(For the January 1, 1982 issue of These Times Magazine, Betty Kossick, a free-lance writer and published author, interviewed Alex Haley. The title that she assigned to the interview was Alex Haley’s Taproot.)
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots is not ashamed to call Jesus Lord.
In the past few years, genealogical research has risen to an unprecedented level worldwide. One man, the American writer Alex Haley, is largely responsible for this mass urgency to confirm family origins.
He led the way by writing Roots, the all-time best-seller in United States publishing history. As a result he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Roots has been translated into thirty-eight languages. It met a social need and influenced thinking around the world.
“Thinking over a lot of letters I’ve received from people who expressed their reaction to the book, I would say Roots met a spiritual need, too,” Haley said. “I know that for me writing Roots was much less a literary experience than a spiritual experience. That’s for sure!”
Such an observation leads one to wonder about Haley’s religious roots. In almost every critique concerning him, he is described as a decent, kind, loving man. To what does he attribute this segment of his character? Which people influenced him to develop a caring philosophy about others?
Haley is quick to affirm he is not ashamed to call Jesus Lord. “Christianity is a base in my life. However, it is the sort of thing I feel quietly, privately, rather deeply about. Ever since I can remember, I have been involved in the church, as a matter of course.” Though Haley has many lateral roots, it is obvious his taproot is Jesus.
Haley developed his Christian mores in a small town in the Bible belt of the South, with a half-black, half-white population. “At the time I grew up, almost everything involved, one way or another, an active role in the church or the church’s commentary on it, so that your life was peripherally attended by how the church regarded whatever you did. Because of this, Christianity was imprinted on my life and the life of virtually everyone who grew up there.
“The church played an integral role in the community. All of the people were functionaries in my life, as a Christian. At home, of course, it was more repetitive, with reminders from Grandma to study the Bible.” Haley’s maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, was the pivotal person who developed in him an understanding of his roots, ancestral and Christian.
Most of the family lineage stories he had heard told and retold each summer on his grandmother’s front porch during family reunions. The stories never varied and always pointed back to the “old timey” slavery days and “the African Kintay,” an ancestor Haley often confused with the Bible stories he studied about.
Haley said little towns, such as his hometown of Henning, Tennessee, are comparable to the extended African family he found when researching. The people in them are interactive. “Any adult will chasten a child as quickly as the parents. It is a commonplace thing.” In Haley’s case, living in a three-generation home made such interaction a necessity to everyday living.
From his earliest memory Haley recalls what he terms as “church drama.” “Is there anything more dramatic than a church service?” Haley inquires. The teachers, as role models, influenced him with stories of Bible characters. Then the preacher reiterated the drama from the pulpit. And the music magnified the drama even further. The pinnacle point of the entire church service was the mourners’ bench. “The people who sat there were agonizing over their sins,” Haley explained.
Haley also remembers the collection time as dramatic, too. “Uncle Todd Sims would always call ‘to make it even,’ when the collection was counted. In those days, the collection usually amounted to six or seven dollars. If the offering came to say, $6.14, he would say, ‘Now, let’s round it out to seven dollars.’ So the drama would begin, with various ones offering three cents, or two cents or whatever until the amount was reached. As I look back on it, everybody in town was poor. But there is something psychologically rewarding about giving when you are poor.
“Church services were a balm to us,” Haley said. “It was ecstasy to attend church services. We could forget our troubles and repose in the strength of the Lord. We felt as blessed as could be.” These memories are important to Haley. One of his favorite hymns is “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” because “the theme of it is, of course, if He cares for the little sparrow, how much more He cares for us.”
Haley is confident his personality and character have been formed by being reared in a Christian home, church, and community. “I feel we are all results of that to which we have been exposed. I’m very taken with the fact we all, no matter who we are, are born as little infants who don’t know anything and respond to stimuli in the same manner.
“If something pleases us, we coo and smile. If something displeases us, we wrinkle up our little foreheads and cry and frown. And from that tender point onward sundry influences are dropped on us by family, playmates, and the larger community until we are the personalities we are.”
Though Haley said there are still people who live up to the simple Christian virtues, he feels Christianity needs to be more Christian to exemplify Jesus’ life. He accuses the churches of not doing their part. “I think the poignant thing is that many people among us are reared in communities where the influence is so negative that maybe by the time they are 10 years old they are almost beyond salvage, in terms of what they might have been.”
Haley feels the churches and people claiming Christianity should be more active in their communities and more aware of the multitude of the world’s wrongs. “Chattel slavery and the Holocaust are examples of how we just sat back and watched, and we are doing it today. We pay such a high price in human society for our bigotry, our prejudice, our attitude of ‘down with them and up with us.’ There is no way to calculate the price we pay.”
Haley’s grandmother would probably say a loud Amen to Haley’s observations. The sense of family pride to respect their origins and respect others is one of the reasons she kept reopening the ancestors’ trunk. Family was very important to Haley’s upbringing.
A breakdown of the family is occurring partly because of the technological world we live in and the great changes that are taking place, Haley feels. “One of the great quotes of our time is, ‘The family that prays together stays together,’ and with the rising divorce rate, I doubt if there is much praying in most families,” Haley asserted. He feels there are few people who truly walk with God. “There is too much hiding behind Christianity, yet claiming to be a follower of Christ.”
Haley said, “I feel God’s presence with me every day. I am aware of His power and strength. If you have any doubt that there is a God, get a microscope and study the incredible architecture of the tiniest insect.
“Anyone has the right to believe whatever he wants,” Haley said. However, it does bother him, and he wonders how anyone can deny the existence of a heavenly Father. A favorite anecdote of Haley’s concerns a friend, a man who is sophisticated and extremely well educated, who gave Haley a long discourse on why there is no God.
“There was just no talking with him,” Haley shrugged. However, later the same week the friend conducted an interview using a tape recorder. When he played it for Haley, the tape was blank! Said Haley, “His first words were, ‘Oh, my Lord!’ I thought Uh-huh, maybe now my Jesus will come and help you. I’ll never forget it.”
Haley’s belief in the Christian way has remained as firm as it was in his grandmother’s home, where he was reared. He grew up with a profound sense of family pride, including the family of God. Those summer stories he heard on Grandma’s front porch, as he smelled honeysuckle and watched fireflies, led him to search. He found his Kinte roots across the ocean, in Africa. But as the apostle Paul wrote of Timothy, Haley found his spiritual roots at his grandmother’s knee. She saw to it that his Taproot grew in healthy soil.
(The above interview of Alex Haley by Betty Kossick is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the January 1, 1982 issue of These Times. © 1982 Pacific Press Publishing Association. All Rights Reserved.)