Alex Haley, through his epic novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," showed black Americans that there is no shame in being descendants of slaves.
Rather, black Americans should be proud that their ancestors survived being kidnapped from their homes, shipped across oceans like so much cargo, separated from families, to win their freedom and rights in the country that made it legal to keep them slaves.
Mr. Haley, who died of a heart attack yesterday at age 70, brought to life his own personal history that he first came to know from stories by his grandmother and great-aunts.
Even the title, "Roots," conjures up images of a massive personal odyssey that produced a hugely popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning book that was able to capture the biggest TV audience of its time.
Mr. Haley, several years after black Americans militantly affirmed their pride in their African heritage, took that pride one step further. While black Americans knew their heritage went well beyond the shores of this country, nothing made it easy for them to proudly trace their heritage.
Alex Haley did that.
It took 12 years. He did it not with carefully maintained public records but through stories told him by his grandmother and great-aunts. For most black people in this country, that's all there was of their past because their lives, for the most part, were not documented.
Willie Ragsdale, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, said yesterday that "Roots" was "the leading force behind a number of us getting interested in genealogy." He said members influenced by Mr. Haley traced their families to Africa, and some Africans were able to trace their relatives in the United States.
"Roots' " influence can be seen more than a decade later here in Maryland.
Plaque at Annapolis dock
Mr. Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte arrived in Annapolis Sept. 29, 1767, aboard a slave ship after being kidnapped from Gambia, West Africa. That event was memorialized by a plaque installed at the Annapolis City Dock in 1981, and now is marked annually with the Kunta Kinte Commemoration and Heritage Festival.
Mr. Haley's book showed that the shame of slavery in this country must be talked about. As magnificent as the "Roots" miniseries was, it provoked pain and anger. It reopened old wounds and reminded black Americans of the gross injustice of slavery. It shamed many white Americans and made some defensive.
(When "Roots" was first broadcast, many of my white colleagues felt compelled to volunteer, "My ancestors never owned slaves.")
Mr. Haley died at a time when his first book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," has gained renewed popularity. The book was required reading during the late 1960s and early '70s, and now a new generation of black Americans, from college students to rap performers, has discovered the story of the black mili
tant's life. Spike Lee is currently directing a movie based on the book, and Mr. Haley was working with Mr. Lee on the film shortly before his death.
A sincere, kind man
Alex Haley had spent virtually all of the last several years on the lecture circuit; he was in Seattle to speak at a banquet when he FTC was stricken ill. While making speeches and promoting his last book, "A Different Kind of Christmas," Mr. Haley was doing more than making big bucks as an after-dinner speaker. He kept in touch with his readers. Despite the near reverence many black Americans felt for the author, he remained soft-spoken, sincere, kind and genuine.
I met Mr. Haley on a book-promotion tour through Baltimore in December 1988. During that visit, he allowed his lunch to be repeatedly interrupted and graciously signed books, menus, scraps of paper.
A personal touch
After the interview with him, I mentioned that my father had lived in Elizabeth City, N.C., at the same time Mr. Haley lived there before joining the Coast Guard and that he regarded the author as a local hero. Mr. Haley asked about my father and even wrote down his name and phone number. I thought he was just being polite.
But Mr. Haley called my father that afternoon. Dad first thought it was a joke ("When someone calls up and claims to be Alex Haley, you wonder for a minute," my father said.) But they talked for several minutes, mostly about Elizabeth City.
It was that kind of personal touch that made Alex Haley more than just another best-selling author.