(Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace is an interview—drawn in part from Haley’s conversations with students during his visit in Vicksburg in 1989 that was published in the Fall 2008 Edition of Southern Cultures.)
Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and GraceAlex Haley With William R. Ferris • Southern Cultures 14.3 (2008)
Alex Haley’s legacy is forever tied to his legendary works—The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family, two of the most influential books on the black experience in the twentieth century. When his Autobiography of Malcolm X appeared in 1964, it transformed America’s understanding of black life and culture. The book moved readers, just as Richard Wright’s Native Son did when it was first published in 1940. Twenty-four years apart, Haley and Wright each parted the veil of race in America and exposed, with unvarnished clarity, angry black rage. Haley’s work on Malcolm X quickly became essential reading in the 1960s for students in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1976—twelve years after The Autobiography of Malcolm X—the release of Alex Haley’s book and television miniseries Roots marked a historic moment in publishing and media history. One hundred and thirty million Americans watched the miniseries over eight nights, and the book sold six million copies during its first year of publication. The Roots television series featured LeVar Burton (Kunta Kinte), Leslie Uggams (Kizzy), and Ben Vereen (Chicken George), as well as a musical score by Quincy Jones. The series won nine Emmys and a Peabody, and the book won the Pulitzer Prize.
Alex Haley’s two books reflect the Janus-faced, complex person who created them. Haley is completely absent from the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. With consummate skill, he shapes his interviews with Malcolm X into a powerful, first-person narrative driven by the voice of the speaker. Roots, in contrast, wraps its story around Haley’s own voice and uses his personal life as its anchor. Haley’s story becomes everyman’s story and achieves a rare universality in which the viewer reflects, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
During the sixties and seventies, I felt a special kinship with Alex Haley, and in the eighties he called and invited me to spend a weekend with him on his beautiful farm in Norris, Tennessee. Alex hosted my family and friends from throughout the country for three days of conversation, music, and meals. My brother Grey Ferris and his wife Jann were among the guests that Alex hosted. During the weekend, Grey spoke with Alex about his effort to consolidate county and city schools in our home of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grey explained that he felt their recently completed consolidation would prevent the creation of a predominantly black city and white county school system. The process had been difficult, and Grey invited Alex to visit Vicksburg and spend time with teachers and students who were part of this change. Alex graciously accepted. His coming to Vicksburg in 1989 was a major event for the city and assured that the school consolidation was successful.
In 1990, Alex was a featured speaker on our Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s historic “College on the Mississippi” Delta Queen trip. He was joined by Mose Allison, Eli Evans, Shelby Foote, B.B. King, and Jeff MacNelly, all of whom spoke or performed during the week-long trip from Memphis to New Orleans. During his final talk, Alex related the story of “Amazing Grace” and explained that the hymn was inspired by the suffering of slaves crossing the Atlantic. He said, “One of every four enslaved Africans died on the slave ships. Their shrieks became part of the wind.” At the end of Alex’s talk, Roy Yost, a waiter on the Delta Queen, stepped forward and led the passengers in singing the hymn. There were tears in every eye when we stopped singing.
In 1992, the Center co-sponsored an international symposium on black expatriates at the Sorbonne in Paris, where I learned that Alex had died. Several days later, I sat in the pew of a large black church in Memphis as Mayor Willie Herenton, Lamar Alexander, and many others spoke eloquently about the loss of their friend Alex Haley. After the ceremony, I drove in a long, slow processional through the streets of Memphis and up the highways to Alex’s birthplace in Henning, Tennessee. White and black residents lined the roadside with their hats in their hands to pay final respects to a man whose life touched them in deep and lasting ways.
In his “Foreword” to our Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Alex describes the region’s people whom he loved so deeply. “Can you remember those southern elder men who ‘jes’ set’ in their favored chair or bench for hours, every day—and a year later they could tell you at about what time of day someone’s dog had trotted by? And the counterpart elderly ladies, their hands deeply wrinkled from decades of quilting, canning, washing collective tons of clothing in black cast-iron pots. . . . These southern ancestors, black and white, have always struck me as the Foundation Timbers of our South, and I think that we who were reared and raised by them, and amongst them, are blessed that we were.”
Alex Haley was, in his own words, one of the “Foundation Timbers of the American South.” In this interview—drawn in part from his conversations with students during his visit in Vicksburg—Alex affirms his love for the region and his sensitivity to its people.
—William R. Ferris
IN ALEX HALEY’S WORDS . . .
Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace
I was five when my grandfather was sick. Grandpa and Grandma’s bedroom had a screened window, and outside was a thick matted growth of honeysuckle vines. Sometimes after Grandpa got sick, I used to go down and get up under the honeysuckle vines, right by the window, the base of the window at their bedroom. And I’d have fantasies. I would think about how different the vines looked underneath than on top. The vines underneath were black and cracking and just drab, you know, didn’t have any attractive look at all, but out front they were just gorgeous. I would reflect upon that: how something so pretty would have such an unattractive underside. And then, because I was crouched down under them, I saw hummingbirds come, whirring iridescent wings, and just hang in the air and run their bill in the crystal of those flowers. I had the kind of feeling of peeping, of being somewhere I shouldn’t have been. But then it was apparent to me that I had the magnet of Grandpa in the room sick. And then I began to, by extension, I guess, fantasize that the hummingbirds were little angels coming to watch over Grandpa because he was very sick.
I had—but I was not supposed to have on Sunday—my inevitable slingshot. And I saw this little hummingbird come up over the honeysuckle and hover the way they can do, their wings supporting. I just almost by reflex went in my back pocket, pulled out my slingshot, ding, never in the world expecting to actually hit the hummingbird. But to my absolute horror I saw that hummingbird drop, and I rushed over there and, bless my soul, there it was, with a big drop of blood dropping down on the beak. I just had this awful feeling: I had just shot an angel watching my Grandpa. I went, scooped it up, and went flying across the back yard into the pasture, and we had a plot of ground sort of behind the barn covered with corrugated tin that was soft earth, spongy earth, where we had the earthworms for fishing.
I scooped down and got enough dirt out to make a little grave, and I put the hummingbird in, packed the earth over him. Grandma’s big persimmon tree was there, and I got a big green persimmon leaf, put it over the grave. And for the next, at least a week, I was convinced that I had killed a hummingbird angel that was looking out over Grandpa. And to say I felt badly is to understate it. I know that people were saying, “What’s a matter with you, Boy? You’re acting funny.” I just couldn’t help it, because I had done that horrible thing.
From that day to this I have had a certain reverence for hummingbirds, and I haven’t shot—I don’t go hunting—I wouldn’t shoot anything for the world. I just think that to be something that I could not deal with: just going up and killing something because I had a gun and I could shoot it down.
When I was a boy in Henning, Tennessee, I went to a little church—New Hope C.M.E.—which at that time meant “Colored Methodist Episcopal.” We were first “colored.” And then we became “negro.” At that time, if someone called you “black,” you had to fight. Now people talk about this “African American,” and it’s just semantics.
On Sunday, after having been to our church, always about twilight, about six to eight little boys, aged nine to twelve, would go down behind the white Baptist church. We would go quietly and sit there, and we would be almost humble, with our hands folded as the white people going to the evening service would pass on a path not far away. They would glance over to see us, and they knew most of us, knew who our parents were, and I’m sure that they always thought we were sitting there just being deferential and very respectful because they were white people going to church. The truth of the matter was we would gather there every evening before the evening service just to appreciate how pitiful their singing was.
There were legends around. I grew up at a time when the greatest internal migration any nation ever knew started to take shape: young people leaving the South, many of them black, maybe most of them, and going north. The saying floating around was, “Go north and do good.” The image—the illusion, really—was that the North was socially fantastic, there was work, all sorts of things.
Pete Goss [a Henning resident] was a strong young man, and Pete left and went north. The next word always expected was when did he write his mother? The community would quickly know, because a mother would boast that her child had written. Once they got a card—usually from a child who was hardly literate—then the next thing the community waited to hear was when had he sent his mother some money. If things went well, the boy would get a job, and then he would save up, send his mother five dollars, which she would announce everywhere.
Pete didn’t. No word from Pete, at all. Miss Fanny [his mother] was just so embarrassed. Finally, word kind of got around that some other people in Chicago had seen him, and the community got really sort of embarrassed that he had done so badly for his mother. In time, word came back to Henning that, miracle of miracles, Pete Goss had gotten a job as a waiter on an ic [Illinois Central] line train. Now to us, the greatest train that ever rode the rails was the Panama Limited. It went from Chicago to New Orleans and back. It would come through Henning in the evening, and people would go and stand up on the highway and look up at the tracks, and here it would come. There would be this Cyclops eye and then the whistle, down around Millikan’s Den, and the sound of the whistle would just hang in the air. And pretty soon would come this nexus of light and swhew. It went through, and the most colorful thing that you could see was the dining car and these little square tables. Green felt on them, white table cloth, crystal, silver, shining. White people sitting, holding a drink or fork or something, and the black waiters almost regal with these trays and a thing over their arms. To us, it was just like something from Mars that came through every night, and so when the word came that Pete had gotten such a job, we felt like we had a star. He was on another line—it went another way—but we thought maybe one day he might get on the Panama Limited, and then wouldn’t that be something. We could stand. We could wave at Pete as he went by.
Nearly fifteen years passed since Pete left Henning when his mother got a card that she flew around town showing. He was going to come to visit. One day, this morning train stopped, and a man got off. Henning was like every little town, where there was observation, people were always looking, you know. The old men sitting on the benches playing checkers—people just saw. Everybody saw it. This man got off dressed in a homburg hat, a black man, brown-skinned as he was, carrying a very elegant Gladstone bag. He had on the kind of shoes preachers wear with that white piping around the edge. He walked through town. He looked neither right nor left. He went up the road, and people were looking out from behind curtains, but nobody wanted to let him know they were really watching. When he got up to where his mother was—this little boy had run ahead and told the mother he was coming—she came out. He looked so elegant that nobody knew really how to act.
Miss Fanny told the story later. When he came in, she said, he took his hat off, and he hung it up on a nail on the door. It was only a four room house where he had been raised, along with his seven sisters and brothers. He sat down, and she didn’t know what to say to him. It wasn’t the boy who left home. It was very much an effort to say anything. Finally, Sister Fanny just was at the end of her wits and said, “Would you care for some coffee, some tea?”
And he rejoiced. He said, “I’d like a cup of tea.”
Sister Fanny sprang up and ran into the kitchen. There was a curtain that ran between the living room and the kitchen, and she ran in there to stoke up the fire and put the water on and make some tea. At least this gave her something to do, and it gave her a little relief, because this son of hers in there was nobody she knew. She was, she said, reaching up in the cupboard, reaching for the tea, when she sensed something behind her. She turned, and there he was.
He had taken his coat off, and he was standing in the doorway. The curtains were kind of draped over his shoulders, and she realized what a big man he was—a big, powerful man, standing there. He filled the doorway. He was strong and had on these garters, on his sleeves. She said his face frightened her because of the intense hatred on it, but he wasn’t looking at her; he was looking at the stove. This was the stove that had cooked the meals for him and his seven brothers and sisters from the time they were little babies, and the stove was kind of beat up. One leg was gone and propped up with some stove wood, and the old pipes were held up by bailing wire. It was kind of awry—an old stove—and it had done all this work.
There was almost a malevolent hatred on his face. She didn’t know what to make of it, standing there with the tea in her hand. She watched him walk, just step into the kitchen, one big step, and he bent down and put his hands under this stove and wrenched it up from the floor—linoleum floor, now with holes in it. She just flattened back against the wall, scared to death. He wrenched this stove so that it broke loose from the pipes and soot came down. She heard some steam, because the water in the kettle had jostled out into the fire. Her son wrested this stove up, held it up with fire in it, and he stepped toward the screen door—it was rusted—leading to the back porch. Somehow by strength, he got that stove turned through the back door and out on the back porch, and he threw it as far as he could throw it. The stove hit the ground and split across the top. The kettle water hit the hot embers.
Miss Fanny said she just was terrified. What do you do in a case like this?
He kind of adjusted himself—it was a great exertion as strong as he was. Then, he turned and walked back into the living room. She just sort of followed to see what would happen. He put his coat back on and his homburg hat, and he said, “I’ll be back.” She went to the window and looked out the curtains like everybody else had looked and saw him going up the road, headed back downtown.
Now, Spunk Johnson worked—and had worked for a long time—as a sort of general assistant and delivery man for Mr. Anthony, who owned the Henning hardware downtown. Spunk said that he was in the back, kind of messing around, when he heard the front door open and heard Mr. Anthony, who was white, speak in a way that he had heard Mr. Anthony speak when he didn’t quite know what was happening or when something was happening that made him a little uncomfortable.
Mr. Anthony said, “Can I help you?”
Then Spunk heard the voice, he knew, of this new Pete who had come home after fifteen years: “I’d like to see a cook stove.”
“Well, back this way.”
Now Spunk maneuvered closer to look out between some packing cases, and they got to where, in fact, Mr. Anthony had three stoves, mounted, set up. Mr. Anthony gathered himself, and then he said, “Well, this is the kind of stove that your people usually buy, and it’s thirty-two dollars.”
Then he heard Pete say, “I want the best you’ve got.”
Mr. Anthony moved over to indeed the best and said, “That’s this one. It has a warming-up, and it has a tank, a water tank. It holds ten gallons. This one. But this one,” he said, “is sixty dollars.”
“I’ll take it.” Pete pulled out his wallet, and it was the first time Spunk had ever seen anybody count out six ten-dollar bills. Pete handed them to Mr. Anthony.
Mr. Anthony had to gather himself, because Mr. Anthony hadn’t seen six ten-dollar bills either. “You’ll need some pipe to set it up, but I’ll throw it in.”
And then Pete said, “I wonder if I could have this delivered right away to my mother and installed.”
Mr. Anthony said quickly, “Of course.” And now he turned. “Spunk!”
Spunk ran back to the loading dock to appear that he’d been out there, and now he came in. “Yes, sir,” Spunk said. When he walked in, he found himself looking at Mr. Anthony and Pete Goss, with whom he used to go to school. And Spunk felt he ought to say something, some camaraderie or something, and so he said, “Look like you’ve been doing well.”
“I’d appreciate you installing the stove.”
Spunk said, “I’ll do it.”
Spunk put the stove on a wagon drawn by a horse. Pete, meanwhile, had gone up to the house and told his mother that he was going to have to catch another train, going away to Memphis and back to Chicago. He left the very day he arrived, before the stove came. People along “the lane,” as they called it, where the black people lived, began to filter up. At first, it was the Golden Aid Society. They would go sit with the sick, or they’d go do things. They’d use that to get anywhere to peep, and here the Golden Aid Society went up to pray with her. What they wanted was to see the new stove, and they inspected it inside and out, because no one in the whole black community had such a stove as that. Saturday, the word had spread all over, and now the country people came to town, and little lots of people began to go from downtown, up the sidewalk, cross the pasture, and over to Miss Fanny’s little old four-room house that had been there for the longest kind of time.
Somehow people lost interest in the new stove. Sister Fanny was in the house behind the curtains, watching all those people coming up to her house, people instead fascinated with the old stove. They would go in the back yard, and there it was, lying, ashes trickled out, cracked completely across the top.
“Oh, he sure throwed it, didn’t he?” People would just look at it and make remarks. “That boy sure done good by his mamma.” Nobody had ever done anything like that, to come back and buy a brand new stove and give it to his mother in that manner.
The old stove stayed there, and I grew up. It stayed there from that time, the 1920s, and people went to see the old stove for the next two decades until finally in 1940 there was talk around town. Something funny was happening. Japan was buying all kind of scrap iron, and they began to have a U. S. scrap iron drive. People who had any scrap iron would take it to the blacksmith shop and a mounting pile of scrap iron was growing back there. One day Mr. Willie James Sims, who was all over town, who had been appointed sort of as the black-side-of-town collector of scrap iron, dropped by to see Sister Fanny. He spoke about the weather, seemed to be nice, and Sister Fanny said, “I know what you’re coming to. You want to get to that old stove.”
“Well, if you didn’t have any use for it, it would help this country.”
Sister Fanny kept rocking. “Well, if you feel like it’d do any good, you go ahead and take it.”
Willie James Sims thanked her and went with his sons, George and Arthur, loaded that old stove onto the truck and took it down to the scrap iron pile.
One time, Arthur, Willie James Sims’s oldest son, was trying to go to Tennessee State in Nashville, really desperately trying to get in there. He needed fifty dollars. Willie James went to Dr. Ford and asked him to help. Dr. Ford was said to be the wealthiest man in town, which wasn’t saying a whole lot, and Dr. Ford told him he didn’t think that boy was trying to go to college. Willie James harbored that. And then when World War II came along, all of a sudden the tenor of the whole community began to change. Because in this world of five-dollar-a-week maids, there now came such a thing as defense plants, which were paying people thirty-five dollars a week.
It’s sort of legend. Dr. Ford was such a powerful man that nobody would ever think of crossing him, and the story was that Dr. Ford got up one morning and went, following the traditional pattern of things, and sat down at the table for breakfast, and the table was set as always. Dr. Ford after a while began to think, well, where was his paper lying? So he went and got his own paper, at the front porch, sat down, and he was reading the paper and became engrossed. It was a while before he realized he didn’t smell coffee, and it went on for a time, before he finally realized that Willie James was not in the kitchen that he was in for the last fifteen years. And Dr. Ford finally went out and saw some guy going along the sidewalk and asked him to go find out if Willie James had been sick. The fact of the matter was that Willie James had gone away to New York, that he’d left that night before and got a job at someplace called Rome, New York. And it was legendary how he left Dr. Ford sitting where he was.
One of the fascinating things is, if you live in a city, you have to really go do something to have people pay you attention, you know, to be somebody that’s noticed. But in a small town you don’t have to do all that. You can be the lady who cooks the best peach pie. You can be the strongest man in town, the tallest boy, or whatever. And you are somebody on that account.
My teachers would always tell my parents that I was a daydreamer, which was very true. I used to love to get a seat by the window where I could look at the clouds and think “that cloud looks like a kangaroo” or something like that. As a young sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard—and I’m going to tell you exactly why I am a writer this day—I had never thought about writing. It would never have crossed my mind. At that time, if you were black, you automatically went into what was called a steward department. That meant you would make up beds and shine shoes, do things like that, and when you advanced, you would become a cook or a steward. Well, I became a cook. I was on a ship that would go out for thirty days, thirty-one days, and patrol, and there was nothing to do in the evenings.
I began to write letters to my father’s students—he was a teacher—and I was writing dramatic accounts of how adventurous it was. It really wasn’t all that dramatic. I was making it sound like more than it was. And they would answer me, and sailors saw that I wrote more mail and received more mail than anybody on the ship. So sailors, being sailors, began to ask me if I would help them write letters to their girls, and I began to do that. I would write love letters for my shipmates. They began to do so well with these letters they began to pay me a dollar a letter, and that was literally the reason, as best I can recall, that gave me the first thought I ever had in this world, that maybe there might be something for me in trying to write. That was how I began trying to write for magazines, and how I began to collect rejection slips, as you will if you write for a living. That was how I stayed on in the service. I loved going to sea. I still go to sea to write. That was how eventually I became a writer.
Principally, I wrote for the Reader’s Digest and then I did interviews for Playboy, those two contrasting magazines, and one of the interviews was with Malcolm X. That led to writing my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I probably was—I like to think—a conduit, which saw the Malcolm book come into being. I’m particularly glad that the book is in existence, because, otherwise, now twenty-some years after Malcolm’s death, his life without that book would be a mass of gratuitous tales, told by people who were of varying degrees of closeness to him. I’ve had people come up to me—grown men, who would seem to have no reason at all to be other than responsible—say something like, “Yeah, Man, I used to go to school with Red in Boston.” But, actually, Malcolm never went to school in Massachusetts. You hear these things, and you realize these people really mean these things; they believe that. So the book is there, in effect out of his mouth, put down by a man in an order where it became a very readable book. But somehow if there hadn’t been the book, it would just be like what happens with many figures: a confetti of stories. So I feel that one of the more important things I have been blessed to do in my life is to write that book, because Malcolm was a symbol of a lot of things.
Then I feel obviously Roots was a meant-to-be. I’m honored to have done it, to have been able, and I guess not only to have been able but to have had the combination of things that happened. It wasn’t just things I did. I didn’t openly at the age of twelve say I shall go forth and become a writer. I didn’t do any such thing. But things happen. With both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, I hear people say—and sometimes I read—even Olympian things about the books and what they contribute, what they represent, what they mean. My instincts draw away from saying yeah, because I wrote the books. You know, I’m not bashful about that kind of thing, but just sort of reluctant to agree with the more generous things. I feel I wrote hard, I wrote well as I could, and I wrote as sincerely as I could in both cases—two different types of books—and I’m grateful, needless to say, that they both did well. Indeed, continue to do well.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965—and this is 1989—so we’re talking about twenty-four years. My God, twenty-four years. This morning, when we were down having breakfast, a young man was sitting at the table across from us. I went up for second helpings, and he came up to tell me how much The Autobiography of Malcolm X had influenced him twenty-some years ago, which is moving. Roots, of course, generates that. People just come up and start talking—every race, every whatever.
In the case of Roots, particularly, I feel the thing of having been the conduit. When I grew up, Henning was a little town, at the time about 470 people. It was a town where my grandmother raised me, as we say in the South. My grandfather died when I was five, and my grandmother, who was just devastated, invited afterwards all her sisters to come and visit with her the next summer. She had five sisters, and with my grandmother made six. They came to visit, and that summer when I was six, every evening across the summer after the supper meal, they would go out on the front porch. The whole front porch was surrounded by big, billowing honeysuckle vines, and over the vines were lightning bugs, flickering on and off. My grandmother and her sisters would get in rocking chairs and would just rock. And they would run their hands down into their apron pockets and come up with Kansas Sweet Garret snuff, load up their lower lips, and start taking shots out over the honeysuckle vines. The champion—I remember so well—was my great-aunt Liz from Oklahoma. Aunt Liz could drop a lightning bug at four yards.
They would talk there on the front porch night after night after night about the story of the family. They didn’t tell it so much in the form of a story; they just told it because it had been passed down. Their grandfather was a man named Chicken George. And his mother was Miss Kizzy, and her father was an African. I grew up hearing those stories so much that they just became a part of me. It was a little town, where all children went to Sunday school, and in Sunday school we would study the Biblical parables. I guess by the time I was about eleven years old, my head in story terms was a jumble of David and Goliath, Chicken George, Miss Kizzy, and Moses. It was all mixed up in there—Grandma, my great-aunts, sitting on the front porch talking—and I had not the faintest idea of the importance of what they were talking about or what it later would be. But it was part of culture, and there is this saying, very true, in fact: the people who make culture do not realize they’re making culture. They don’t. They never realize it. They’re just doing whatever they do.
I often feel when I look back there were specific steps along the way, each of which seemed at the time to have been accidental. But when I put them all together they do seem to have had a pattern: how I stumbled into exposure to a lot of books and the want to read books, how I got the idea that, well, somebody wrote these books, maybe someday I could write a book. It wasn’t thought of any in a serious way, just kind of speculation. When it did happen that I was writing books, then I stumbled again into that particular topic. So I feel it has all been meant to be. I could make, I think, a very good case of divine intent, and I really mean that, when I look back over the way this happened, the way that happened, and so forth—it’s somehow in that area of how / happened, why I happened to be writing.
There was nothing that gave me bigger happiness about Roots than when people would say, “Well, genealogy is not something for you blacks to write about. That’s for white writers.” I just got sick of hearing that so much, and I began to think, just for myself, “I don’t care who it is. He or she is going to have to go a long way to do a better, harder-working job than I on this book.” Then when Roots did come out, one of the things that gave me the biggest pleasure was when the New York Times announced that Roots was the greatest seller in one year of any book in U. S. publishing history. That just gave me every kind of thrill, because I was: 1) black and 2) from the South. And we are the people whom others like to imply are not as able as they. Roots was one of those things that is—I used to shy away from the word, but now legitimately it is—a phenomenon, a book that went literally around the world, in all these languages, and the film was made and all.
My grandmother—these are the people who have dreams for you, who have been through things that you’ll never go through. And it has nothing to do with color. They lived in another time—hard, you know. These are people who picked cotton often times, who washed clothes, who did all sorts of things. And they have ambitions for you maybe you don’t have for yourself. Right here in this state of Mississippi is one of the loveliest stories of a little girl. When she was born, her mother had thought she couldn’t have children because she’d been married ten years—but no children. And when the girl was born, the mother put her up beside a crank Victrola and played Caruso records and read the Bible when the records weren’t playing.
I asked the mother later, “Did you want her to sing?”
She said, “No, it was all I had to work with.”
She put that girl on a stool beside her in a church choir, and the girl began to sing around town. She became well known in town. When she was twelve, when people would die, they’d put her up over the casket, and she’d sing “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” People would scream and make her stop—it was so emotional. Eventually, that girl went on, and I talked to her teacher at the Metropolitan Opera. When that girl was in Juilliard, her teacher told me, “I had four at the time come through. And I’d have them sing a little. And,” she said, “I would never look at them. I would just hold my head down and close my eyes. One afternoon just one voice came, and I wasn’t looking, but I heard what was like a flower that opened its petals and then closed them. I knew I had to keep those petals open.” That girl was Leontyne Price.
I think in a lot of areas an almost mystic thing happened, given the backdrop. When I was a boy there was pretty strict segregation, and it was so much the historic custom that really relatively few people even questioned it. That’s the way it was. Then came the 1960s and their challenges of the system. There was a lot of ugly stuff, really ugly, overt stuff, but then somehow it seemed that for the most part there came a kind of a truce, within which there seemed to be a decision: well, let’s just do it, just change society’s practices.
And they have changed, largely. The University of Mississippi, of Georgia, of Alabama, of Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and no doubt some others I haven’t thought of—what would it have been twenty years ago, certainly thirty years ago? There wouldn’t have been a single black person on their football team. Not one. Now it looks on each of their gridirons like an naacp convention. I cheer it on the one hand, and I am concerned about it on another hand. Because it’s not real; it’s not the reality of what this society is about. If you would track every player on that team for five years after college, you’d come up with some pretty shocking things for most of them.
So there’s a kind of an illusion at work. You can see kids who are going around and they are, in their minds, Bo Jackson or their heroes. There’s nothing wrong with that, except their odds. I believe Arthur Ashe was speaking not too, too long ago, and he told a group that their odds really were better to be able to become a neurosurgeon than to become a pro athlete. It’s probably true.
It really bemuses me, having grown up in Henning, to go and sit and look at all these little children—kindergarten through third or fourth grade, not to mention high schoolers later on. But, to me, most impressive was the little children—black and white—seated randomly together, and it seemed to me a symbol of the future. That is the way, precisely, that all the children will get the best of whatever a school can offer them. And it is a way that they can grow up not shackled mentally by the things that have shackled both races up until now: the mistrust, the thrusting each other out of consideration.
I innately love the South. I really, truly think it’s the best place in this country to live. I like the people. The people are kinder, certainly better raised than most of the people I’ve met from other parts of the country. We are. And it’s not generally mechanized, industrialized, technological—people’s hands are doing things. If you look at the hands of old ladies, they’ll tell you more about their life than a little bit. It’s said that women’s hands, in particular, show their age and what their life has been like more than anything else about them. And I just feel the South is a place of hands, it’s a place of touch, of caress, of less slapping and knocking people down. It’s a softer, sweeter culture, on the whole. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but in the South. I love how you go around here and people know how to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” and people know how to speak, to be kind, and to smile. It’s not that way in other parts of the country. They’re fine to visit. But this is home.
Do you know the story of “Amazing Grace”? A slave-ship captain wrote that. He spent fourteen years on different slave ships. He had been born in 1725. His mother was a deeply religious, frail lady. She raised him to be religious, and she died when he was seven. His father was a sea captain—robust, tough—and the father brought the boy onto a ship, told the crew to make a man of him. They nearly killed him. He finally met a young lady and wanted to marry, and the only way he could get enough money to marry was to leave the Mediterranean fleet and to go into the slave trade, where you got a higher pay. That’s how he went into the slave trade. He said he would hear sounds at sea, the wailing from the hold that would make him think they were some kind of eerie hymns. And he wanted to write hymns. It was really a story.
I guess it’s one of the things that drew Bill Ferris and me together as friends so much—our shared feeling of the richness of the southern culture and the heritage and the interdependence of black and white, really. I was talking to [country singer and songwriter] Tom T. Hall and [author, Baptist minister, and Civil Rights activist] Will Campbell, and, you know, many, many a white youngster was suckled by a black surrogate mother. That was just part of the interaction back in the days when this house was built. And it has made for a southern culture that we are only now starting to try and document. It’s just joyous to see this culture, which we were a part of. It’s growing up, it’s becoming mature now, and it’s beautiful. ~ Alex Haley.
(Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the Fall 2008 Edition of Southern Cultures and then published again in The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists by William R. Ferris in 2013. © 2008 University of North Carolina Press. © 2013 William Ferris. All Rights Reserved.)