and becomes its own entity. That’s happening now with Roots. Not a week passes but that I don’t get letters, or my agents get letters, from people all over the world, who propose some business proposition involving Roots—either the book or something derivative of the book—that I’ve never heard of before. There’s really no way to know what’s going to happen. You just have to sit back and wait.
Elliot: Did you ever imagine that it would take you twelve years to complete the book?
Haley: No, never. I doubt I would have given it a second thought had I known that beforehand. I couldn’t have afforded to invest twelve years in a project of that type. The only reason I did was because I got hooked. I had a tremendous investment in the project, not so much in monetary terms, because I didn’t have much money to invest, but my emotional investment was such that I couldn’t let go. And believe me, I must have tried to give up the project at least twenty times. But I just couldn’t do it. I always found myself easing right back into it again. I would take a job to write an article or something, and it was like a canker in my stomach, just thinking about something else.
Elliot: At one point, I understand, the prospects of finishing the book seemed so dim that you actually contemplated suicide. Is that true?
Haley: Yes. I almost did commit suicide. I was writing the section dealing with Kunta on the slave ship. I had become Kunta in the process of writing the book. Indeed, a writer needs to become his characters if he’s going to portray them with feeling and authenticity. I started having ominous feelings when I was in San Francisco. I was at the point in the story where Kunta had been captured. I had written about thirty to forty pages at least three different times. It just didn’t feel right. I was very upset and walking around like a zombie. Finally, it dawned on me what the trouble was. How blasphemous it was for me to be sitting in a high-rise apartment with carpet on the floor, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, writing about Kunta Kinte in the hold of a slave ship. So I called my agent and got the money together to make one last trip to Africa. By this time, I remember, people were very impatient with me—my agent, my publisher, my editor—because I had spent all these years on the book, always telling them, “It will be a great book. It will work out fine. It will be a smash,” but they had heard it at least fifty times, and they were sick of hearing it. By this time, I had spent maybe nine or ten years. People were sometimes beyond impatient, just this side of rude to me—even those close to me. When I announced I was going to Africa again, it was met on all sides with disgust. But I went anyway. I had learned that vital thing: let nobody, your mother, your grandmother, your agent, your publisher, your producer, let nobody tell you the creator what you should do. The fact is, publishers don’t write books. And producers don’t write books. And agents don’t write books. They’re all derivative, bless their hearts. They make their living off of what the author produces. One of the big things that was made of Roots was that the author worked twelve long years to bring off this masterpiece. Well, when the poor bastard was working those twelve years, they were calling him all sorts of names. Anyway, I flew to Africa and put the word out that I wanted to get a ship, a freighter, sailing anywhere from black Africa to the United States. I boarded a freighter called the African Star from Monrovia, Liberia to Florida. Each night after dinner I would go down into the hold. I located a big, broad piece of timber in there. I took off my clothes to my underwear, and I would lie on this timber through the night, terribly uncomfortable, extremely cold, trying to imagine I was Kunta. Occasionally, I would lapse off into sleep and wake up cold and still. I would go back into my stateroom, almost numb, take a hot shower, and then write hastily on a pad what was on my mind. I kept doing this until the fourth night, when I just didn’t want to go back into that hold. I went out on the stern of the ship after dinner and stood there with my hands on the top rail and one foot on the bottom rail, at which point all of my troubles seemed to roll in on me. I was terribly broke, had less than $300 counting everything, and owed virtually everybody I knew collectively about $100,000. It hit me that there was no way I would ever get out of debt. Then I began to think of how much longer it would take me to finish the book. I had lied to the publisher, had told him at least a dozen times I would complete the book in six months. I had at least two years of writing to go and I knew he wasn’t going to give me another penny. And then, most of all, it seemed that even with what I was doing, it was still blasphemous by comparison with what Kunta Kinte had endured. Here I was, a paid passenger on a modern steel freighter, and what I was doing was voluntary. I wasn’t in chains. Nobody was beating me. I could come up and take a hot shower. Then a thought came to me. There was a cure for everything. All I had to do was step through that rail and drop into the sea. Nobody would miss me, at least not until morning. I would be a splash in time, and it would all be over. I wouldn’t owe anybody. The hell with the book. No more of the publisher to contend with. I felt a kind of warm glow, almost a euphoria. I suppose I was within a millimeter of stepping through that rail. Then I had this eerie experience. I began to hear voices. It was very simple in its way. There was no band playing. There was no loud shouting. I simply heard these voices speaking to me. And in some uncanny way, I knew exactly who they were. They were speaking to me in a conversational tone, saying, “No, you can’t do that. You must finish the book. You mustn’t quit.” And I knew they were Kunta Kinte, and Chicken George, and Tom the Blacksmith, and my grandmother. They were the whole lineage talking to me. I recall wrenching myself loose from that rail and thrusting myself forcibly backwards to get away from the side. I whirled around and fell on my hands and knees near the hatch of the ship. The attraction to go over the rail was still very strong, but I wanted to stay away from the rail and fall toward the hatch, the center of the ship. I finally got myself into my stateroom. I suppose I cried for two or three hours. Everything in me cried out. I went back into the hold around midnight that night, found my timber, and once again tried to become Kunta Kinte. It was that night, for the first time, that I had some kind of feeling that they all approved—that although I couldn’t really be in the situation that Kunta Kinte had faced, they understood that I was doing the best I could. And that is how the rest of the voyage passed.
Elliot: Numerous reviewers have hailed Roots as one of the most significant books of our time. What makes it such an important work?
Haley: I’ve heard numerous erudite explanations of the Roots phenomenon, several of which are probably correct in one way or another. In my own mind, however, I tend to go back to something my grandmother said many years ago—that is, “The Lord might not come when you expect him to, but he will always be on time.” That’s the best answer I know how to give you.
Elliot: Is there something about the book, or, perhaps, its subject matter, which helps to explain the tremendous public response to Roots?
Haley: Yes. Looking back over the project, I tried to orchestrate the story prior to actually writing the book. Indeed, the book was significantly enhanced by the fact that I devoted considerable attention to the architecture of the story long before I started writing. My aim was to try to strike a responsive chord in the reader. I started with a little boy, Kunta Kinte, and focused on him from the time he was born. The reader literally shares his birth. He grows up and, like all little boys, is universal. You can’t help but like a little boy romping around playfully, enjoying life, experiencing its wonders. We watch him, we love him, we pull for him. As he grows up, I try to weave the story around him and his orbit. I attempt to relate what I had learned about the African culture which had spawned him. And so, we become beguiled by him as we share his journey through life. When I say “we,” I mean I was as beguiled as anyone else in recounting the story of his life. There were many times when I would catch myself at the typewriter or with pen in hand, feeling as though I were standing off somewhere at the edge of the village watching Kunta doing the things I was writing about at the time. I was totally caught up in his youthful adventures. In another sense, it was a very personal experience. I so enjoyed my own childhood in Henning that sometimes I wish I had never grown up. I had a ball. And so, in a way, I was Kunta Kinte, reliving my own childhood through his boyhood experiences. As Kunta continues to mature, we watch him grow into teenage, a nice youngster still. He is disciplined, respectful, hard working. You can’t help but like that kind of youngster. He has his dreams, his hopes, his aspirations. And then he goes off to manhood training, coping with the problems that it entails. By the time Kunta returns home, only to be captured, slavery has ceased to be impersonal. Indeed, it became highly personal to millions of readers who identified with him in human terms, very much as I did. As a brief aside, I would admit that in a structural sense, that portion of the book dealing with Africa is too long in terms of balance. One of the contributing reasons, however, is that when it came time for Kunta to be captured, I just hated to see it happen. So I took him off on another trip with his little brother, Lamin, to keep that from happening for a while. When he finally was captured, I felt as though I had been hit in the head with a two-by-four. In fact, I was so broken up over his capture, that I quit writing for several weeks. I just didn’t want to go back to the book. Before I could actually begin the next section, I had to go off and get my head together.
Elliot: As you assess the public response to Roots, what do you see as its greatest impact?
Haley: If I had to boil it down to a sentence or two, it would be that on a worldwide basis, and I say that because Roots has been translated into twenty-four languages, that the “Tarzan” and “Jungle Jim” images, as pervasive world symbols of Africa and African people, will be replaced by Kunta Kinte and his brave people. That’s the biggest thing Roots could ever do. The pernicious effect of these stereotypes transcends all the adjectives I know. Beyond that, I hope it will give a new sense of pride to black people. Moreover, I hope it will help to foster a renewed feeling of appreciation and respect for black people to take greater pride in the slaves, and Uncle Tom, and Aunt Hager, because they did the most important thing in the world—they survived. If they hadn’t done that, then we, who descend from them, wouldn’t be doing all the fancy things we’re doing today.
Elliot: To what extent can Roots be viewed not only as the saga of your own search for identity, but in a broader sense, as man’s search for identity?
Haley: I think there’s a lot of that in the book and in the public response to it. Obviously, the book and the film, but especially the book, touched something deep in all people. It cut across all lines—age lines, color lines, nationalistic lines, ethnic lines, etc. It literally touched something of a DNA-nature. And so, I think your question probably answers itself. In essence, Roots touched man’s universal quest for identity. Let me give you an example. Not long ago, I was in Paris for a speech. Something happened there which really astonished me. One day some people were taping an outdoor interview with me. I was walking alongside the host, who was talking to me at the same time. All of a sudden, there was this enormous cry, “Alex Haley!” And as it turned out, there was literally a busload of white people, Americans, who piled out of the bus and came running over to where we were standing. The interview stopped in the midst of the confusion. It turned out that these were people from Kentucky who had not known each other a year before, but who had, spurred on by Roots, begun researching their family backgrounds in Kentucky and discovered themselves to have French ancestry. Indeed, it was in the genealogical reference places that they had met each other and uncovered their French backgrounds. They had come to France, as a group of sixty-five people, to dig up their records in remote villages and towns. And I happened to walk by as they piled out of their bus. You want to know how that makes you feel?
Elliot: Has your own quest for identity made you more proud of being black?
Haley: No. I’m not sure I would say that. As I indicated before, I come from a family that has a long history of being proud of who they were, and that includes, of course, being black. I can never recall a time when I was ashamed of being black. We were always taught to be proud of who we were. The search for Roots did, however, increase my sense of responsibility in being black, particularly now, in that I’m often held up as a role model, or a voice, or a person who is a contributor to the shaping of culture.
Elliot: What lessons would you hope black people might learn from your own search for identity? What about white people?
Haley: Insofar as black people are concerned, and, to an extent, white people as well, the biggest single lesson is that we black people do indeed have an identity, a rich, prideful heritage. We must make a concerted effort to cast off the negative images that have been applied to us throughout history, and which have, in various ways, come to represent an almost self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell a people that they have no history, that they have nothing of which to be proud, that they are innately inferior, then they will eventually come to believe it. It’s that kind of legacy that we must cast off.
Elliot: Much of your time these days is spent in promoting Roots. Has the massive publicity generated by the book significantly affected your private life?
Haley: In some ways, it exploded what had been my previous private life. After the initial publication of Roots, when there were strong signs that it was going to be an unusual book, various public relations and media people would say to me, “You’re going to lose your privacy.” And I would say to myself, “That’s what you think. It will never happen.” At the time, their warning was abstract. I didn’t quite know what they meant. I do now, though. Somehow, you don’t seem to appreciate your privacy until you lose it. And then, of course, it’s too late. The process itself is a subtle one. Suddenly, you don’t have time to do things you did previously as a matter of course. In a metaphorical sense, nothing really affects the twenty-four-hour day. It’s fixed in time and space. Meanwhile, the demands, the requests, the mandatories that are part of your new-found success seem to grow geometrically in comparison to what they were previously. For example, there was one period when in three days, I gave thirty-three interviews—television, magazine, radio, newspaper. I scarcely ate or slept, and the demands of the press grew almost beyond physical endurance. Moreover, it was often the case that when you were tired, really tired, someone in the press would come in and zing you. I’m not complaining about the press. It’s simply a matter of fact. After all, each of these reporters is looking for something which will make his story a little bit different. I can recall one incident quite vividly. One morning I awoke, having had only two hours sleep the night before, after what seemed like dozens of interviews. Some reporter in a group asked me to comment on a criticism of Roots that was raised at the time. I said something like, “Very few books which have received the praise that Roots has, are not without their critics, including Homer or even the Bible.” That afternoon I was astonished to see a story on the AP wire which read, “Alex Haley, turning the opposite of humble, today compared his book, Roots, to Homer and the Bible.” That wasn’t what I meant at all, and the reporter knew it wasn’t what I said. But the point is, he was able to get an unusual slant to his story, even if it was at my expense. There’s much morel could say on this point. However, I feel uncomfortable explaining about the pressures of success. After all, I’m never very far from the fact that previous to all this, I had worked for over twenty years praying to God that one day, just a piece of what has happened to me would come true, It was that fantasy which sustained me all those years at the typewriter, pecking away day after day, just hoping for the right break. When a thing like that finally happens, it catches you off guard. I can remember giving seventy-three speeches in sixty days in forty-two states. It was like being in a maze. I can recall during that period of making a point of trying to establish in my mind where I was, lest I slip and mention the wrong city. Overall, it’s a test, a challenge, something you learn to cope with the best you can. One of the things that most distressed me was my inability to answer the mail, something I had always prided myself on before. After Roots was published, I was on the road for the next ten months. I was almost never home. In fact, in those first seven months, I was home something like 22 nights. I spent the rest of the time in various hotels around the country. As the public response to Roots began to mount, the correspondence came in canvas sacks. It piled up and up and up. I suppose I probably have 25,000 pieces of unanswered mail. I was simply, physically, unable to do anything about it. It was easy enough to hire secretaries to get the mail out, but I had to read it, at least I thought I did. I would feel awfully uncaring if I simply hired someone to answer it all, particularly after people were nice enough to write and tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Perhaps that would be better than not answering the letters at all, but I still try to answer as much of it as I possibly can. For example, this morning I dictated correspondence until around 3:30 a.m. And I plan to dictate for several more hours this afternoon. When all of this happened, I fantasized that I could become identical triplets—one of me would be chained to the typewriter and fed at periodic intervals; another would devote full time to answering the correspondence, telephone calls, personal requests, etc.; and the third would make all of the public appearances, which is a full-time job in itself. Right now, on my desk as of last week, there were approximately 800 speaking requests, all of which are slated for the next six months. That will give you some idea of what it’s like. And yet, that’s only part of it. I wouldn’t even call it the negative side, but rather a facet of the situation. There are also the beautiful things that have happened. Perhaps the most beautiful of all are the many times people pass me, wave to me, recognize me, and cry out, “Thank you.” That just warms me to the bottom of my feet. The emotional, positive responses of people—black, white, yellow, brown—are an incredible thing to behold. In fact, one of the greatest wonders to me is how Roots has literally transcended all ethnic groups. The identification of Chicano people, of Oriental people, of Indian people, is something I never would have anticipated. They have the feeling that somehow Roots is a good thing for them, too. White people of various ethnic extractions have responded extremely well to the book. It shows itself in many ways too numerous to go into now. However, it’s all I can do to keep from crying. People don’t know it, but I’m often that way. For instance, when I go into a room where I’m scheduled to speak, it’s not uncommon for everyone to stand up when I enter. You don’t know what that does to me. I have to force myself to keep from crying. It’s something that almost overwhelms you when it happens. As a result, I go around pretty emotional these days.
Elliot: Not only has Roots brought you fame and fortune, but it has also cast you in the role of a major black leader. Do you relish that position?
Haley: Well, I would quibble with the word “leader.” I just don’t feel like a leader. I have become a prominent black voice on account of the tremendous media exposure I’ve received. But I don’t have organized followers or anything of that nature, and that’s about the last thing I’m seeking. In any event, I will accept the term “voice”; the “leader,” I don’t feel. I suppose I could have some influence in one direction or another if I went out and spoke for some cause or some candidate. But I don’t choose to exercise that role as such. Each person has a role to play. And mine is, I hope, to write books. That’s my number one priority.
Elliot: Has the success of Roots helped or hurt your ability as a writer—that is, has it typecast you or given you greater artistic freedom?
Haley: I certainly don’t think it has typecast me. If I felt I could only write another Roots or Roots-related book, then I would have typecast myself. In truth, that’s the last thing I think. I’m extremely excited over books down the line which, in a sense, have nothing to do with Roots or Roots-related material. What has happened, however, is that the success of Roots has significantly cut into my personal life in so many ways, and to such an extent, that I’m no longer able to write as I once did. Sadly, and I must face it, my life has changed in dramatic ways. It used to be that my main problem was to simply get up enough money so I could afford to get on a ship—which is my favorite place to write—and sail off for two or three months. The problem now isn’t raising the money, but getting the two or three months. I would cheerfully, happily, eagerly pay someone, if this sort of thing were possible, $10 an hour to sleep for me, if I could get the benefit of eight hours sleep a night. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. As a result, I haven’t written a line, a serious line, since Roots was published.
Elliot: Are you concerned about the excessive commercialization of Roots, what some people might call the “poster-T-shirt craze?”
Haley: Well, I’m certainly not pleased by it. At the outset, I did everything I could to discourage it. My lawyers and I wrote letters to all sorts of people. We soon discovered, however, that it was like standing in a shower trying to protect ourselves from getting wet with our hands. We realized there was no way to stop it. You could spend all your time trying to track down this T-shirt or that poster-maker or whatever. The best I could do was to refrain personally from contributing to the commercialization of Roots by refusing to lend my name to any product associated with it. The biggest single thing I did was turn down an offer which would have netted me $250,000 for merely signing my name on a contract in exchange for endorsing a product as the author of Roots. Now, once you do that, it’s not so difficult to turn down other offers involving lesser amounts. I decided to turn it down because I felt it wasn’t compatible with what I took to be the dignity of Roots.
Elliot: Many people wonder whether all this success will spoil Alex Haley, whether it will change who he is, what he believes, and how he acts. What do you think?
Haley: One of my blessings is that somehow, in the deepest center of my makeup, I’m never very far from Henning, Tennessee, with its small-town values, going to church, looking after your neighbor, taking an interest in local problems. To tell you the truth, I’m startled by how people respond to me now. I hope I always will be. One incident comes quickly to mind. It makes me quiver even today. Not long ago, I was in a very emotional crowd. A pretty young girl fullbacked her way through the people closest to me and literally fell on her knees, grabbing me with both arms around my legs. I was totally astonished. I remember saying, “What in the world is wrong with you? Get up from there!” And I hugged her because she was weeping. She said to me, “Thank you, you’ve given us our history. For the first time, I feel proud of who I am.” I understood what she was saying. But it would horrify me if I started thinking, “Yes, this is my due.” Occasionally, I have an impulse to go out at night and get a cup of coffee, something I would often do in the old days. But every time I do it now, people cluster around me. There’s no way to lose myself in a crowd. If I make a call to the head of a studio, I know now that when I say my name, I will be connected with the person. That, too, is a new experience. From where you sit, you can see, just to your right, two cans of sardines and eighteen cents, ornately framed on the wall, It’s next to the Pulitzer Prize citation and the Spingarn Medal. Let me tell you why that “picture” is there. In 1960, I was living in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. I was literally hanging on by my fingernails, trying to make it as a magazine writer. I was selling just enough to keep going from week to week, sometimes from day to day. Everyone I knew kept telling me, “It’s fine to write, but when are you going to get a job?” I kept writing, however, because that’s what I wanted to do. One morning a friend of mine called, a man who was with the civil service. He was very excited, and said, “Look, this new job has just opened up. I can see that you get it, but you have to accept it immediately, because it has to be opened to the public at one o’clock.” He could guarantee me the job because I had done twenty years in the Coast Guard, which gave me ten extra points and hiring preference. It was Public Information Specialist and paid, I recall, $6,000 a year. Without thinking about it, I said, “No, thanks, I just want to keep writing.” It wasn’t any great, noble statement. I was just expressing the way I felt. He was indignant because I owed him some money, and he banged the phone down. That afternoon, I was walking around my little room just off Sheridan Square, taking a sort of psychic inventory of my life—where I was and where I was going. Everything I owned was in that little room. A Castro Convertible sofa became my cot at night and an ottoman by day on which my guests could sit if I had any guests. I had my typewriter, paper, books. In my little cupboard, I had those two cans of sardines which were all I had to eat in the world. And I had eighteen cents in my pocket. That’s not the same eighteen cents on the wall, by the way. I spent the original eighteen cents on a cabbage for dinner that night. I remember thinking at the time, there’s nowhere to go but up. And I put the two cans of sardines in a sack and put it away. Whenever I would move because I didn’t have the rent money, I would always take that sack with me. Six or seven years later I sold my first motion picture rights. That’s when I had those two cans of sardines and that eighteen cents ornately framed as you see them there today. No matter where I go, it will always be displayed as a reminder of the most important lesson in the world—that when you’re pursuing a creative goal, you must hang in there. You must have faith. You must believe.
Elliot: Has your lifestyle—in a material sense—changed significantly with the success of Roots.
Haley: If you mean in a monetary sense, then no, it really hasn’t. The truth is, I just don’t have much interest in ostentation, in the things money can buy. My joys are mostly career-related; for example, digging into a new book. My peak joy is when I am off somewhere, ideally on a ship at sea, in my little stateroom at 3:30 in the morning, writing as well as I can. There’s something about being on a ship, that little subtle hiss as the skin of the ship cuts through the sea, that has a magic quality. It becomes almost like hearing your own pulse. It’s an extraordinary experience. That’s my joy. I read in the newspapers where I’m a millionaire, and I suppose I am, I know I am. But it has been years since Roots came out, and I’ve spent very little buying things. What I did buy, chiefly, was the slickest typewriter IBM makes, because I’m a nut for typewriters and the gadgets that go with them. I also bought some clothes. You see, from the time of my research years, I was seldom out of a corduroy suit. I had two of them, both brown. You didn’t have to iron them. Corduroy could be rumpled and baggy, and it was fine. I could get one of them cleaned while I was wearing the other one. Without thinking, I wore those suits to television interviews after Roots came out. I seldom saw myself on television because I was there live, not looking at myself, or, if it was a taped show, I would generally be off somewhere else when it ran. But friends of mine would comment to me, “Alex, you just look shabby.” What really turned me around, though, was my day at Harvard. I was photographed walking out of a building with a friend. There he was, looking as dapper as anything you ever saw, and there I was, alongside him, looking as rumpled as anything you ever saw. When I came back to Los Angeles, I told my staff I needed some suits. When the word was dropped, with my new-won status as being “wealthy,” I didn’t even get a chance to go to the men’s store. Instead, someone telephoned one of those fancy haberdashers in Beverly Hills, and they arrived one day with a rack of suits. I remember coming in from an interview and there was a line of suits hung up in the living room for my inspection. I looked at the suits, and they were pretty suits, and bought six of them at one time. I never dreamed I would ever do such a thing. I remember, however, that I had to make a decision rather quickly. In the process, I never asked anybody how much they cost. So I really didn’t know. I just sort of thought in my head, “Well, they probably cost like suits I bought before, maybe $125 or something like that.” So I could afford, I thought, to buy six suits at that price. I just about fell over backwards when I received the bill. The suits had cost $400 to $500 apiece. I gave flat, absolute, direct orders, which I seldom ever do, to the people who worked with me, that I never wanted to hear the name of that store again. I was extremely uncomfortable wearing stuff that cost that much. As for my home, it’s rented. I don’t want to buy a home until I know when or if I’m going to settle down some place. The real question is whether I’ll settle down. I tend to be a nomad. In my family, I’m the “Chicken George.”
Elliot: Finally, I recently read that you donated a great deal of money to establish a special foundation to fund research in the area of African studies. Can you say something about the foundation?
Haley: Yes. The Foundation is a reflection of the responsibility I feel as a result of the success of Roots. I very much want to do something constructive with the profits from the book. I have no desire whatsoever to own a yacht, or a mansion, or a limousine, or anything else like that. I’m just not interested in those things. Instead, I’ve established the Alex Haley Roots Foundation. It only bears my name because of the shoe company which has a similar name. Basically, the Foundation is an outgrowth of my desire to put into practice what I believe. I think it’s vitally important that black people, particularly those in positions of responsibility, do what they can to help others who aren’t quite as fortunate. As a result, I’ve set into motion this Foundation. It’s arranged so I can donate the legal maximum to insure its continued operation. I was fortunate to secure the assistance of my friend, Mr. James Dyer, to head the Foundation. Mr. Dyer, who is a Harvard graduate, worked previously for both the Urban League and the Carnegie Corporation. With the blessings of the Carnegie Corporation, he became Director of the Alex Haley Roots Foundation, which is headquartered in New York, and which began operation in October, 1977. The purposes of the Foundation are still evolving. However, we hope to provide scholarships for post-graduate students who are working in the thematic area which encompasses Roots. In addition, we would like to help disseminate course materials at the primary and secondary levels, on a national basis, dealing with solid information concerning black history. Finally, we want to work in connection with Africa, and, in particular, with The Gambia, to help build bridges between black Africans and black people in this country. As you can see, we have an ambitious agenda before us.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It appeared within Literary Voices #1 by Jeffrey M. Elliot by Borgo Press. © 1980 Jeffrey M. Elliot. © 2011 Wildside Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.)