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92 Grove Street

Alex HaleyAlex Haley


By Andrea Blackstone

Some thoughts are very personal. Until now, my opinion about my family history has been one of them. I never liked talking about myself, and definitely not my bloodlines. Even when employers ask about my early years, I'm forced to skip over a chunk of my life—intentionally.

When I was a young girl, I recall being nearly crushed by an overzealous crowd. "He's in there!" someone screamed.

"Help!" I tearfully responded.

At first, no one heard me. My small body was lodged between adult body parts after a convoy of fans followed Uncle Alex from an event. My mother and I had been with him, too. Looking up, I couldn't spot her. Only able to catch glimpses of daylight, a dizzy spell made my head throb. A mounting, aggressive mob formed at a relative's door. They caused me to lose touch with my mom. One second I was following her. The next, my heart raced as I feared that no one would find me before something terrible happened. It became harder to stand. I felt barely able to breathe. That's when I started to panic and scream louder.

"Mom!" I yelled.

The pushing and shoving didn't stop. They wanted to see him, not me. I was just some random, scrawny kid wearing patent leather shoes. Who cared if I would've been crushed to death, or where my mother was?

My mother finally realized that I was missing. I felt a hand pull me behind the front door of my late Uncle Julius's townhouse in Landover, Maryland. My body turned sideways as I squeezed through a tiny opening. After the door slammed, fists pounded on it. Family time when Uncle Alex came to town was never normal. It was always chaotic and busy. To me, my uncle was a gregarious, easy-going guy who was my mom's half brother, not a celebrity who stirred up racial emotions in a number of readers and fans. I didn't care who loved or hated his books. The few times we got to see him, someone always seemed to lurk around the corner. I didn't like that—nor did I like that he had to stop to tend to pushy strangers.

Times haven't changed. Even then I loved books but disliked the book business. Curling up next to my grandmother, who read classics like Sounder to me, whenever she visited from West Virginia, was a treat. Her voice rose and fell as she brought each unknown character to life. After story time was over, a banana split was an occasional reward for being attentive. However, Zeona Haley was an educator with a notorious tough side.

My maternal grandmother was a strict disciplinarian who also happened to be an English professor. A tiny woman in stature, when she peered at anyone with her glasses hanging off of the edge of her nose, it felt like death was coming—instantly. She was always reading or critiquing something or someone. No one was ever brave enough to tell her that he or she had enough of studying, or that she'd overstepped her bounds. Her critical eye would prove useful to her stepson, well after he retired from the Coast Guard.

Second careers are typical of veterans who retire. Uncle Alex became a fixture in military history, not just in bookstores around the globe. But to many, maybe his author life seemed more exciting than his time serving our country. To us, writing was just his job that seemed to take away normalcy. My mother was extremely proud of him regardless of various new challenges that resulted from it. She beamed in public. In private, there were many less than happy moments.

I vividly recall listening to my late mother's phone calls, when she asked her brother when he would visit. He often explained that his schedule was so tight with speaking engagements and appearances, he wouldn't be able to fly to Annapolis. Gone were the days of a big brother attending pretend tea parties with his little sister. There was an overwhelming sadness in my mother's eyes after those phone calls. As my mother talked, I sometimes hovered in the kitchen hearing snippets of his personal highs and lows. Clearly, my mother was worried about Uncle Alex. I wanted to cling to her and tell her how much I loved her. Instead, I gulped and kept quiet. Telegrams cheered her up. So did autographed copies of his books, handwritten letters, and special news announcing when his miniseries would air on television. After it did, some of the same people who teased my mother, asking is her brother was still writing "that book," now suddenly wanted to be her good pal.

In my little world I had problems of my own. I coped with daily episodes of being bullied at school.

"Is your mother Kizzy?" classmates would ask, before shooting down the hall with laughter.

I wanted to be like everyone else but wasn't. Ironically, my mother was a fair-skinned woman with sharp features. She garnered various reactions when people discovered her relationship to her half brother. I felt like rolling my eyes.

"Aren't you Alex Haley's sister?" There were always variations of that question—at the grocery store, during low key gatherings with friends, in the teacher's lounge—nearly every day. In a patient voice mom explained exactly how she was related on their father's side like the story was stuck on repeat. I didn't think that was anyone's business, but we had no choice but to live our lives under a public microscope. We weren't rich. My father, also a veteran, scratched and saved to provide a middle class life for us. Many assumed that our family had more finances than we truly did. They associated success with finances. My uncle's career was not ours; I never understood why our lives were anything more than ordinary ones.

Reporters rushed to my mother's classroom in a nearby elementary school, shoving microphones and tape recorders in her face, when the Klan proclaimed they stole a plaque that paid homage to my uncle. What was she supposed to say? Responding the wrong way could have put all of our lives in jeopardy.

My father was a native Annapolitan. Imagine the irony of residing in the same place that marked the supposed end of Kunta Kinte's voyage. Too many people knew how to invade my mother's privacy. It seemed like every time Alex Haley would come for a visit, our family was pulled apart and inspected. Even now, there have been anonymous posters who commented online, remarking that my inspiration was a fraud, accusing him of making up everything. I inherited a substantial amount of one-of-a-kind mementos that affirm otherwise. I've learned not to argue. Nearly my whole life I've dealt with people either hating or trying to befriend me, based on the legacy of a man who began his writing career penning love letters for his fellow shipmates. Above his most noted accomplishments, I'm most impressed that my uncle's side hustle led to a field in journalism. Although he was a cook at one time, the Coast Guard created a special rating for him; he became the first Chief Journalist. It was a position that didn't even exist, and was created for him solely based on his writing ability. Additionally, in modern times, Uncle Alex was the first Coast Guardsman to reach the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Most African-American sailors held menial positions. So yes, perhaps anything really is possible.

I always aspired to become an attorney. After I was dismissed from a racist law school, I became extremely ill and was disabled for several years. Depression haunted me. Unable to cook, drive or do the most basic things, I was told that I would never be the same again. In my early twenties I was stuck with a sizable student loan debt and nothing to show for it. Doctor bills were piling high. My goal was to leave my hometown, then build a normal life while defending people in the greatest need. The grand plan disintegrated. I often cried for days. Although I had always been a small-framed person, my weight dropped to barely one-hundred pounds. I was sick of life being so hard, and sick of myself. One day I walked to the closet. I can't say what I was looking for. My hands began pulling random items out of a box. It became too exhausting to stand, so I sat on the floor. With tear-filled eyes, a rare family photo with me, my mother, and my uncle became a hope-filled memory.

"This is pretty good. Keep writing," he once suggested, before the picture was taken.

That day Uncle Alex looked over a story that I penned for a class in high school. He made it behind my mother's front door in peace. Remembering the time that he took interest in me inspired me to beg God to reveal my purpose.

"What am I supposed to do with my life now?" I asked, wiping tears clean with the back of my hand.

After sitting on the floor holding that picture, I began a journal. Taking that step evolved into writing my first manuscript entitled Vinegar Blues. My English degree didn't open doors that I would've hoped in my professional life. I knew that realistically I wouldn't ever return to law school because of the expense. God restored my health enough to earn an advanced degree with honors. It proved to be a character building experience more than a career booster.

Today, I'm a new parent who has penned four novels, and participated in four anthologies. The only way it seemed that I'd ever get a chance to write anything was to write what was selling around me. Before long, I learned how hard it was to get anything published. Books like Nympho, Sexxxfessions, Schemin': Confessions of a Gold Digger and Short Changed are ironic twists that introduce a host of societal outcasts. The pain that was engrained in my childhood made me relate to creating people who didn't fit in. I wanted people to laugh at them, not me, for a change.

When my book contract didn't get renewed, when my royalty check got stuck in a machine at UPS for four years, and when I feel like I'm crazy for yearning to write as if my life depends on me gripping a pen, I consider my Uncle Alex's plight. He lived on Grove Street, in Greenwich village, during some of his leanest writing years. He almost gave up but didn't. His journey inspires me to keep going just the way he advised. To me, my uncle was just a courageous man who happened to share stories with the world. 92 Grove Street was the place where he interviewed Malcolm X, while penning the autobiography. In his modest studio apartment there, steady attempts to build his career happened over countless conversations. Those were the tough years to which I can now relate to more personally.

In memory of his struggle, I decided to call this publication Grove Street. I hope that he would be proud of what I'm trying to do. I hope my mother is smiling in heaven, too. She wanted me to pen a book about her life with him. At the time, I just wasn't brave enough, after an angry literary agent deflated the hopes of an aspiring author.

My mother is not always listed as Uncle Alex's sibling. Thus, I am a little-known relative tucked behind memories of one man's family saga. I may not be a famous writer. A lot of people may never care to read the serious things that I have to say. That doesn't matter to me now though. It's never too late to do something. That's what this publication is all about. Let's celebrate each other, despite any genre, our diverse paths in life, or where we're from. Uncle Alex's motto sums up the rest. "Find the good—and praise it." ~ Andrea Blackstone.

Grove Street Magazine • Issues 1-4
Thankfulness and Faith Knowledge and Joy Mompreneurs The Spice Pages
Thankfulness and Faith Knowledge and Joy Mompreneurs The Spice Pages

Grove Street Magazine • Issues 5-8
The Black History Pages Honoring Women in Entertainment Non Profit Edition Book Clubs & Book Lovers
The Black History Pages Honoring Women in Entertainment Non Profit Edition Book Clubs & Book Lovers

Grove Street Magazine • Issues 9-11
Moving Forward Mind, Body, Spirit Behind The Scenes
Moving Forward Mind, Body, Spirit Behind The Scenes

Grove Street Magazine • Issues 12-14
Books Wine Jazz Political, Policy & Literary News Trailblazers & Social Change
Books, Wine, Jazz Political, Policy & Literary News Trailblazers & Social Change

Grove Street Magazine • Issues 15-17
New Beginnings Celebrating Education, The Arts & Entertainment Black History Salute To Changemakers
New Beginnings Celebrating Education & The Arts Black History Salute To Changemakers

Andrea Blackstone • Radio Interviews
We Be Swangin Radio Show
B. Swangin Webster  January 7, 2015
Special Guest: Andrea Blackstone
Possibilities Show
Dr. Adah Kennon  February 19, 2015
Special Guest: Andrea Blackstone

(These audios are © 2015 Sheba Enterprises. © 2015 WLVS Radio. All Rights Reserved.)

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