Interview with Alex Haley

Why are you obsessed with the journey?


Well, my, the stories that I heard my grandmother and her sisters say about the family, their family and my ancestors, although I didn't really think of it as such, were in a certain sense rather similar to another set of stories I heard, ah, ah, in Sunday school. Henning like many little southern towns was, ah, just pure Protestant at that time. You were either White or Black, you were either Methodist or Baptist or you were a sinner in the eyes of the community. And all children went to Sunday school, and in Sunday school we heard the stories, the biblical parables. And I would assume, I'd guess that by the time I was say 10, 11 years old my head in story terms was a jumble of David and Goliath and Chicken George and Moses and Miss Kizzy, they were all just in there. And I would have had to stop at some points and figure out which one belonged into which set of stories, you know. But it was, I, I sort of go into some detail to, to explain how I got this material about the family. Now I have, since "Roots", come to know many, many Black families as well as White families grew up, we, we used to have a tradition that the, ah, ah, entertainment before television, before radio, the entertainment for families particularly in the south was that on weekends, Sundays particularly, the family would gather after the noon meal on the front porch or in the liv--livingroom and the elders would talk and the young would listen. And the elders told stories and the children grew up. That's why the south has such a rich story tradition and a rich culture and that's why [ we ]we're better raised than most folks and things like that, it's the truth. And ah, anyway I grew up knowing the story of the family before I ever had any dream of the significance. I couldn't have spelled the word significance, I didn't know w-what was significance if it had ever come up. But I grew up knowing the story. And then when I, decades later, had quite by chance, accident even, had become a writer, you know, and had written for magazines and then had written finally "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and now I am that thing called an author, I began to think about the stories that grandma and them had told. And I think playing it back, I believe that my motivation for thinking about that was that it was now in the 6-'60s, the latter '60s. The Malcolm X book was published in '65. And I was hearing, as all around were hearing, a lot more than previous about Africa, about Black people, about one thing and another, and the first time it occurred to me, first time I ever the word Africa was on the front porch in Henning when they were talking about the African, who was the father of Miss Kizzy and he--she was the momma of Chicken George and so on down the line. And of course the whole thing they were talking about was about Black people. And that really was what gave, what, what brought back that story business to me and I began researching, not with any, not with the slightest thought of a book, but just because if you are a writer, almost by intuition, almost subconsciously you go poke around and see if you find a little bit more, a little bit that kind of gratifies you or reassures you about what you were looking for or interested in. It was just a matter of interest. And then every time I'd find this little bit, I'd find a little bit more. And finally, a rather critically important day, one Saturday I went up to, I was in Washington, I had interviewed somebody, I have no idea who nor for about what, and I was walking up a sidewalk and I looked up and there's this tall building, great tall columns and across the top was inscribed "Archives of the United States." And I didn't have to get back to New York right away. It was Saturday afternoon and I just, impulse, went up the steep steps. And I went up in there and I, I walked around the lobby. They had things about the founding of this country, the Bill of Rights was blown up, the Constitution. And then I went up in the main reading room and a young White fella came up and he, I later, he's an, an intern. He's very polite and he said, "Sir could I be of help to you?" And, and I remember the words just came out of my mouth, I heard myself say, I hadn't thought about it, and I said, "I wonder if I could see the census records of ah, Alamance County, North Carolina in 18 ah, 70s. Now I asked for 1870 because I had always heard that the Civil--after the Civil War was the first time the census listed Black people by name. And I asked for Alamance County because all my life, back to little boyhood I had heard my grandma and her sisters talking about Alamance County. You see something that's very important, particularly in, well not only Black, any other genealogy that far back, is when you talk with very old people living today and you ask them about where did they live when they were young, you will hear them repetitively refer to such and such a county. And the reason for that was that they did not have anything like the mobility we have. Their mobility was as far as a horse could travel, and as a consequence you had whole families that might spend generations within one county. And so people then tended to talk about county and think about county rather as we think about a state today. And so that's why you hear counties. I heard Alamance County. And then I'm looking and I'm looking and I'm looking at names of people in old fashioned handwriting, you know, we've all seen it. And finally, bless the Lord, I'm looking down and it was like it just came up like a fist, through this eyepiece, I'm looking at this microfilm. And there's Murray, Thomas. How many times did I heard grandma, Aunt Liz, all of them talk about their daddy, Tom Murray the Blacksmith. Occupation: Blacksmith. Age: I forgot what his age was. Color: b for Black. And right underneath his name, it was just incredible, Arrena, A-R-R-E-N-A. How many times did I heard grandma and them talk about their momma's name was spelled A-R-R-E-N-A and not Irene like a lot of people called her. And there her occupation: housewife; 1870 was the first time you ever saw Black women described as housewife in the census. And her color was M for mulatto. And then underneath her was their children. And the thing was so astounding to me was not the names, I knew their name, my grandmother and her, her sisters, but their ages. Here they are age 14, age 12, a woman I knew as gray-haired, everything. And then I finally got on and the last one listed was Elizabeth, age 6. Was no way in the world, that was snuff dipper, Aunt Liz, no way in the world she could have been six years old. And then the shocker was that was it. And I'm sitting there looking at this thing, where is grandma? There was no Cythia. And I, I felt like I wanted to just tear up this thing, it was where was grandma. If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't even be sitting there looking. And then it hit me. She wasn't born yet, and grandma had two years to go before she would come on the scene. And when I think back about it and I have many, many times, that was for me the first bite of the genealogical bug from which there is no cure. Once bitten, forever more you will be searching, hunting for something, somewhere. And that really was what propelled me into "Roots." And you talk about the money thing. Um, I don't know what it is about writers, artists, creative people, but you learn, man the, maybe the least important thing in the world is money. Ah, I, I, I knew I was having a thing at one time ah, it was involving a divorce. And, you know, there's all the talk about she take everything you got and all that. And I remember the thing that gave me a tremendous sense of ah, strength, and I remember running my hand in my pocket and, ah, and I pulled out, ah, and I said, just give me that, I don't care. If I got my pen, that's my strength, you know. And, ah, ah, I felt at that time about, I, I could care less about money. I just had to get the next fact, the next this. And I for a time was living almost hand to mouth, ah, because the important thing was the story. And when I look back at it, if I hadn't done that, "Roots" would never have existed. And as, I'm not saying that in some martyred, ah, success sense, I'm just saying that when you are on the quest of something that has you, you see people talk about you writing a book, if you are on a powerful book idea, the time comes fairly soon when it has you, not vice versa, and you've just got to go wherever that book takes you. And whatever research involved, you go do it, and whatever it costs, raise it, do it. That's it.