Black History Month: How Alex Haley nurtured one student's writing roots
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
ON THE NIGHT OF Feb. 28, 1983, more than 106 million people gathered in front of television sets to watch the final episode of M*A*S*H.
I was not among those views. I did not mind one bit, and not just because I was only a mild fan of the iconic TV show.
A freshman journalism student, I was on assignment that night for The Forum, the bi-weekly student newspaper of the Community College of Allegheny County South Campus in suburban Pittsburgh.
My assignment: Interview Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Roots: The Saga of an American Family.’’
Just six years earlier, my family was among the record-breaking 130 million people who tuned in to the ground-breaking television mini-series adapted from “Roots,” Haley’s 1976 best-selling novel about his ancestors in Africa and their passage from slavery to freedom in America.
We embraced Kunta Kinte, Kizzy, Chicken George and their extended family as their stories played out on our living room TV. And we recoiled at the horrors they endured, harsh lessons of slavery and historic racism we otherwise might not have learned in the sheltered comfort of our suburban upbringing.
Now, six years later, I had Alex Haley — the voice behind the biggest blockbuster in television, the man who inspired millions of Americans to search for their own roots — all to myself.
I was 19, less than a year out of high school. But Haley agreed to sit with me for 30 minutes before walking into the auditorium to give a lecture as part of the campus’ Black History Month celebrations.
Only 50 people, barely a third of the auditorium’s capacity, attended the lecture, a sparse turnout blamed on the unfortunate confluence with a highly-anticipated M*A*S*H finale that was watched by 77 percent of the television viewing audience. (This was long before the era of the DVR.)
I remember looking out on all those empty seats and feeling sorry that Haley and his enormously important story were being upstaged by the likes of Hawkeye, Hot Lips and Radar.
But it didn’t seem to bother the people attending the lecture. Most gathered near the front of the stage, making for an intimate setting, then lined up afterward for his autograph.
THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER, I can’t recall much else about his lecture. But I remember plenty about our one-on-one interview, me trying not to be starstruck, Haley displaying generous patience with an awkward teenager struggling to learn the craft of journalism.
He had just arrived from the airport. He looked tired. He could have brushed me off to have a few minutes alone to relax before the lecture.
Instead, he waved me in to a faculty lounge near the auditorium, where a stream of fans and well-wishers kept interrupting the start of our interview.
At the time, I didn’t know a lot about Haley aside from Roots, published in 1976, and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X ,” which he co-authored with the civil rights leader in 1965.
My college’s newspaper adviser, an absent-minded professor whose name I’ll leave out, insisted on helping me research and write the questions for my interview.
An experienced reporter undoubtedly would have done a better job of framing my opening question. But I asked it word for word as my professor had instructed me.
“How did you first become involved in the black movement?”
Haley was holding a lit match over the bowl of his smoking pipe, and my query prompted a chuckle that sent premature smoke puffs bellowing from his mouth.
Then came his reply, with just the faintest tone of deserving sarcasm:
“At birth, I guess.’’
I recoiled, suddenly aware of my faux pas. But Haley quickly extinguished my embarrassment.
He segued into an insightful answer about the lack of awareness among young people about the struggles African Americans endured both long before and long after the abolishment of slavery.
“They really have no idea of the time when in the early part of the century the NAACP began,’’ he said. “People got killed for belonging to it. I don't know that you could say either that it began with the NAACP or back to Nat Turner and the slave rebellion.’’
From there, the interview seemed to flow like a casual conversation, with Haley offering fascinating insights and anecdotes about the people who shaped his life and career. At one point, I stopped asking questions and just let him talk.
He probably preferred it that way, the interviewee gently seizing control of the interview from the interviewer. But to me, a 19-year-old white kid who grew up with a minimal understanding of the struggles of African Americans, his answers were enlightening.
He offered an insightful contrast of Malcom X, “one of the most electrical personalities I’ve ever met,’’ and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another Haley interview subject.
“One of the things that intrigued me so much about the two of them is how easily either of them could have been the other, given the other’s background,’’ he said. “If Malcom, with his innate brilliance, had been exposed to a good high school and theological school, what a minister he would have made.’’
He described his experiences visiting black inmates in prisons.
“I almost never leave one without readiness to weep because in there I have looked in the same intelligent faces I have looked at in universities. They just grew up in circumstances that caused them to perceive life in a way that led them to that place…
“We have no idea what black youngster might have grown up to cure cancer.’'
AS THE INTERVIEW WOUND down, I asked for his thoughts about the future of race relations in America. Remember: This was 1983. Reading his answer now, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing a much-needed reckoning of the violence Black Americans have suffered, is haunting.
“I would hope that (in 50 years) we could hear less about blacks or white or browns...that we would just hear about we, the people,’’ he said, adding: “It won’t come the way we’re going now, I can tell you that.’’
A yellowing copy of the story I wrote has somehow managed to survive. Reading it again almost 40 years later offers a reminder of the lasting lessons learned that night by a student reporter interviewing one of the most inspiring authors of our time.