Alex Haley Remembered

Magazine cover with drawing of settler meeting Indigenous persons, reading "When Old Worlds Meet: Southern Indians Since Columbus"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 20 No. 1, "When Old Worlds Meet: Southern Indians Since Columbus." Find more from that issue here.

When Alex Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, the South lost one of its most important authors. Indeed, no other writer has done more than Haley to diversify the range of Southern voices represented in the mainstream media. His Autobiography of Malcolm X has sold over six million copies, and Roots introduced a wide audience to the African-American oral tradition, forcing the entire nation to confront the brutal legacy of slavery through the story of a single black family.

For the past six years, historian and musician Anne Romaine has been working on a biography of Haley. A veteran of the civil rights movement and the director of the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, Romaine organized the Haley House Museum in Henning, Tennessee. She spoke with us from her family’s home near Gastonia, North Carolina.


Southern Exposure: Haley traveled the world in search of his roots. How did he develop such a passionate interest in his own family history?

Anne Romaine: Alex was the product of an unusual family. When he was born in 1921, his father was studying agriculture at Cornell University in New York, and his mother was studying piano at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. His parents were part of a generation of young people looking forward to a bright future after the First World War. But it was his grandmother, Cynthia Palmer—his mother’s mother—who told him the stories of his slave ancestors and the African, Kunta Kinte. His grandmother lived in Henning, Tennessee, 50 miles north of Memphis. Chicken George, Kunta Kinte’s grandson, had led the family there from a plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina in 1873. Alex spent a lot of time in Henning in the summers and considered it home.

Alex talked about how his grandmother would hug and kiss him and cook for him. Her love stayed with him. It gave him what I call a “grandmother spirit” — a person who straddled the older traditions and the more contemporary. It also gave him a longing to be a part of that older culture and to give it life.

As a young child, Alex sat on his grandmother’s front porch and listened to the stories from her and her sisters. His mother tried to discourage him from putting any value on those stories — she thought he should forget about slave times. But those stories fired up his imagination. He used to go to Sunday school and listen to the stories about Noah and Jacob and Moses, and he mixed them up with the tales his grandmother told about Kizzy and Chicken George and Kunta Kinte. To him, they all seemed like great people who were part of the same story.

SE: What rekindled his interest in those stories as an adult?

AR: Many things. It was 1965. Malcolm X had just been assassinated, and Alex was walking in front of the National Archives. Suddenly, he heard a voice say, “Go in there.” So he went in and asked for all the census records for Alamance County for the 1870s. He started turning the handle, and there were the names of his great-grandparents and great aunts, all the names from the front porch. It was like a light exploded in his head.

Alex was transformed. Up to then his life had been predictable and controlled, as much as a writer’s life can be. But Roots put him in touch with his inner direction. It was this passion that led him on that amazing journey—a 12-year search for the links that bound together the generations of his family.

Although he was in terrible debt, Alex scraped together the money to make 25 trips to Africa. He ended up in a remote Gambian village, where an elderly griot or historian recounted the history of the village and gradually came to the name of Kunta Kinte, who had gone out one day to chop wood and was taken by the slavers.

SE: People sometimes ask, why is Alex Haley so important? After all, a lot of people have written books about slavery and black history.

AR: I feel like the abiding quality that kept Alex before the public was his authenticity. People felt like his stories came from the heart. He was someone you could identify with. He had his own values and beliefs, but first and foremost he was a storyteller.

In the larger sense — that of the role of the artist in our culture—he was what you might call a keeper of the myth, the interlocking stories and rituals that define a people. That’s what he did — he unlocked hidden myths of African-American culture, myths that the larger culture had tried to undermine.

SE: He also showed us that the lives of ordinary people are as much a part of history as the accomplishments of "great men.”

AR: That’s true. We’re taught in school about the heritage of kings and presidents, but Alex emphasized that the stories of common people are as powerful as those of great leaders. That may not seem like a very revolutionary idea, but it is. Coming after the civil rights movement and the great social upheavals of that period, the story of Roots gave people a feeling that family ties would survive all the social changes.

SE: Do you remember where you were when you saw Roots?

AR: I had just moved to Nashville. I was amazed by how much excitement it created. There were parties and get-togethers — everybody had to be somewhere to watch Roots. It drew the largest audience in television history.

Though it was a seemingly innocent story, it presented a shattering image of black slavery. Through Roots, Alex lifted up a vision of a different reality — not only for blacks, but for everyone. He showed that the most dispossessed people can look back to where they come from and find truth and power in their own story, their own myths. His story was a hero-journey that other people identified with.

SE: But like any hero he had his own troubles.

AR: Of course. In fact, the irony of his personal life is that he was someone who represented family values on a national level, but he himself couldn’t keep a family together. He was married three times and in later years seldom saw his family and grandchildren. He taught people the importance of roots, but he called himself a rolling stone.

Alex was tormented that he couldn't write more and do more. Like a physician, he couldn’t always heal himself. He was a very gentle, loving person, but he had his own way of moving through the world. As his little grandson said at the funeral, he was a man who had good intentions.

SE: How did you hear about his death?

AR: I got a phone call in the early morning hours. I was shocked and grieved; it was totally unexpected. His funeral was a stunning celebration. It was held in a very large CME church in Memphis. On the first of three days on which his body lay in state, 7,000 people came to view it.

He was buried in Henning, in the front yard of his grandmother’s home. An African drummer played, and there were ambassadors from Gambia and other African countries in attendance. There was a worldwide outpouring of love and affection for someone who had been a symbol for a people and a time.

Alex Haley represented reconciliation. That’s what he felt his life was about. He could not bear to talk about conflict and confrontation. He viewed himself as a healer of cultures.

The week before he died, I saw him on TV on the 700 Club, of all places. The interviewer asked him about racism, and he said, “I usually don’t like to focus just on American racism.” Then he added with great conviction: “But I will tell you this. In America, we are quick to rush to the aid of white Europeans when they are in trouble, but when Haitians come over here, we send them back.”

You probably don’t think that’s any big thing — I mean, Jesse Jackson speaks out like that all the time. But Alex Haley considered himself an observer of life. He moved quietly through it all — the bitter humiliation and racial scars of segregation. By focusing on what was real in his own life — on his family story, on an uncontested truth — he was able to build toward a worldwide reconciliation on the shoulders of the civil rights struggles and the black nationalist movement.

His status as a folk hero was highlighted in a story he told me about a recent visit to Nashville. He was walking down the street when an older woman stopped him and spoke harshly to him for wearing polyester pants. She said, “Don’t you understand? A man of your stature who represents success for those of us who are black should dress like he is somebody — not like some ordinary, old-timey man.”

Alex asked me later, “What’s wrong with polyester?” I explained that people who had a sense of style and fabrics prefer natural fibers. He said, “The problem is, I just ordered seven more pairs from the Sears catalog. I got them in every color. I like them because they come already hemmed to my length.”

I miss him. We were close friends for six years. We sometimes got together for interviews late at night, when he was relaxed and unguarded. I remember once last summer when he asked me to meet him at twelve o’clock midnight. So I showed up at his house at midnight, set up my tape recorder, and sat across from him. The light was turned low, and he lay on the couch looking at the ceiling. He talked for two hours about his life in a reflective way, as you would only do late at night. His stories were always poignant. I miss knowing that he’s in my world.