A Talk With Alex Haley

(A Talk With Alex Haley by Mel Watkins was originally published in the September 26, 1976 issue of The New York Times.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley says he may not have become an writer if his parents and grandparents had not given him a foot-thick slice from a California redwood as a gift 60 years ago.

The tree slice had small white markers illustrating the tree’s growth, Haley says in the September 2, 1990 issue of Parade magazine.

“My father used a pointer to illustrate how the tree’s growth rings had come one each year, that each white marker represented some event,” Haley recalled.

“I was told that, if I read all I could, whenever I found something notably historic, then that could become another marker in my slice of tree,” he said.

“From then on, I read every book I could handle, along with my grandpa’s newspapers for Black people,” he said. “Today, I absolutely believe that the reading inspired by the tree slice greatly influenced my becoming an author. It is also why I like most of all to write about historical subjects.”

In the following interview with Mel Watkins, A Talk With Alex Haley, for The New York Times, Haley issues a statement regarding the authenticity of Roots. “Although it’s advertised as nonfiction, perhaps we should call it ‘faction.’ Every statement in Roots is accurate in terms of authenticity—the descriptions of the culture and terrain are based on valid material. The beginning is a re-creation, using novelistic techniques, but as it moves forward more is known and it is more factually based.”

A Talk With Alex Haley

“As I look at it now,” says Alex Haley, “it seems there was a meant-to-be quality about Roots. I first heard the story told by my grandmother as a child, that was the real beginning. Cynthia was her name but we all called her Miss Sis and, after the death of her husband, she lost her vitality, became numb. She would sit on the porch, with her reveries. ‘Just sittin’,’ she would say. Whenever we children came around, she would repeat the story of the man she called ‘the African,’ how he was captured and what happened to him when he arrived in America. After a while we started acting out the incidents, playacting, re-creating everything she told us, and it became an indelible memory for me.

“Then, in 1964, during a trip to London, I came upon the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. I was fascinated by its role in unlocking a door into the history of man and, though I didn’t know why, I had a vague sense that it had some personal significance for me.

“I visited the National Archives in Washington later that year, for no other reason than curiosity about the names of some slaves my grandmother had mentioned, saying they belonged to ‘Massa Murray’ and lived on his tobacco plantation. Too embarrassed to ask about them, I just took a cursory look through the census records. Finding nothing, I decided to leave. But on my way out, as I passed through the main reading room, I was struck by all those people intently scrutinizing old documents. It occurred to me that they were really trying to find out who they were. I went back to the microfilms and, after hours of searching, finally found the entry, ‘Tom Murray—black,’ with a list of relatives. Awed by that list—tangible evidence of the family narrative I had heard so many times as a child on our front porch—and suddenly feeling a sense of connection with my ancestors, the idea for Roots began to take shape.

“From the time I started, there were always problems with money and being able to finance the needed research. I received only a small advance, since the original idea for the book was so vague. So during the 12 years it took to finish, I often had to stop to write an article or lecture in order to finance the next step.”

The research and the ultimate tracking down of the West African village from which Kunta, his great-great-great-great-great grandfather had come, were difficult. But putting the information together and writing the book, according to Haley, was even more problematic.

“I spent two years just researching and digging out actual facts of African cultural life—ceremonies, implements, etc., everything I could find on the subject. But, when I finished, I had this unwieldy mass of material and I had to come up with some way of organizing it. I made a notebook for each of the 16 years that Kunta had spent in Africa, then separated the information I had gathered in terms of the age at which Kunta would have been exposed to it. This ordered the material and gave the early part of the book a feeling of authenticity, validity.

“The lowest point came during the actual writing,” he says. “There was exhilaration until I came to the section where Kunta is captured. Then there was dread, anxiety about portraying what he felt when he was chained and during the trip across. I went back to Africa and took a voyage on a freighter, visited the hold, tried to re-create the feeling. . . . standing on that ship looking back from the stern, I felt a sense of terror, of not being able to capture their feelings. . . . I simply wanted to escape, quit. I backed away from the rail feeling a paroxysm of tears. I was near an emotional breakdown. . . . Later I forced myself to go back to the hold, I began to feel the pain, the experience of Kunta. I stayed there all night, in a sense reliving the experience—I felt I was actually in that hold with slaves. The next morning I was able to continue writing, but this was the toughest part. Afterward I felt I knew the people.”

On the finished book, Haley comments:

“Although it’s advertised as nonfiction, perhaps we should call it ‘faction.’ Every statement in Roots is accurate in terms of authenticity—the descriptions of the culture and terrain are based on valid material. The beginning is a re-creation, using novelistic techniques, but as it moves forward more is known and it is more factually based.

“I think it portrays the most positive and informative image of Africa in its form that is available to the average reader. There are a few black families who have traced their lineage back to Africa—about 12 that I know of, including the Blackwell family, which Arthur Ashe is part of. But we have been a people characterized by being ashamed of our past. We have rarely looked at it, even though there may be living grandmothers who came on slave ships as late as 1850. Reading Roots many blacks will become more concerned about their African background, and whites too may become more interested in their genealogy. The book’s theme is universal in terms of lineage, heritage and the common concern with oral history—everybody goes back to the time when there was no writing, therefore the book touches on the human element that binds us all.”

For Alex Haley—a 55-year old author who began writing professionally at 37 after 20 years in the Coast Guard—Roots is the highlight of his career. Although he wrote the much acclaimed The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley has always remained in the shadow of the legendary subject of that book. Roots should bring him the recognition he deserves. More important, perhaps, now that the grueling research is over and the book completed, Haley looks back on this 12-year project with a great deal of personal satisfaction:

“During the research everyone I approached, when I was able to communicate one-on-one, went out of their way to help. Somehow the project evoked a desire to help, to get involved. People were interested and they always began to talk about their own families. . . . Even in the South where hostility to blacks is obvious, there were few problems. In fact some of the Southerners were probably the warmest of all the people who were approached. The Waller family, for instance, was very considerate in providing aid and so were the Murrays of North Carolina. I was invited to their family reunion this year—there were 200 white Murrays and eight blacks. It was held at a small church and there were basket lunches and we walked through the graveyard looking at the plots for the deceased family members. There were headstones for the whites and round flat stones for the blacks. Although there was some tension and a small group of the whites resented the presence of black family members, finally there was a sense of community. I know that they were suspicious of me because of the Malcolm X book, and they wanted to know how I was going to portray the Murray family in the new book. But after I had spoken there was a sense of acceptance, of realizing that our pasts were intricately knotted with one anothers’. . . . That kind of communication, coming together, reflects the real potential of harmonious relationships between blacks and whites in America. It also points out the fact that there are very few of us who are ethnically pure; when we understand this the problem of racism might not seem so impenetrable.” ~ Alex Haley.

(A Talk With Alex Haley by Mel Watkins is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published on September 26, 1976 in The New York Times. © 1976 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.)

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