(In January, 1976, Alex Haley came to New York to put the finishing touches on the manuscript of Roots, where he spoke with Robert L. Allen, Editor of The Black Scholar. That interview was later featured in their September, 1976 issue.)
Alex Haley first came to national attention as a result of his work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A native of Henning, Tennessee, Haley taught himself to write during a 20-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard. After retiring from the Coast Guard in 1959, Haley became a magazine writer and interviewer, before undertaking his famous collaboration with Malcolm X.
Since then he has spent twelve years researching and writing Roots (Doubleday, 1976), the epic drama of his family—from the abduction of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, from West Africa in 1767, through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the 20th Century. The novel spent 46 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List.
Haley is the first black American writer to trace and document the origins of his family in Africa, but Roots is more than a personal saga: the seven generations it depicts reflect the struggles of all people of African descent in this country.
The following year, in 1977, Roots was made into a television mini-series that reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Due to its phenomenal success, on February 18, 1979, ABC aired a sequel titled: Roots: the Next Generations, which picked up where its predecessor left off, with Haley’s slave ancestors winning their freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Black Scholar has established itself as the leading journal of black cultural and political thought in the United States. It was founded with the principle that all black authors, scholars and activists could take part in dialogues within its pages.
The Black Scholar Interviews: Alex Haley
Black Scholar: Alex, could tell us a little about how you came to be a writer?
Haley: I came out of a little town called Henning, Tennessee and about the last thing that anybody there would normally think about being is a writer. It happened that my father was a college professor. He taught around small black land grant colleges about the South and my mother taught grammar school. So as I look back, the biggest thing I can see is that I was always exposed to books, lots of books. I can remember that my grandmother, my mother’s mother in whose home I grew up, had a library; it was as I think, the only black home in Henning that had a library and that of course influenced my mother and father and my favorite play place was around in that library.
So I just grew up with an image of books and when I got so that I could read, I became really a voracious reader. My favorites were adventure books. When I began to go to grade school, I was never a good student and I was a progressively worse student in terms of grades as I went on. In high school I remember getting an occasional “D”. My average would have probably been somewhere in the area of “C”. The thing I did extremely well in was the thing that was the least effort for me at all and that was composition and English. I liked writing stories. One of the most accurate assessments I guess teachers could have given was that I was a day dreamer. They said I would just sit up in class and just daydream. And It was true, it didn’t matter, mathematics or whatever it was, it was very very true. I was generally sitting up there seeing my own little fantasies in my mind’s eye. I was 15 when I went into college and this was simply because my father’s life and soul was education.
Black Scholar: What college did you go to?
Haley: I went first year to Hawthorne in Mississippi and then to Elizabeth Cities State Teachers College in North Carolina. I almost hesitate mentioning either, because I was easily among the least distinguished students but nonetheless I was there. Alter that second year in North Carolina I was 17 and that was the year my dad said, that summer, he was really very concerned about my low marks and stuff. He thought 19 was really too immature for a person to finish college and go on to graduate school, as he of course planned I would be doing, as all his sons would be doing.
He had enjoyed being a soldier in World War I very much. My dad was always good for fifty cents if I could get him to telling his army stories. It would be something like (I am satirizing) but something like, when the goings really got bad General John Jerry Pershing would call for Sergeant Haley and the Kaiser would quake in France, “Anyway,” he suggested, “how would I feel about doing a hitch in a military service?”
I was thrilled about the idea because I had spent all my life either at Henning, at my grandmother’s home or at campuses. And I had heard about all these exciting things sailors did so I was all for it. The only reason I went in the U.S. Coast Guard was because it had a three year enlistment and the others had four. I applied and was accepted.
It was a time when you were black you automatically went into the stewards department. So I did, I was a mess boy. I waited on tables, shined shoes did all the things you do as such and went to sea and there was great adventure I just loved it, I was exhilarated about it. It was kind of like, in a sense some of things I had read about, I read lots of Joseph Conrad and so on.
I can remember standing up on the deck the ship, absolutely fascinated with the crashing of waves against the ship. I was seeing the things I had been reading about, some of them anyway. World War II came, and I stayed on in the service. I was in the South PacifIc and at night we would have lots and lots of time. Boredom was the biggest problem we had and I began to write letters to everybody I knew.
This was literally how I stumbled into being writer, something I would never have thought about. When we would get mail from home (ships would bring mail to us) I would get 30 or 40 letters every time because I had written; that’s all I did, I just wrote volumes of letters to everybody I could think of.
Friends of mine on the ship who had girls in Australia or New Zealand who were not particularly articulate on paper—they were great rappers on the ship, sea lawyers we used to call them—began to come around to me and in covert ways ask if I would write a letter to a girl for them and I began to do this.
Black Scholar: These were white guys?
Haley: These were almost all white guys. The brothers I must say didn’t seem to need this help and I would begin to simply interview them. It got to be a very open thing, about 8:00 every night I would sit at the table in the mess deck with a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and my clients would just line up to be interviewed, “what does she look like, what is her name, what is her hair like, where did you go with her, what do you want to tell her,” you know, things like that.
Whatever they told me I would reduce to notes on index cards and then I would later try to tailor a letter using this specific information, a personalized love letter. The fellows began to have phenomenal success; they really did. I can remember guys coming back praising the letters I wrote. I remember a very beautiful thing at that time in that setting, a guy coming back with a crowd around maybe two in the morning and he was looking at me almost with awe and a quote would be something like, “Man, I just barely knocked on the door and we were in the sack.” And to a bunch of sailors you are Merlin when you achieved that. I became on that ship easily its most heroic character and I got very quickly to the point I didn’t have to do any work. Somehow my work was done for me and all I did was write these love letters and that was how I stumbled into the thing of doing nothing but writing and I came to enjoy It. It was kind of a nice way to make a living.
Then from that I began trying to write women’s confession stories and I would mail them out and they would come back right away. That was how I stumbled into trying to write for publications.
Black Scholar: These were for the pulp magazines?
Haley: Magazines like Modern Romances, True Confessions. I would make out that I was a girl and this lout had done this, that and the other to me and I was trying to solve my problems. Those magazines are deceptive. The stories look very easy, but they are difficult to write, the first person form. Eventually I began to try to write sea adventure stories and they would be sent back too and the most vivid thing I have as a memory about writing, is from the time I began, I wrote every single night or day, when there was time off or something, for eight solid years. I didn’t miss a single day before the first article was accepted for publication, eight years. I will never forget that.
Black Scholar: What was the article and who accepted it?
Haley: The article was a little piece about the Coast Guard I was in and it was accepted by This Week magazine, Sunday Supplement, which at that time ran in mid-nation newspapers something like Parade magazine. And I remember I got $100.00 and man I just stood up and wept; I couldn’t believe I actually got the money for writing something.
Black Scholar: When would this have been?
Haley: I would say around 1948 or 1949—somewhere in that area. I kept on writing and I got to the point I would sell about one out of every five pieces I wrote and I would be just frantic with, “Why didn’t I sell the other four?” After I had gotten to that point in writing where editors would begin to write something on the manuscript like, “It is too fuzzy,” or “It is too something or other,” I began gradually to tighten up the number of pieces that I was selling. I would sell more; I would get from selling 1 in 5 to 2 in 5, to 3 in 5. When I came out of the service in 1959 (I had been in 20 years) I had sold maybe 100 articles to men’s adventure magazines, in large part, to the old Coronet. I sold a lot to them, small articles, a lot of sea stories. I did a lot of researching and I was always fascinated with the sea. I would research into old daring tales of the sea and write little articles about the exploits of sailors in the 1800’s. By the time I had got out I had also written one piece for Reader’s Digest, I had written for the Atlantic Monthly, one for Harper’s and various other of the major magazines.
Black Scholar: Were there black writers who helped you along?
Haley: Well 1959 was a very crucial period for me. As long as I had been in the service I had been in a very real sense subsidized, but now I had to sell, if I was going to be a writer. I was determined to be a full time writer. I had the image that writers were supposed to come into Greenwich Village; somehow I had gotten that. So I retired in San Francisco and right away flew to New York and went to Greenwich Village and found me a basement apartment, a hole. Anyway, I began to have a great feeling of insecurity because all of a sudden my base was gone, the service was no longer with me. My friend George Simms told me about six black writers who lived in the Village at the time. Naive as I was, and lonely as I was and really fundamentally frightened as I was—in this situation now wanting to be a writer full time and knowing maybe I couldn’t make it, maybe I couldn’t sell enough or what not—I just felt I wanted somebody to give me some kind words or some good advice, or encouragement or something. So I wrote a letter to each of these six people. I didn’t hear from any of them by mail. But one afternoon, a very lonely afternoon—I had just had a rejection, you know that knocked me down and all that kind of thing and you feel that your world is crumbling and maybe you are a fool like people are saying anyway to try to be doing this writing for a living—the gate to the basement rattled and I went out and I just nearly fell out when I looked through the gate bars and recognized the face I had seen so many times in the pictures.
It was James Baldwin. There he stood and just very matter of factly, he said, “Was I Alex Haley,” and I said, “Yes,” and I didn’t bother asking who he was and he said, “Well I got your letter and I thought I would just drop on over and visit.” To this day, it is a warm dear thing with me that that man at that time, who got this letter from an utterly unknown not only as a writer but utterly unknown to him, took the trouble to walk from where he lived to over to where I was and sat down and talked with me a couple of hours.
I don’t even remember what we talked about, I know we didn’t talk much about writing because I would have been embarrassed to talk writing with him because, you know, this is like somebody from John’s Town Flood talking to Noah, so I wouldn’t have talked to him about writing. We just talked, I don’t remember what about.
But I remember he influenced me immensely. After that I followed him avidly, you know reading stuff and we didn’t actually see each other physically again for maybe, oh hell that was 1960 say and we didn’t see each other again until probably 1966 after I had written the Autobiography of Malcolm X and it was out.
Now the way we met was, James Bladwin wanted to write a motion picture treatment of my book and it was such a beautiful feeling, the second time we met it was. I was saying to him, “Thank you because I have just been blessed enough to justify your time or your faith back then,” or something like that. That is kind of mushy but I really have a kind of mushy feeling about the whole thing and Jimmy is just one of my heroes, he really is.
Black Scholar: What impressed you most in working with Malcolm X on the Autobiography? What kind of man was he?
Haley: The most impressive thing is that Malcolm was the most self-disciplined person I have ever known anywhere at all. He had that metaphysical thing about the use of time. He could not bear to let a moment go by, as it was, and kept tight reign on other people; he was tight on other people but most of all on himself. I saw this over a period of years manifested in many many ways and that above all other things was the most impressive thing about him to me.
And I will tell you something else; many many people ask about Malcolm as if he had been anointed from the skies. He was awesome, but the real power of Malcolm and certainly what I came to feel, in terms of writing his book, was that Malcolm really symbolized so many many tens if not scores of thousands out there in these streets and in these prisons right this minute, who are just as articulate as Malcolm, just as clever as Malcolm, just as whatever as Malcolm. But things just didn’t shake down for them in a direction, a framework which would cause them to be presented as Malcolm later became presented.
Malcolm wanted desperately to be a lawyer and somebody said that was ridiculous, for him to be a cop. Think what a hell of a lawyer Malcolm would have been. Now he did much more as what he was, but I am saying, had the course gone the other way who could have made a more natural born lawyer than a Malcolm X?
I met his wife, Betty; we used to talk on the phone a fair amount before Malcolm was killed, when he was traveling a lot. At night sometime I would call sister Betty on the phone and we would talk recipes. I used to be a cook for six years and we would swap recipes and since then I have come to know sister Betty very well. I am their oldest daughter’s godfather and I think Betty is a beautiful beautiful strong woman.
All she went through, I never heard her whimper one time, not one time. When she at times had next to no money, not a peep and she, in almost a superhuman effort over the past years, just last summer or fall, got her Ph. D. Yes, she did. University of Massachusetts. I think Sociology, Child Training or something like that, but she commuted out of Mt. Vernon, New York up there and got her Ph. D. over a period of years together with raising six kids.
Black Scholar: Looking back on Malcolm’s work more than a decade after his assassination, what do you think will be his place in the history of the black struggle in this country?
Haley: I think just from my own limited, and it is limited, exposures to things if I had to pick the single person who has been the most important figure for blacks in the black thrust from post World War II, I would unequivocally pick Elijah Muhammad.
Because it was he who, when you think about it, who held together and nursed that small organization from the 30’s. When the Nation began to emerge, it was like a lightning bolt in opening up the consciousness of black people. Now interestingly enough, at the time it began to emerge with its highly publicized “hate white” image, which was very very unpopular at the time and certainly unpopular in the media which in turn made it unpopular among millions of people. That thinking was not by any means embraced by most blacks. Most blacks shrank from it, feared it. But at the same time it had started them thinking something.
It was the thing which began to open our consciousness away from this just blank psychic wall of just total fear of the structure in which we live. And I am saying these things clinically, in the context of Black America’s development, I would select Elijah Muhammad for the reason that he held together the organization which did this thing when it began to become publicized.
Underneath him I would put Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King on equal basis They were both, in my view, immensely powerful, they appealed, as I see it, to broadly different groups of people and by this I mean simply that Dr. King’s area was more the people who were in the tradition of the church structure. Malcolm would reach people that Dr. King wouldn’t as quickly reach, what is popularly called the grass roots people. And I am saying that from having worked lots with Malcolm and very little with Dr. King. I did the Playboy interview with Dr. King, spending a couple of weeks off and on with him. At the time this happened, I was writing with Malcolm on his book. Both men were intensely interested in each other but their images were such that they were supposed to be adversaries, you know the media made up this, what would happen if they met type of thing. And invariably when I would fly down to Atlanta, Dr. King would come and say something very casually as if he just happened to think of it, “What is Brother Malcolm saying about me these days,” and I would say, “Not much of one thing or another,” because Malcolm would sometimes light out on Dr. King.
But then I would come back to New York and I used to love to do this with Malcolm because he was so terribly in possession of himself, and I used to love to do any little thing I could, not to rattle him, but to just scratch that surface of such perfect control and I would come back and say not a word about anything that had happened in Atlanta. He knew where I had been because I told him and he would after a time become short, abrupt and then finally when he saw that I was going to say nothing about it he would just turn around and say, “What did he say about me?” It would invariably happen. I used to wish that those two men would just sit down somewhere, without the press, just the two of them somewhere and talk. I have heard, I don’t know whether it is true or not, I have heard that they had met each other, I don’t know, it would be nice if they had.
Black Scholar: How would you characterize your new book Roots and how did you come to write this book?
Haley: It was a story about a black family, and I began to realize it went back, way back, and there was a clue that I might be able to take It across the ocean to Africa so that was what became the real quest and I spent finally 12 years in the researching and writing of that book. Now it is a book that I see, more than anything else, as our story, though it is a story of my family.
Black Scholar: It traces your family line, seven generations?
Haley: Seven generations.
Black Scholar: Where in Africa?
Haley: Gambia, back to the village of Juffure. Really it’s all of our stories, Black people, we have the greatest common denominator background of any group of people as numerous as I know. Every single one of us ancestrally goes back to some one of those villages, someone captured in some way put on some one of those slave ships brought across the same ocean, into some succession of plantations, to the Civil War, Reconstruction and from that day to this day, struggling for freedom That is my story and that is your story and every black person’s story and this book really in a broad sense that’s what it entails.
Black Scholar: Given the paucity of records about individual black slaves, could you tell me a little about how you were able to trace your individual ancestors?
Haley: In a sense it was the heart of oral history. I really want to make as big an impact as I can among younger black people about the vital importance of us going to our oldest people and talking with them and finding out what they know about our families. There is black history untold in the memories of the hundreds of thousands of grandmothers, grandfathers, greataunts, great whatever. Nobody asks them.
Another thing I’d like to have a lot to do with if I can is to see if I can radically increase the number of family reunions held among black people. There is something about, something chemical that happens when a group of people with the same blood connection, blood-marriage connections, come together for the purpose of being together as such.
Black Scholar: What was the most difficult or the most difficult aspect of researching or writing the book?
Haley: I guess clinically speaking it was making myself quit researching and start writing. You can understand that. It really was. I researched for 10 years. Other than that it wasn’t so much the searching or many of the hard things that I encountered during the searching, the difficult things, because that was exhilarating. It was the knowing when to quit, I guess that was it.
Black Scholar: Since you started working on this project you have been speaking in various parts of the country telling the story of the book. What kind of response have you gotten from the American people?
Haley: Really great, really great. It just humbles me, the response I have gotten. After the Reader’s Digest condensation came out, I got in excess of 4,000 letters from readers within two months. It was interesting or whatever, but I would say 90% from white readers, more than 90% from white readers, 95% white readers, and when I make this distinction I would say that 1% was from black readers, the others were in a sense people other than black or white. I don’t recall but one crank letter, and this guy no doubt stating his opinion, he said something like you niggers never should have been brought out of Africa in the first place, or something like that, Fine, fine. Some of us share the same view. All these letters contained repeatedly two phrases above all others, and they were “I hadn’t realized” and “I wish I could have known this earlier.” And it has given me a very great feeling that there is an overall thing about human kind, that if you can tell the story, the saga, in effect the Hegirah of a people, any people, if you can tell it in a certain way, you evoke the Hegirah other people have had and all of us.
Black Scholar: Can you tell us about some of your experiences in writing Roots?
Haley: Roots opens with the birth of a little boy, Kunta, in Africa in 1750 in a little obscure village, another little village in West Africa. nothing to distinguish it. And the first third of the book deals with that boy growing up to the age of 16 when he was captured. Well the research took about 12 years (I just go ape researching, I get in it and all that, I love it). I wound up after about 3 years In Africa and England with about 2500 separate items of Information about what was the culture in 1750-1800. Then the question became, out of all this static information, how in the hell are you going to involve it in a book without seeming to write some scholarly treatise on the African culture?
I got a brilliant editor, Murrary Fisher, and we came up with the way I finally did it.
I made a notebook of these 2500 items under various subheadings and categorizations and then I assembled big blank strips of paper to cover a wall. Each strip was numbered age 1, age 2, age 3 and so forth. And with each of these strips I would go through every single notebook and pick out what I could impinge upon his life through any of the five senses at each of these ages. There is a hell of a lot of things that he could sense or sight or something. I don’t give a damn what the avenue was all I want to do is tell the information and I went through these notebooks and in that way in 16 years that he lived I was able to involve a fantastic lot of stuff none of us ever heard before about the African culture. Then I made new notebooks year by year, 16 notebooks, each one with what he would have experienced in that year. Then the question became to involve a plot for this little boy growing up, his life, that let him touch on these things. What you really wind up with is dismissing all those damn doubts you ever had about what was in fact a culture out of which those people came who were called the slaves, African slaves. And that is exciting.
I got that done and then came the thing of the ship part. I know a hell of a lot about ships. Man I ran ships to a faretheewell.
When I was finally writing the slave ship crossing I was in San Francisco at Golden Gateway Center apartments. Down on the waterfront, that’s where I lived and I was down there trying my damndest to write this thing out, couldn’t get it.
I just kept writing, write 6 pages and throw it out, and I couldn’t understand what in the hell is it, I can’t grip it, and it finally came to me, I didn’t have any business sitting up there in that high rise carpeted apartment writing about those slaves on that ship.
I called up my agents and got them to cancel every damn thing and flew to Africa and put the word out I wanted to get booked on the first ship I could get sailing direct to America and I got a freighter sailing out of Monrovia, Liberia named the African Star.
I got the captain to understand what I wanted to do. I was a passenger, but every night after dinner I would go down in the hull of the ship, I don’t know if you have ever been in the hull of a ship, but it is cold, dark. The hull is down there where the cargo is, way down, it is 35 feet deep down in there.
You don’t see that because it is under the water and every night after dinner I would go down in the hull and I found me a big wide plank, what they call donnage, it is stuff they pack cargo when shipping, and I would go down there and strip off my clothes to my underwear and lie down on my back on that plank in that dark cold place and I made myself lay down there every night crossing that ocean, seeing Kunta in my minds eye: what would he be thinking, what would be happening, what about the sound, what about the babble of the different tongues crying, moans, screams, praying, what was it like? Then I would come up during the day and I would try to write my impressions.
That was when I got the slave ship crossing and let me tell you that is a son of a bitch in that hull. The trip only took 10 days which was luxury compared to his trip. They left there July 5, 1767 and they arrived in Annapolis, Maryland September 29, 1767. Then I came to Memphis and I went to Maryland, to all the records and I found the incoming manifest. I got everything, everything about this in records, it is there, you just have to find it. It took 10 years but I got it.
Black Scholar: I know that considering that this is the Bicentennial year, this is perhaps particularly appropriate. That the saga of a black family will be one of two family histories that are going to be told on TV this year.
Haley: Yes, the John Adams Family and mine.
It wasn’t planned that the researching and writing would finally take 12 years, it is just by chance that it is being published in the Bicentennial year of the United States. So I am dedicating this book as a birthday offering to this country in which most of Roots happened, because it is telling the story of my family and it is also telling the saga of black people because if you tell any of our stories in definitive detail, you tell all of them broadly.
(The above January 1976 interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1976 Paradigm Publishers. All Rights Reserved.)