(The below interview of Alex Haley by Richard Ballad was originally published in the December 1976 issue of Penthouse Magazine.)
At the age of fifty-five, Alex Haley has struck it rich. The former magazine writer and twenty-year Coast Guard career man spent ten tough years researching and writing the massive novel Roots, which, before it was published by Doubleday this fall, had an advance sale of more than 100,000.
A twelve-part television version will be presented by the American Broadcasting Company, beginning this February.
To research Roots, Haley traveled more than a half-million miles and spent more than $80,000 (which has to be a world record for research on a novel). Reader’s Digest and Doubleday swallowed hard and footed the bill. “For ten years they sweated,” Haley says. “But now they’re glad.”
Haley traced the story of his family back to the tiny African Village from which his seventh-generation ancestor, Kunta Kinte, had been kidnapped by slave traders in the late 1700s. It is probably one of the most fantastic mystery stories ever written, not simply because of its suspense and drama, but because for virtually all whites—and many blacks—it unwraps a part of history that has been at best distorted and at worst hidden.
Most Americans—black and white—have bought the lie that Africans brought here were quickly “washed” of all tribal memories, losing their names and identities. It was a racist joke that blacks had no names of their own, no pre-American culture on which to draw for moral strength. In addition to propounding this myth, white America paid little note to the fact that the black population, in adopting Christianity, had reinjected into it some of the virtues that the white man had squeezed out and forgotten down through the centuries.
Haley himself is embarrassed to admit that he had some fairly arrant misconceptions of his ancestry prior to this book. “I thought of Africa,” he says, “as being pretty much the way it had been depicted in the movies. My far-off relatives were there, dancing and waving spears and raising hell while Johnny Weissmuller swung through the trees.”
But one Saturday afternoon in 1965 he felt impelled to walk into the National Archives, in Washington, D.C. “I wasn’t about to admit that I was trying to find traces of my family. I just sort of sidled up and intimated that I wanted to do some light weekend reading and that maybe I could borrow the 1870 census records of Alamance County, North Carolina.”
His attitude quickly changed when he found in the records the names of his great-grandparents, Tom and Irene Murray. Casual research was turned into an obsession.
As a child, on long summer evenings, Haley had listened to his maternal grandmother and her aged relatives, rocking on the porch in Henning, Tenn., talking with reverence of a mysterious man known only as “The African.” The African had apparently been brought on a slave ship to Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Four times The African tried to escape. The last time he made the mistake of attacking the white men pursuing him. They cut off half of one toot with an axe. The African never tried to escape again.
Eventually he married, and when his daughter, Kizzy, was old enough, he told her his name was not Tobey but Kunta Kinte. He said he had been captured by slave traders when he had gone into the forest to cut wood to make a drum. He passed on to Kizzy a few words. He pointed at a banjo and said, “Ko.” He pointed at a nearby river and said, “Kamby Bolong.” These words and a few others were handed down until, generations later, young Alex heard them in the conversation of old women talking on a southern porch at twilight.
Haley plunged into the records of slave transactions and of the departures and arrivals of slave ships. With the help of a college professor who specialized in African dialects, he found that his ancestor had been speaking the Mandinka tongue, used in the present-day West African nation of Gambia. “Kamby Bolong” meant the Gambia River, “Ko” was a variation of “Kore,” a word for a musical instrument.
After years of research, Alex Haley, a brown man, found himself standing in the tiny African village of Juffure, surrounded by its entire population of seventy people, all jet black. “These were my relatives, sixth and seventh cousins. But their blackness gave me an enormous sense of guilt. I felt like a freak, a hybrid. It was a terrible feeling.”
But his cousins soon put him at ease and prepared him to meet the griot, the tribal “memory bank,” an old man who had been trained from childhood to memorize and to recite the histories of many families, stretching back for hundreds of years. From the griot, Haley sought confirmation of his identity.
He had already come a long way. He had taken a lengthy launch ride up the Gambia River, with two supply vehicles simultaneously following a circuitious land route. His quest had also involved renting the services of fourteen people, including three interpreters and four musicians—the latter being necessary because the griot would not recite without musical accompaniment.
The griot began by chanting the history of the Kinte family. He told of how they had originated in the ancient African kingdom of Mali, of how they had migrated to Mauretania and at last settled in Gambia, where their name became one respected and celebrated. One member of the family, Kunta Kinte, was a young man of sixteen rains (years) when he went into the forest to cut wood to make a drum. He was never seen again. This had happened more than 200 rains ago.
“A chill shot up my spine,” says Alex Haley. “It was all true.”
Haley was born in the tiny town of Henning, Tenn. (pop. 500), fifty miles north of Memphis. He was the son of middle-class parents, his father being a college professor. The family moved to Normal, Ala., when Alex was twelve, and when he was seventeen he enlisted in the Coast Guard.
“My Dad wanted me and my two younger brothers to become Ph.D.’s. But I was always a wanderer. It was in my blood, and when I tracked down the family history I found a reason: I was a copy of a great-great-grandfather named ‘Chicken George,’ an expert in handling fighting cocks and a man who, even as a slave, traveled all over the country and to England, plying his trade for his master. He loved life and enjoyed all aspects of it. So do I.”
Haley spent twenty years in the Coast Guard, which included service during World War II in the Pacific. It was there—in order to while away the hours on shipboard—that he began to write. Eventually his stories began to sell, and he made history by becoming the first Coast Guard “journalist”—a category created specifically for him. Once out of service, at the age of thirty-seven, he became a full-time magazine writer; and at the invitation of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (who was subsequently assassinated), Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Along the way, he married and had two daughters and a son, who are now grown up; ten years ago he was divorced. His brother Julius went on to become an architect for the navy, and his other brother, George, now serves as chief counsel to the United States Information Agency.
Roots promises to become something of a classic in American literature. It remains to be seen how the television adaptation will fare. It has certainly attracted some gifted actors, including Cicely Tyson, Edward Asner, Lorne Greene, and Ben Vereen. “I could have gotten more money for a regular two- or three-hour movie,” Haley says, “but with a twelve-part TV film I thought it would have a better chance of being done right.”
As soon as the money starts rolling in, Haley intends to reactivate the Kinte Foundation, an organization he formed several years ago to aid people in tracing their genealogy. He had to put the project temporarily in mothballs since it required more time and money than he had at his disposal.
Haley now lives in Los Angeles. “It’s probably temporary,” he says. “I live everywhere, temporarily.” Unfortunately, his parents and the old relatives whose memories inspired his work are now gone. “But they know,” says Haley. “I feel them. They know.”
Haley, an easygoing and very likable man, was interviewed in his suite at the Barclay Hotel in Manhattan by Richard Ballad.
Penthouse Interview: Alex Haley
Penthouse: When you first decided to try and write this book, an old relative—as you quote her in your book—said to you, “Go ahead, boy, yo’ sweet grandma an’ all of ’em—dey up dere watching what you do.” Were there actual moments when you felt the spirits of your ancestors around you?
Haley: Oh, yes. Indeed there were. The most vivid experience came on a ship. I had been experiencing a writer’s block a few months previous, while in San Francisco. I was trying to write the part where Kunta is shipped across the ocean from the Gambia to Annapolis, Maryland. I was trying to write of the atmosphere on a slave ship. I made three or four false starts, of maybe thirty pages each, and nothing happened. So I just dumped the stuff and told my agent I was going back to Africa. He was sort of put out by the idea, because I was already late in delivering the book. But I just had to do it.
So, I went to Africa, and there I immediately booked passage on the first ship bound for America. It was a freighter of the Farrell Lines, called the African Star. It was out of Monrovia, Liberia, bound for Florida.
Penthouse: But what good would it do you to ship out on a freighter? It was nothing like a slave ship.
Haley: True, it was the lap of luxury, by comparison. But I had a plan; and the captain was a very nice fellow, and my being in the Coast Guard always smoothed things for me when dealing with people in the maritime services. I explained what I was trying to do, and we made arrangements that every night, after dinner, I was to go down into the hold, take off all of my clothes except my underwear, and spend the night stretched out on a plank, in the pitch darkness. It was cold and uncomfortable and spooky; and though—like I say—it wasn’t anything like a slave ship, it still helped give me a little feeling for the way it might have been for my ancestor.
Penthouse: Did that break your writer’s block?
Haley: Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, because along about the third or fourth night I found that I just didn’t want to go back down there again. To delay it, I walked back to the fantail—the back end of the ship—and I stood there with my hands on the rail, looking down into the water boiling up from the props.
Now, I must say, peripheral to this, that I had a lot of troubles along about that time. I had an unfinished book, with years of writing ahead of me—at the rate I was going. I still had six generations of my family history to write. The publishers were bugging me. I was heavily in debt, I don’t mean the kind of debt where you get letters that say, “Perhaps you’ve forgotten this bill, so why don’t you tie a piece of string around your finger?” I mean the tenth-letter kind, where they write, “You son of a bitch, if we ever catch you we’re going to. . . .” And so on. I was at that tenth-letter stage with a lot of different people. Not that I was terribly sensitive to my creditors. My feeling was that no matter what happened—rocks, rain, hail, lawsuits—I had to go right on and do this thing, if I could. But I was getting very, very depressed.
So, I’m standing there—with one foot on the bottom rail and my hands on the top—and the thought came into my head, Why don’t you just step through, put your head down, and drop in the ocean? And I thought, yeah, why not? That’s salvation for all. Everything will disappear. Perfect peace. I felt almost a kind of jubilation. That would fix the sons of bitches—the publishers, the creditors, everybody who was on my back. And I began to feel the thing that people who have almost frozen to death will tell you about: a kind of warm drowsiness. A feeling of comfort.
And then it happened. I heard the voices. It was the most eerie thing I had ever experienced. They weren’t strident. They were just conversational tones, but they overlapped, interrupting one another and I knew immediately who they were. I knew I was hearing Kunta and his wife, Bell, and Chicken George, and all the members of my family in its various generations. And they were saying things like, “No, don’t do that. You have to continue this work.” It was as if they were sitting around somewhere, on a front porch, just talking.
It became a physical battle for me to get unstuck from that rail. But with a kind of convulsive effort, I shoved myself back. I was shaking, and 1 scrambled back over the hatch covers in the center of the ship, scuttling like a crab, afraid to get near the rails. When I finally got to my stateroom, I went into what I would have to call paroxysms of weeping. I suppose it was around three hours later, around midnight, that I gained enough control to get up, go down to the hold, and settle down on my plank for the night. But now, as I lay there, I knew it all. I heard it all. I could imagine now what it must have been like to have been Kunta Kinte, lying in chains, half-strangling in the foul air, listening to the moans and cries in a dozen dialects he couldn’t understand. I knew. I knew.
Penthouse: How did you feel, later, as you sat in the village from which your ancestors came and listened to the griot recite the detailed history of your family?
Haley: That chills you. The experience of listening to the griot was all part of a meant-to-be quality that this whole story had. I never even knew that there was that kind of man left in the world, but there I was, listening to him through interpreters. It was awesome, his power of memory. Conversely, the villagers were a little in awe of me. Imagine somebody being dragged into a UFO, 200 years ago, flying off to another planet, and then having his seventh-generation descendant return to earth and tell of where he had been. I was a symbol to those villagers of all their people who had been taken away through all the centuries.
Penthouse: Will you be showing the villagers the film?
Haley: Well, there wouldn’t be much point. They wouldn’t comprehend what the film was saying. Not just the language. The whole thing. I’m really sorry about that, too. It’s kind of sad not to be able to share it with them.
Penthouse: In your book, Kunta and his friends all went to school every day and learned to read and write Arabic. Can the people of Juffure read and write today, or has the educational system deteriorated?
Haley: Well, they can’t read or write as they could in Kunta’s day. In that sense, they have deteriorated. But remember: they don’t think or reading and writing as we do. They can write, in their way, but their whole society is really geared to oral communications. Just as the griots tell their stories.
One of the most impressive things that I learned in Africa was taught me in the city of Banjul, which used to be called Bathurst, and which is the capital of Gambia. When I talked with people there, I expressed surprise at the griot’s memory for narrative. They told me that we in our Western culture have become so conditioned to what they call “the crutch of print” that we have almost forgotten the capacity of the human memory. So the people there really develop their oral communicating to a fine degree.
One of the reasons they can do this is that they have fewer things interfering with their concentration. They can be more single-minded than we can be. They are not as beset by as many things as we are. They don’t have to make as many appointments. Well—hell, come to think of it they don’t make any appointments. The idea of an appointment is pretty much alien to them. We may do twelve things in a day. They may spend twelve days thinking about doing a single thing. That’s the way their society works.
Penthouse: Do they still communicate by drumbeats, which, as you point out, were so very important in the life of the village two centuries ago?
Haley: Not as much as they used to. But they still use drums. They have an even more fascinating system of communications, however. You might call it the grapevine. I’ve seen it in operation in other places—in the West Indies, for example, when I lived there. When I required the services of a particular person or I needed something, I would mention it to one of the fellows who worked for me. Now, there were no telephones, and the thing or person I wanted might be many miles away. Yet, within an hour or two, whatever I wanted would show up at my door. I was thunderstruck by that. When I found out how it was done, I was utterly fascinated. What they would do is that one person would simply tell another, and that person would tell another, and so on. Things would happen.
Penthouse: Did they have runners who operated over set routes?
Haley: No, nothing like that—nothing organized. All was very loose. But in those societies, there are people in motion at all times, going this way and that. They are like some great, unconscious, unpressured, but beautifully functioning social machine, with the goings and comings of the people forming an intricate series of patterns. People born into that society simply become part of those moving patterns, and they automatically help it function. And so the word, once passed, goes speeding from person to person at really incredible speed. In Africa it’s called the “bush telegraph.” But you can’t pin it down. If you define it, you destroy it.
Penthouse: In Kunta’s day, African women were kept very much in their place. This caused Kunta some social problems when he was brought to America and placed in the matriarchal society of the slaves. When you went to Africa, did you find there the same African, patriarchal attitudes toward women?
Haley: Well, the social patterns are not as strong as in Kunta’s day, but you would have to say that in the backcountry villages they are certainly distinctly chauvinist.
For instance, in the village of Juffure today, there is still considerable concern on the part of the elders as to the propriety of girls going to school beyond the lower grades. In the cities there is less of that; but in the backcountry, the idea is for a girl to learn from her mother how to be a good wife and mother and then to get herself a husband and raise children. Of course, as in all such societies, women have very definite functions, very definite influences in the life of the tribe; and old women, like old men, are revered and are listened to.
Penthouse: Could you ever be comfortable going back and living permanently as an African, even in a large, modern city?
Haley: No, I could never be comfortable living permanently in black Africa. It is another culture. I would have to adjust and readjust in too many ways. They think differently and they act differently from the ways I’m used to. Their customs are different. A lot of black Americans have tried to return to Africa that way, and not a few of them have come back here after learning that the cultural shock was too much to take. It’s not just the middle-class creature comforts, most of which would probably be available. It’s the whole different way of viewing life.
Penthouse: Of all the people in your book. Chicken George seemed to capture your imagination the most. Why?
Haley: Well, Chicken George was really George Lea. He was the grandson of Kunta. His mother, Kizzy, had been raped by her white owner, Tom Lea, who was, therefore, Chicken George’s father. He got that name, Chicken George, because he became one of the greatest handlers of fighting cocks in his time. As a result—and within the context of slavery—George was a wanderer, a traveler, a buccaneer, a sporting man. He traveled all over the South, handling those fighting chickens for his master-father. He even wound up in England, for God’s sake. Well, I felt an affinity for him immediately. I think it’s his blood which I carry which has made me a wanderer, a kind of buccaneer, a lady-chaser of some talents in my younger years—all the qualities that Chicken George had. A lot of us—if we could trace our ancestry and get a reading on the characters of some of our forefathers—would probably find one person whom we would immediately recognize and of whom we would say, Hey, that’s me!” That’s how I felt when I found out about Chicken George.
Penthouse: Have you ever wondered whether any of the white people you’ve met were descended from the whites who once owned’ your ancestors as slaves?
Haley: I not only wondered, I had my curiosity satisfied. I was lecturing in a place I’d never heard of, called Indianola, Iowa. The lecture site was Simpson College, which I also had never heard of. I was telling the people about early plantation life, the slaves, the masters, and so on. When I finished, the usual crowd of well-wishers came forward, and there was polite conversation about how much they enjoyed it, as there is after almost any lecture. I noticed, in the background, a man about my height and my age, with blue eyes and a blond crew cut. Something told me that he was going to say something more than, “I enjoyed it.” When we got to each other, we tried to shake hands, missed, and tried again. I don’t know what symbolism you might read into that. Then he said, “I don’t quite know how to tell you this. But my family is very genealogically oriented, and I believe I’m the seventh-generation descendant of the Waller family, which bought your forefather off that slave ship.” I looked at him and I said, “You got to be kidding.” But he wasn’t. His name was Waller Wiser, and he was at that time the dean at Simpson College. He was descended, on his mother’s side, from John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia. According to the records I had unearthed, Kunta Kinte had been bought off the ship by a “Massa” John Waller of the same county.
Penthouse: What did you say to each other?
Haley: Well, we’ve never stopped asking each other why it happened, why after two centuries we should meet, pretty much as peers, since he is now the provost at Capital University, in Columbus, Ohio, and I am an author. We get together frequently. He has visited with me at my home in Jamaica, and I have stayed at his home, and we have become warm friends.
But there have been other such meetings, and, as a matter of fact, I’ve been involved in one of them. Shortly before the Civil War, my family was sold to the Murray plantation. I have subsequently met members of that branch of the Murray family. As a matter of fact, last June the family held a reunion near Burlington, North Carolina, and they invited me to be the speaker. We met at this beautiful little crossroads church, and I spoke at the ceremony in the church. And all the ladies had brought basket lunches and spread cloths on the tables, and we all sampled the good things. There were about 200 white Murrays and perhaps a dozen black Murrays, some of the latter being directly related to the whites through master-slave pairings and some of them simply having taken the Murray name. Anyway, after lunch we strolled around the old graveyard, reading the markers, and you’d hear one or another call out, here’s the daughter of so and so here’s great-grandfather. It was a wonderful experience for black and white.
Penthouse: Going back to Kunta, who bought by John Wailer. He was just seventeen, and captivity drove him wild. He escaped four times before slave catchers caught him and cut off half of one foot. How could they mutilate somebody else’s “property,” namely, John Wailer’s?
Haley: Oh, well, you see Kunta had committed the unpardonable sin: he had attacked a white man. That could and often mean instant death. I’ve looked through the records of the antebellum south, and time and again I found slaves murdered and their white murderers tried and freed in minutes, the defense usually being that the slave had dared attack a white man. So the slave catchers—once Kunta fought back hitting one of them with a rock—had the right to kill him. Instead, they gave him the grotesque choice of losing his genitals or half of one foot. I’m grateful, personally, that he chose the foot.
Penthouse: Are you at all puzzled by the “Founding Fathers,” who could articulate such lofty sentiments regarding life and liberty but who could also own slaves?
Haley: Well, no, not puzzled. It was just that the whites in that time did not regard blacks as people. They were property. White men and women had been enslaved, too. They worked as indentured servants, although they were usually not treated as badly. Their families weren’t split up and sold, and they could eventually win their freedom. So while it wasn’t right, it wasn’t, in the context of the times, unreasonable to enslave human beings to do work which had to be done. There was no technology to get things done; so white people swallowed their morality and picked up the whip.
Penthouse: Blacks in America had about three hundred years to perfect an image behind which they could con the white man. What kind of effect did this have?
Haley: Well, it’s true that the whole idea of conning the white man developed out of the necessity to survive in slave days. And after slavery it was still necessary. “Conning the boss—no matter what color, are—is a survival technique still practiced by people today, black and white. But as you say, the perfecting of an image by the blacks enabled them to study and learn much more about white people than the whites ever learned about the blacks. Now during slavery days, this conning of the white man was very successful and was used to reinforce the white fantasy that slaves were people who didn’t have to be watched too scrupulously; and this facade was used to keep the white unaware of what the black was really thinking. The delusion was carried on, through the years to such an extent that in the 1960s, when the black revolution was at full tide, literally millions of white people were astounded by the turn of events. “What’s wrong with them? What do they want?” Most people, up until that time, thought that blacks were reasonably happy and had no big grievances. Obviously they had never been exposed to blacks in any meaningful way. They had not been educated as to the truth.
Penthouse: Did you experience much in the way of racial prejudice while you grew up in Henning, Tennessee?
Haley: I didn’t encounter it early. My parents shielded us, and our lives were spent largely within the black community. I just kind of regarded white people as over yonder somewhere. They lived on their side of town, and we lived on our side. The first time was ever physically proximate to many white people for any sustained period of time was while I was in the service. I found that I was uncomfortable around them. I got away from them when I could. It took me two years before I got to be comfortable in the presence of white people.
Penthouse: Do you think that was a good way to grow up?
Haley: Yeah, I do. What the hell does a ghetto do to a child by the time that child is age ten? I found out a lot when I was working with Malcolm X, when I was writing his autobiography. He grew up in the ghetto, in the gutter. He told me things I never knew. Growing up in little Henning, Tennessee, we were poorer than the average people in the ghetto in dollar terms. But we were infinitely richer in the terms of the society we had, the interaction of the people, the pride in the community, the self-policing—morally speaking—of the people in the community. These were very positive things that we had.
Penthouse: Do you think the South is a better place to live?
Haley: Well, I can’t help but feel that the South is a much more moral place than other sections of the country—particularly North—tend to be. People in the South, black and white, are much more polite. They have much more respect for older people, and they have many more positive virtues than people in the North. It probably has something to do with the climate of agrarian areas as compared to industrial areas. Fewer people help things.
Little boys . . . hell, I mean, I guess that’s where it starts. As kids we’d get out of the house and get together and run. We might run three miles across the pastures, chasing a rabbit. Things like that. What does the kid in the city do? In the congested city? The cramped city? He can’t exert his energy in those healthful ways, not psychically or morally or physically. He’s stunted, in a way.
Penthouse: So, you’re a country boy through and through.
Penthouse: How white are you?
Haley: Well, if you go on my father’s side, I could march in the Knights of Columbus parade. Both of his parents were the children of slave mothers and white fathers. One of my ancestors was an Irish colonel. I went to Ireland and did research on him, and I must say the Irish were wonderful, gave me every helpthat is, until a couple of priests found out I was Protestant. That did it. Their cooperation ended. It was all right to be black, but not Protestant. I’ll have to say that was an interesting and provocative experience.
But to get back to my white ancestors. On my mother’s side—which is the side descended from Kunta Kinte, the original African—there is just one white ancestor, and he was a plantation owner named Tom Lea. He was the one who bought Kizzy, Kunta’s daughter, after Kizzy had been accused of forging a pass to try to help her boyfriend escape to the North. Tom Lea raped Kizzy, and their son was the aforementioned Chicken George. The only other color variation came when George’s son, Tom—named after his white grandfather—married Irene, who was the daughter of a black and a Cherokee Indian. She became the mother of Cynthia, who was my grandmother.
Penthouse: You once said, “We can’t feel a blood kinship with somebody of another race, because we just haven’t been trained that way.” Could you go into that a little more deeply?
Haley: Sure. It’s this way. The culture in which we have been brought up has imposed this attitude. If you are told, from your earliest years, that you are apart from somebody, and then, twenty years later, somebody pops up from that foreign group and says, “Hey, I’m your great-grandfather,” it’s pretty hard to feel that that makes any difference.
I think about the only way you can feel any whiteness is to have been physically in communication, in contact, with your white relative since birth. Most blacks are really part African and part European, with some probability of American Indian blood as well. So the word black is kind of a seized word. It’s not literally true. Just look at some of the black people you see on the street. Some of them are lighter than you. But it’s just about impossible, after twenty or thirty years of brainwashing, to get them to accept their whiteness.
Penthouse: Have you known people who have crossed the color line and who are living as whites?
Haley: Let me put it this way. In 1972 I wrote an article for the New York Times. I got about a thousand letters. I suppose about twenty of them were among the most poignant I have ever received. They were mostly men, and they were all of a grandparent’s age. They wrote to me of the sufferings they had endured because they had, years back, skipped over and joined the white race. They wrote of the psychic terrors of living among whites, being considered whites themselves, always fearing exposure. The hardest thing was hearing what was said about blacks by white friends who weren’t aware that they were in the presence of a “technical” black. For most of these people, their mates and children were also unaware. They never told them. They couldn’t afford to tell them.
The whole thing became almost unendurable for them during the black revolution of the sixties. They longed to speak out, to tell somebody. But they couldn’t. Two of these men sent me pictures of their families, their white wives and children. Some of them wrote of the terrible fear that somewhere down the line, one of their children would turn out darker, or even completely black. They talked of the temptation to tell their mates, to share their secret with another human being. But they couldn’t, out of fear that it would destroy the lives of their loved ones.
Penthouse: How do you feel about interracial marriages, in general? How do you feel about interracial marriages, in general?
Haley: Well, they’re happening more frequently now. Openly. But there is resistance from both sides. A growing number of educated blacks have very strong feelings about family bonds and are appalled by the idea of intermarriage. I don’t personally feel—anymore—that interracial marriages are necessarily the sign of doom. But if I were involved in such a marriage, there would be certain parts of the world in which I would choose to live and not others New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles—they don’t hassle you as much there.
Penthouse: So, the North isn’t all bad?
Haley: No, but interestingly enough, the South is changing more rapidly. When we were in Savannah, filming the first part of Roots, I was astounded at the changes in conditions, the changed attitudes. There were not a whole lot of mixed couples walking around. But I did see some, and nobody was running around yelling, “Get a rope!” Let me tell you that twenty years ago that would have been a very serious matter in Savannah.
Penthouse: But would these people want Alex Haley living next door?
Haley: Apparently the real estate men would. We went down to Saint Simon Island, Georgia, which is an almost totally white and wealthy stronghold. There was an interview, and I had my picture in the paper; and I was quoted as saying how I enjoyed the area and how lovely it was, and I said I thought it would be a great place for a writer to live and work. Well, good Lord, within the next two days I was visited by at least eight white real-estate people, all urging me to buy two-hundred- and three-hundred-thousand-dollar homes—and these were not in Shanty Town. Ten years ago, I know, that would have been impossible. So, race doesn’t seem to bother them. Money and prestige: if you’ve got either one or both, they’re interested.
Penthouse: How do you explain the black support for Jimmy Carter?
Haley: Well, the majority of blacks in this country are southern-oriented. Even though they may live in other places, even though they may have been born in other places, their heritage and their family memories stem from the South. So Jimmy Carter symbolizes, for me at least, the New South. You see, whites and blacks in the Old South, despite their estrangement, were always physically interdependent. They needed each other to survive. It was fairly characteristic, even when I was a boy, for poor whites to live on the same block with blacks and across the street. Out of this grew a closeness that contradicted the apparent estrangement. So, a black is just naturally going to be drawn to a fair-minded southern white more than he would to a northerner.
Penthouse: Why don’t we hear very much about Malcolm X anymore? Is he still important to the black community?
Haley: Well, let me begin by saying that Malcolm died tragically, but perhaps if there was a right time to go, for him, that was probably it. He no longer had his original power base with the Nation of Islam. He had made his trip to Mecca and he had come back saying, look, all white men are not devils, as the Nation of Islam insists. He tempered his approach. He was trying to strengthen his own organization at that time and wasn’t doing too well. He had formed the Organization for African Unity, which, together with the Nation of Islam, was known as The Black Muslim Movement. And he had both sides hassling him, moderates and militants, each demanding to know where he stood. Things weren’t going well for him.
But today, more than a decade after his death, Malcolm is very much revered, particularly by young blacks, who regard him as virtually a saint. Most whites are not aware of his lasting impact, because they are not in close contact with the black community. Martin Luther King is the image the white media remember best, and Malcolm is forgotten. But consider that The Autobiography of Malcolm X has sold close to six million copies.
Penthouse: What has happened to the civil-rights movement?
Haley: Well, it’s changed form. We still have the image of the movement as it was in the sixties, with overt protests, things burning, people being beaten up, jailed . . . killed. In those days it was the fight to win equality in schools, restaurants, transportation facilities, and so on. Now most of these objectives have been achieved. Interestingly enough, I’ve talked with white businessmen who are relieved that the blacks can now participate as consumers in all areas. There are a lot of nice hotels in big cities that would have gone out of business if it hadn’t been for black customers. Blacks bring in a hell of a lot of money.
But right now the movement has moved on. The objectives are different. The targets are more elusive—the black quota systems, political gerrymandering to keep blacks unrepresented in the legislatures, stuff like that. Blacks are now in the political arena in full force as mayors of major cities and in various other high offices. They are also coming forward in the whole area of cultural affairs. I like to think that Roots is a step forward in this way. I hope it will make all people want to take a better look at where they came from.
Penthouse: What about busing, which seems to be inspiring violence of the type we knew in the sixties?
Haley: Well, this is proving to be one of the great tests of our democracy. Whoever is considered “least among you” must have equal rights or you do not, in fact, have a democracy. Busing holds up a mirror, so that we see our attitudes as they really are.
Now, I think that there is a lot of sincere anguish and pain among both black and white parents because of this. I might note that there generally seems to be less opposition to having children of another race bused in to your school. But whichever way it’s done, you are first asking people to send their kids to an institution which many of them regard with suspicion anyway, namely, the public school. Now, in addition, you send them to a strange school with strange kids of another race. Now you’ve got big emotional problems. It’s not like drafting some adult for service in the army. These are vulnerable little kids. And on top of all this, you’ve got the issue of increased resentment of the government’s encroaching more and more into our lives.
We have gotten into the bad habit of expecting the government to help us do what we think we can’t do ourselves. But eventually we wind up with the government forcing us to do more and more things. In individual communities—where democratic processes are guaranteed, of course—I’d like to see blacks and whites work this out for themselves. Unfortunately, that seems a long way off right now.
Penthouse: Is America still a racist nation?
Haley: Yes, to a degree, we are still racist. And it’s not simply black-white racism. There is prejudice affecting American Indians, Latins, Jews, and various religious and social groups. But I’m an optimist. I think things are improving.
Penthouse: How has the publicity, the successful book and TV-movie sales, affected your life?
Haley: Boy, someday I would like to do a retrospective kind of essay on what happens when, after umpteen years of just slugging along, you really hit. God damn, your life changes! You find yourself almost caught up by a kind of centrifugal force. Something else takes over. It’s tough to keep your balance.
Penthouse: You’re fifty-five years old. Imagine what it must be for a twenty-year-old rock star.
Haley: I have talked to young people who have hit the top that way, and so many of them have burned out before they reached thirty. Their heads blow. You walk up and down Sunset Boulevard and you see kids who look like they ought to be in the tenth grade driving a Rolls Royce, with broads practically hanging out the windows. They just screw themselves to death, for one thing. They’ve got the groupies, and they get into the dope thing and they blow their heads. So, I feel lucky having this come later in life. I’m lucky to have had experience, over the years, working as a writer I’ve seen a lot, heard a lot. I can sense a lot of the things to avoid. The women, for example, start coming around. You know, all of a sudden you get handsome as hell, and you start getting invitations if you just blink your eyes. But I try to avoid it like the plague. I know that if I spend one night like that, I’ve lost six paragraphs. That didn’t matter when I was young and doing the Chicken George routine. But not now. I can’t afford the time. Time is the most precious thing I own. ~ Alex Haley.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published within the December 1976 issue of Penthouse Magazine. © 1976 FriendFinder Networks. All Rights Reserved.)