Alex Haley Emphasizes Importance of Family

When Alex Haley took center stage Wednesday night in a Santa Ana Civic Center auditorium, nostalgia took over as well. For an hour, the world-famous author talked about his boyhood, how he became a writer and the deep connection with family that led him to write his 1976 best-selling book, “Roots.”

The talk, sponsored by the City of Santa Ana and the Friends of the Santa Ana Public Library, had been billed as a look at “The Future of the Family in Today’s Society,” and Haley had been invited to speak as part of the city’s celebration of Black History Month. However, the writer seemed more interested in stressing the importance of family ties than in talking about the American family’s future.

Haley’s two published books are “Roots,” which traces his genealogy all the way back to a slave ancestor shipped to America in 1767, and the earlier “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which he co-wrote with Malcolm X, a 1960s radical Black Muslim figure. Even “The Autobiography” reflects a strong sense of family, from Malcolm’s early relations with parents and siblings to his later bonding with a larger “family” of oppressed blacks. And “Henning,” a new book scheduled to be released by Doubleday & Co. in September, traces Haley’s Tennessee boyhood.


Haley, 64--the recipient of a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a number of honorary doctorate degrees--now lives in both Tennessee and Los Angeles. Since gaining fame through “Roots,” he has traveled extensively and given many lectures. He was part of the team that adapted “Roots” into a television miniseries and also worked on a 1981 television series called “Palmerstown.” He says he is now developing some other television projects.

His upcoming book is about life among 560 blacks, whites, Indians and racially mixed mountain people in Henning, a town 50 miles west of Memphis, where, “black or white, you were either Methodist, Baptist or a sinner,” Haley said.

Through his descriptions of “boyhood memories, the things that stuck with me,” Haley said, he is “trying to share . . . things that on the surface don’t mean anything” but represent details of small-town American life.

In Henning, Haley said, he spent his earliest years with his maternal grandparents, who thoroughly spoiled him. “It was such a marvelous life for a little boy,” he said. “It put such an imprint on me about grandparents. Nobody can do for a child what grandparents can do.”

Grandparents can “sprinkle magic dust” through the “irrational love” they have for their children’s offspring, he said. “Grandparents will tell their grandchildren things they won’t tell their own children.” The seeds for “Roots” were planted in Henning when little Alex rummaged through his grandparents’ attic and listened to their stories.

In the attic, Haley found “the literal letter with which my staid, conservative grandfather had proposed to my grandmother.” He brought the letter down, and watched her “sort of caress it. I could see that she was awash in nostalgia,” he said, as she related the story of her courtship.

“The quickest you possibly can,” he told the packed auditorium of about 300 people, “go through and inventory everything” elderly relatives have stored in boxes and attics. Immigration papers, boat tickets and black slaves’ “freedom papers” should be found and catalogued, he said.

When Haley was 5, his grandfather (“somebody I really probably would have difficulty separating from God”) died. That summer his grandmother invited her six sisters to stay at the house, and young Haley heard many stories about his family’s past.

“Just about as dusk deepened into early night, they would trickle out onto the porch” to sit in rocking chairs beneath trailing honeysuckle vines, watch the fireflies, chew snuff and talk. “One or another would lead into it,” Haley said, and they’d talk “about when they were girls. I remember being embarrassed by them, these gray-haired ladies giggling about being teen-agers. . . . Their very personalities would change, depending on who they were talking about.” When they talked about Kunta Kinte, “the African,” it was “almost like they were talking about somebody in mythology,” he said.

Absorbing these stories as he grew up, Haley had trouble differentiating ancestors like “Chicken George” and “Kizzy” (whom he later brought to life in “Roots”) from religious figures like David, Goliath and Moses, he said. He also preferred imagining animal shapes in clouds he saw out his schoolroom windows to studying. His poor grades did not win his highly educated parents’ approval. When he was 18, Haley said, his father decided “I needed to mature” with “one hitch in military service” before entering college. “My father had no idea how happy I would be to swap the life of a student for the life of a sailor,” he added.

Haley stayed in the Coast Guard for 20 years. “The literal truth about how I got to be a writer,” he said, was through helping other people write love letters. After his day’s work cooking in the galley was done, he would, for a fee, help sailors write to their girlfriends. His clients reported major amorous successes resulting from these letters, he said, and his days of peeling potatoes ended. “I never cooked another meal. No one expected me to,” Haley said.

Instead, he continued writing love letters for others, and he began writing stories of his own and collecting rejection letters from magazines. Later, retired from the Coast Guard, he took assignments with “Reader’s Digest” and “Playboy.” An article he wrote for “Playboy” resulted in two years work writing the Malcolm X book. “Roots” required 12 years of research and writing.

In a press conference before the talk, Haley said he’d been surprised when “Roots” became a best seller. “When you talk about the success of a creative product . . . , what you really are talking about is that great big question mark, public response. . . . You don’t know how (people) are going to react,” he said.

He doesn’t like to think of America as a melting pot or “mixing bowl” of people, Haley added, because that “conjures up a bowl of oatmeal. I prefer the term ‘salad bowl’ ” to describe all the different racial ingredients that make up the United States.

“Roots” is “a story about black people” told through one man and his descendants, Haley continued. “I’m aware of a desperate need for (other) things to be done like this. I would love to see a Latino ‘Roots’ done. . . .

“You know some people who desperately need their story written? The American Indians. They need a sense of roots, of worth, of appreciating themselves.”