(Scott Ross of The 700 Club had the opportunity to talk with Alex Haley at his Tennessee farm before Haley’s death in 1992. To acknowledge Black History Month in 2009, Scott published that interview on February 20, 2009.)
Since this is Black History Month here in the USA, I thought it might be appropriate to publish this interview.
Author Alex Haley is best remembered for his novel, Roots, an historical drama based on his family’s history. Roots later became an epic mini-series portraying in poignant detail the realities of slavery.
I had a number of conversations / interviews with Alex over the years. As Providence would have it, the last interview I had with him was just days before his death. Interestingly enough, he sent me this letter of commendation subsequent to our interview: “Scott Ross? You’d have a hard time finding a greater combination of street smarts, on – camera savvy and born – again gentleman.” I received this letter the day Alex died. It very well could have been one of his final writings!
Previously, I had the opportunity to talk with him at his Tennessee farm before Haley’s death in 1992. In this fascinating interview, Alex Haley discusses controversial topics like hate, racism within the black community, and affirmative action. Some of his responses might surprise you and many of the issues we discussed are still relevant today.
Scott: Nestled in the idyllic countryside of rural Tennessee, Alex Haley’s home is his retreat, a place for reflection and contemplation, well away from the harried excess of modern life. But Alex Haley is not a man who shuts himself off from the outside world. In fact, he invites it in. Throughout the year, Haley’s home is open to friends, acquaintances, and even students from the nearby University of Tennessee, where he serves as adjunct professor. Alex also opens his lodge to the media, which often seeks him out as an expert on the human condition.
The Roots of Racism: A Conversation With Alex Haley
Scott: The “roots” of racism where do they come from?
Alex: Well, if you go back to before mankind came out of the cave, there was hatred. We are really talking about the same thing. Racism and hatred are synonymous. But then, as far as I know, as far as I’ve studied or heard or picked up, it seems that this type of thing is a curse against mankind.
If you think about it, there’s not a religious group, there’s not a nationalistic group, there’s not a tribe, there is no grouping of people to my knowledge, of any consequence, who have not, at one or another time, been the object of hatred, racism, or who has not had people against them just because they were them.
Now in this country it’s popular to talk about black / white racism. That’s just what’s here with us, but I travel a lot. It used to be, when I would go to any country out of this country, I could guarantee that the first question would establish my name, and the fact that I’ve written Roots—and the third question, at least no later than the fourth question—would not be a question, so much as a statement, something like, “We understand that in America white people do such and such bad things to black people.”
After a while I began to get irritated by that. Maybe here we might engage in a conversation about racism, but when you hear someone abroad criticizing this country, your hair bristles, at least mine did. So I began to do something. I have a buddy, a dear friend, George Simms, a researcher. Now every time I go overseas he gets a copy of my itinerary and he comes back to me with research about that country.
Then when I go to these cities and they start in about racism in this country, I will act like I don’t quite understand what they’re talking about, then I will say, “Oh, you mean like you do to the so and sos,” and the thing is dropped right then. I have never been anywhere that there was not right there in that area someone who was being stepped on by somebody else. And, it has given me the feeling that that which we call racism, and I’m not avoiding it at all, I’m just simply putting it into a wider perspective, I don’t know anywhere in the world where there is not racism against somebody, so we are just dealing with what is, in America, our immediate, favorite racism, black / white racism.
Scott: What you’re basically saying is that it is an issue of the heart. We judge based on outward appearances, based on visual observations, then we see distinctions and we build walls based on that.
Alex: It’s true. One of the big factors that has made the black / white racism issues predominant is the very word you use, “visual.” You see, when all the people came from Europe, the different enclaves of people, every single one, if you go back and read the journals of the time, it will shock you, I guarantee you, to see what the top journals were saying about the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, when they came over, one by one. The Scotts were one group that escaped along with the Swiss people, but the big groups, just caught the devil. Then they were able to assimilate when they got there.
Where black people, African American people, suffered is that you could tell one of them across the street. As far as you could see, you could say, “That’s one of them.” We have been the “pronoun people,” very much the “them,” the “those” people. And, that has remained true in large part because of the visual factor.
Scott: Isn’t there a resurgence of racism? We made some progress in the sixties, now we’re looking back again?
Alex: I think that’s true. It’s kind of a pendulum effect. You see, it manifested in a hundred ways on campuses. You see it in the nature of organizations that are created, that are anti-black, and, which I might say, are anti-white as well. The anti-blackness has generated new forms of youth involvement in anti-whiteness, which in some cases is appalling, if you know the backgrounds. I don’t think there’s any question that there is this pendulum effect. It appeared to be better, or at least less pronounced, for a time, and now we read more and hear more about racism.
Scott: What about those who use race as entitlement, such as a person who would say, “You owe me this job because I am black, not because I am qualified?” There is a white backlash to this, where people then say, “You’re only going to get the job because you’re black.” So it’s back to the entitlement thing. You have these feelings that run beneath the surface sometimes. Now you’ve got your rights, now you’ve got your place, prove yourselves.
Alex: Well, I think by now we have those feelings running above the surface. You know, Scott, I don’t think there’s any specific, finite answer to these things. But, when you say what you’ve said, what came to my mind was the decades, indeed, the generations when there was not that kind of dialogue, because the person who was black was not going to get the job in the first place.
The person who was black might as well not even apply for the job. It’s kind of like we are prone to overlook or to forget the backgrounds of the things that bother us now. Recently we have had elections involving white and black candidates, where black candidates have done very well or won. Women have made similar advances.
These black candidates’ success made me think about the fact that not 50 years old, called the poll tax, the kind of questions that were once asked of black citizens who sought to vote. They were given what purported to be formal civic examinations. Literally, in Alabama, one of the questions given to potential black voters was how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? Another question was how many hairs are there on a mule?
When we’re fifty years out from blacks being asked questions like that to qualify to vote, you know that the same thing happened in the area of jobs. When now people say, “I have a right to catch up, to have some opportunity to get a leg up,” at least you can say that they have a point. Others do have a point to say, “I’m more qualified than you,” but I’m simply saying that the ones who believe they need a leg up have an equally valid point.
The thing I find myself often thinking about, is trying to get away from the immediate, relatively small objective at hand and look at the bigger picture. I find myself continuing to react to what is happening to this country as we go through all these shenanigans we go through. We are still the greatest country on earth. But, man we are diminishing.
One of the ways we are diminishing is we are permitting so many, many of our young people, who are of various colors—black, white, brown whatever—not to realize their potential for education. We are crippling them when they are still four and five years old, by the type of school they go to, by the atmosphere of discrimination and prejudice they come up against, by other things which keep them from becoming the contributors to society they could be. We don’t know, some little black boy or girl growing up in the inner city might grow up and cure cancer for all of us, if we let them do it.
I talk with a lot of people, a lot of them are black, and we talk. Almost always we run a little game where we ask, “How did you come to be who you are?” “Who saved you?” “What person was responsible for you having gone to school, instead of going out into the streets?” And what I find myself always coming back to is that we are one family in this country, a broad, loose, extended family. What we do with one piece of it, in the case we talk about, coming down to black people, I think we’re talking about 12% of the population. We’re sorely not realizing the potential that lies within that 12%. We’re throwing many of them out to the wolves. That’s not so much black people’s loss as it is the United States of America’s terrible loss.
Scott: What about blacks who, in some cases in response to racism, are creating separate societies of their own? There are black businesses, a black Miss America Pageant; could a white person enter that?
Alex (laughing): No, not if it’s a black pageant.
Scott: What about that, is that good or bad?
Alex: Well, it’s certainly defensible, at the very least. If you take a people who are blocked out of, shunted out of, implied out of, are embarrassed out of thing. I think it is perfectly defensible that they have their own things. If they do, that is fortunately one of the things this country affords. It’s your choice to do what you want to do as long as you don’t hurt anybody else in the process.
But, I don’t see a thing wrong with black businesses and black people patronizing black businesses. As a matter of fact, I spoke with a Korean, and he told me that in Korea, it is street knowledge that if they come to the United States and want to make money quickly, the thing to do is start any kind of business almost in a black community, because the black people are the only people on the face of the earth who will permit another people to come into their community and take their money out. There is a lot of reality about that.
Scott: What about the black individual who “makes it?” Someone like you? Do you move into some kind of black middle class or upper class position and forget those you have left behind, don’t go back to the ghetto, back to the underclass, back to the man who can’t find a job, ignore that, then build your own structure in the black community?
Alex: To tell you the truth, Scott, I think most of us, and I’ll include myself in this group, who are either asked that or accused of that are sick of it. The reason is that you’re always being judged. No matter what you do, it’s not the right thing. If you didn’t become successful, then you’d be pointed at as one of those creatures down there who didn’t take advantage of this or that, who didn’t climb and rise and so forth. Then if you do, you’re eventually besieged—and I use the word advisedly—by people who come to you, black people among them, with one or another variation of what you were just saying, “Look at you; you’ve made it. Look at me; you owe me.” It’s another variation of what you were saying about the entitlement.
Most of us in our own way do what we can. Most of us prefer to be as quiet as possible about giving, because every time it’s publicized that we do something, if it’s something of the nature of giving, we’ll be doubly besieged, and you really get sick of being always criticized no matter what you do. I think from what I personally know, I am really quite proud of most of the people I know who have “made it,” who do things to help people.
Scott: What about black on black racism, or prejudice within the black community against other blacks who are lighter or darker?
Alex: It depends on where you are. I know that, statistically, it has been proven that there is a tremendous amount of black on black crime within the inner cities.
The other thing you were talking about, the color gradations, is more subtle than it used to be. I’m old enough that I can remember a time when there was no question if a black person, generically speaking, was what they called “high yellow.” They wouldn’t speak to somebody who was black or brown. Brown people wouldn’t speak to someone who was black. I have known and now know black people who are whiter than [you]. My own grandmother about whom I’m now writing in my father’s book, my mother’s side went into Roots, but on my father’s side, both paternal grandparents were the parents of white Irish fathers and black slave mothers. Therefore, I’m part Irish. I can’t feel Irish to save my soul, but it’s a fact.
Scott: What is it that black people really want in this society?
Alex: The same as white people want. It’s as simple as that. I guess one of the things that makes us the sickest, and I don’t mean you personally . . .
Scott: Thank you.
Alex: No, you’re all right. I know you beneath the skin level. I think we get sick of always hearing questions like that, “What do ‘you people’ want?” It’s what I call the “pronoun people.” We’re not regarded as people, but as a thing.
Phrases like “you people,” we hear a lot, and we boil inside. We may not say it, but I get sick of people talking about “my people,” like there are twenty-eight million of us who think alike and act alike, when actually we are as diverse as any group of people on the face of earth.
There’s paternalism, an implied kind of qualification of us, in questions that are asked of us. I get interviewed a lot, and I found myself listening to what the interviewer is asking me. I’m analyzing what I’m being asked more than my response. What I hear is that most of the questions the interviewers ask give you a barometer of what the people in those communities think of me.
Most of the things that are asked of me as a representative black person would suggest never are we equal Americans. The questions that we are asked would suggest that we are from Afghanistan or somewhere totally away from here. You never hear about fellow Americans or anything that implies fellow Americans. Again it’s the pronouns, “you people.” So, it tends to detach us internally. You may smile and go through the whole routine, and I’m not at all saying that I’m going around being bitter. I’m just being analytical. I would tend to draw to people who, for whatever reason, impress me as being real, and I’ll say, without trying to turn you crimson, you are one of those people. I was taken with you because you are honest. That was how I evaluated you before I knew too much about you. But that’s just an inner judgment one makes. But we hear over and over things which say to us that we really are not regarded as fellow Americans.
Scott: Given what you just said, will there ever be equal rights? Will we ever be one nation under God? Is it possible?
Alex: I do think it’s possible. That’s one of the marvelous things about this country, that at the same time I say what I just said about this country, I would equally say to you that I don’t know anywhere where blacks are as well-off as a whole as they are in this country. Most of the people I’ve met who are black in other countries look up to the blacks in this country. Though they may talk differently, they are anxious to partake of this country, simply because things in their country are not physically on par with what they are here.
The things we are able to achieve here, our potential here, far surpasses what blacks are able to achieve in other countries. So it’s a question, I suppose, of being critical that your country and its culture are not what they could be. It could be a lot better, if not for me, for my children or my grandchildren. I am doing fine, but in doing fine you have a concern for those who are not doing so well as you are lucky enough to be doing.
(The above Alex Haley interview and video clip are presented under the Creative Commons License. It is also on the publisher’s website: A Conversation With Alex Haley. © 2009 The Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)