(New insights about the author of “Roots” are gained through an exclusive interview by Ted T. Jones II of The Message Magazine.)
In January, 1977, an unprecedented audience was captivated by the televised dramatization of a book written by a Black American, Alex Haley.
Street traffic was noticeably reduced during the hours the film was being shown. Millions of lives and hearts were profoundly affected by this unique experience—a great first in America, as Roots shed its branches across the nation.
Roots is based on author Haley’s twelve-year search on three continents for his African and American ancestors. Years were spent as Alex Haley traveled from place to place in search of a meaningful identity. He had an insatiable desire to know who his forefathers were, where they came from, and what they did.
In the early part of the film series many were deeply affected by the scenes viewed on the slave ship Lord Ligonier as it crossed the vast ocean with its cargo of captured human beings.
Haley flew to Africa and spent ten nights in the cargo hold of the freighter African Star as it made its journey to America. At its worst, his experience was luxury compared to the possible sixty to seventy days of travel used by the slave ships. He was finding his roots.
MESSAGE MAGAZINE associate editor Ted T. Jones II was provided the special opportunity to briefly interview Alex Haley in the Hilton Hotel in Huntsville, Alabama, on the night of March 12, 1977. Mr. Haley was invited to address a large audience in the Van Braun Center by the Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with headquarters in Chicago, Illinois.
Alex Haley Interviewed By Ted T. Jones II
Jones: Mr. Haley, on behalf of MESSAGE MAGAZINE, the only religious journal of its kind in the world, with a circulation of over 100,000 per issue, covering North America, Central America, and other parts of the world, greetings! First of all, we’d like to know something about your religious background.
Haley: Well, to start at the beginning, I am a steward in the New Hope C.M.E. Church [C.M.E. is abbreviation for Colored Methodist Episcopal] in Henning, Tennessee. I think that, regardless of how many honors and awards that I get, the fact that I am a Christian is one of the most meaningful things to me. This church was built by Chicken George, his son Tom, and other families living there at that particular time. It has been the church for my family across those generations down to the present time.
Jones: Were you always a church member, Mr. Haley?
Haley: I grew up in the church. The earliest things I can remember involve the church. That was the way little Southern communities were. So my earliest memories were of Sunday School and church, and they have pretty much remained that way. I think that nothing I have done has been without God’s help! Sometimes I look at all the publicity and notoriety that has come, and I think, “Wow! Look at what has happened with Roots!” But really, I think it transcends what any person could do on his own. It obviously goes into an area beyond what any individual could do in his own strength. It is simply intelligence to recognize that fact.
Jones: It’s good when one can remember and see God’s guidance.
Haley: I go back to something which my grandmother used to say. She would say to us as a family or sometimes to the church: “The Lord might not come when you expect Him to, but He will always be on time!” That’s what I think applies to Roots. The time had come for a book like Roots to arrive on the scene.
Jones: This is beautiful! Your awareness of God’s abiding presence is important. How has your experience in authoring Roots affected you spiritually?
Haley: It has deepened my sense of spirituality. So many things happened. No big galvanic, traumatic things, but so many things happened at various times which said to me, inside, that God was with the writing of the book.
Jones: We feel that a great awakening has taken place here in America as a result of the film and the book. What do you think is going to be the outcome of this new eye-opening experience for so many millions of Americans?
Haley: Well, I don’t know exactly what it will be in finite terms, but I know that it is a great positive step ahead. When you think about it thirty years ago, Black people as a group tended to be ashamed of themselves and their ancestors. You never heard Black people going around talking about who their slave and African forebears were. Now—what an incredible change is taking place! Now, Black people are digging for every shred of information they can get about their past and are going around boasting about it. It’s a change of attitude and there’s a metaphysical statement which says, “You change the attitude and you change the thing.”
Jones: Comparing your work on Roots with your labor on the biography on Malcolm X, which of the two involvements gave you the most exhilarating feeling?
Haley: By far, Roots! This is not to put down the book about Malcolm. It’s just a whole different scope of book, as I see it.
Jones: What happened to you, inside, when you made your first trip to Gambia?
Haley: I was about emotionally wiped out by my first trip to Gambia and the things which occurred there. It was something else.
Jones: The people were strangers to you at that point. What was their attitude toward you, and how you were received?
Haley: At first they received me as a visitor. It was when they found out that I was a son of the village that they became dramatically affected. At that point I was also very deeply affected, too.
Jones: We feel that hundreds of thousands of people have written letters to you since reading the book Roots and seeing the TV series. What has been the tone of the correspondence?
Haley: I can tell you positively that there has not been one negative response—not even one!
Jones: That’s fantastic!
Haley: In numerical terms, it’s about like the population average. One letter from a Black compared to nine letters from white writers. The Black writers are generally very emotional about it . . . “Thank you for giving me my history!” or “I feel that I have been reborn!” When the white writers express themselves, they say, “I am white . . . “I didn’t know . . . . I didn’t realize. . . . I had no idea!” And then they say, “Reading this book has made me start to think about our family or our own history.” It seems that the book has obviously touched a common pulse. If you think about it, with the single exception of the American Indian, everybody in this country, ancestrally, came from somewhere across that ocean.
Jones: Numerous individuals have come to some of us Blacks here in America with real apologetic attitudes. Some feel that the church must readdress itself to the issue of brotherhood. What meaningful way do you feel that Roots can serve as a vehicle of communication along this line?
Haley: Well, in ways like opening minds. In the final analysis, that’s the most important thing to do—to get people’s minds to change. You can beat people, shoot them, even maim them, but if their minds are set against you, then you still have not changed them. Roots can help to open and change people’s minds.
Jones: Mr. Haley, it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you tonight. Blessings on you in the days ahead!
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was published in the September 1977 issue of The Message. © 1977 by Southern Publishing Association of Seventh-day Adventists. All Rights Reserved.)