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|Alex Haley Interviewed By J03 Martin A. Szostek, USN||Share:|
DM Interview: Alex Haley
(Alex Haley granted the following interview to J03 Martin A. Szostek, USN which was published in the May 1973 issue of Direction Magazine.)
DM Interview: Alex Haley
Many Black genealogists have attempted to trace their family histories but have had to abandon their projects when confronted with a lack of records and funds. Haley, however, was able to complete his task by piecing together the obscure recollections of elder relatives, official records scattered throughout the world and a few linguistic fragments that were passed down from generation to generation.
"I knew it would be an exhaustive job to be the first Black man to trace his family's history," Haley commented, "but my experiences in the Coast Guard taught me that when you have a job to do, you see to it that it's done."
Haley served for 20 years in the Coast Guard before retiring in 1959. In 1949, he was selected as the Coast Guard's first journalist.
"When I first went into the Service," Haley reminisced, "they put me in the Steward rating. Prior to World War II, very few Blacks were in rates other than Steward." He noted at that time prejudice was a way of life.
"The Service has come a long way," he said, "in reducing racial problems. The Navy has taken the first big step in race relations—recognizing the fact they have a problem.
"There's been the birth of a new order in the Navy and, as always with birth, there's pain."
He recalled how his most prized possession aboard ship was his portable typewriter. "I became known as the cook who could write," Haley chuckled. And write he did, for eight years before one of his stories was published.
After retirement, he first went to work for Reader's Digest. From there, the author went to Playboy Magazine where he started the Playboy column entitled, "Interview". One of his assignments was to interview Malcolm X.
"I spent over 950 hours of interview time with Malcolm," Haley remembered, "before sitting down to write his life story." Haley likes to think of Malcolm as a symbol; the spirit of resentment, of rebellion, of what had been.
"What Malcolm resented about White America," Haley said, "was the way it had for years been wasting the talents and abilities of so many Black men and women."
Haley's interest in tracing his family's past first started several years ago while doing some research in the National Archives in Washington for a magazine article he was writing. While going through some Virginia county records, he chanced upon the names of some of his relatives. The names reminded him of his childhood when he used to listen to his grandmother talk about their ancestors.
"We used to sit out on the back porch," Haley explained, "and my maternal grandmother would relate to us all she had learned from her parents about our family's past."
She told him the story of a man named Kinte, and how one day in Africa while chopping wood for a drum, he was captured by White slave traders. Several months later, Kinte arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, and was sold to a plantation owner from Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Kinte had a habit of running away and, the fourth time this happened, was captured by a professional slave catcher who decided to make an example of him to the other slaves. Kinte was given a choice by his captor: to be castrated or have his foot cut off. He chose the latter.
The slave managed to survive this ordeal, but because he was maimed, was no longer of value in the slave market and remained on the Virginia plantation. There he fathered a daughter, Kizzy, who remained with him for 16 years, an extremely long time in a period of heavy slave trading.
Unlike the other slaves, Kinte refused to be 'Anglicized': given the name Toby, he declined to use it. Clinging to his African heritage, he would take Kizzy around the plantation and teach her African names for objects he recognized. Kizzy remembered what Kinte had taught her and, finally, when she was traded away, took these African names and the story of Kinte with her.
Later, Kizzy mated and bore a son named George. George had one advantage over other slaves at that time; he knew who his grandfather and father were—something unheard of then. George related the story of Kinte and the African sounds he learned from Kizzy to his seven children. One of his children, Tom, became a blacksmith and also fathered seven children, one of whom was named Cynthia, Haley's maternal grandmother.
With wry humor, Haley notes a White slave owner in his family tree—not an uncommon circumstance in the genealogy of many Black Americans. This Irish American, addressed as "Colonel" (because he was a colonel in the Confederate Army), was to provide an interesting twist in Haley's later research.
The story of his family's past always fascinated Haley, but when he actually saw his ancestors' names in print, it was hard to believe. "I recalled the story of the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone," Haley said, "by piecing together different bits of information. If he was able to do it, I knew I could, too."
His experience in the Coast Guard taught him a methodology that was exacting. Haley's seven years of research found him constantly traveling back and forth across the Atlantic: from a county courthouse in Maryland to shipping records in a British museum, church records in Ireland and, finally, to an aged story-teller in the African village of his ancestor.
The primary tools in his attempts to locate that ancestral village were the fragments of an African dialect passed down through the seven generations of his family since Kinte. He remembers traveling to New York and speaking to African delegates at the United Nations. "I used to ask them if those African sounds had any meaning," he recalled, "but more often than not I drew a blank."
The story of Haley's search became known in the academic community and a colleague suggested he consult a linguist at the University of Wisconsin. The linguist, Dr. Jan Vansina, recognized the words as belonging to the Mandingo dialect. The doctor was even able to pinpoint the village where the sounds originated: they were from Juffure in Gambia, West Africa.
Haley relates, "I heard those words on Thursday morning and on Monday I was in Africa."
When he did get to Africa, he found himself doing something he thought was unusual for a Black: he organized a safari. The safari was to take him upstream to the village where, he was told, the village griot might be able to help him. Griots are storytellers who commit to memory everything that happens to the people in a village and pass it on from generation to generation.
Gripped with tension as he neared the village, Haley wondered how the villagers would accept him. The village was small, only 70 people, with mud huts arranged in a circular pattern. Stepping out of the boat, the villagers gathered about him and began to stare. This was the first time they had seen a Black American.
"The crowd upset me," Haley recalled, "but then I realized why they were staring. Everyone in the crowd was jet black but me. I got this tremendous surge of being impure, almost hybrid."
After preliminary greetings, Haley was taken to see the griot. The griot's greeting to him was translated, "Yes, we have been told by our forefathers there are many of us in exile in that place called America."
Over a period of hours the old griot reconstructed the history of the village including the birth, life and subsequent capture of a villager named Kinte—who had been chopping wood. The old family story had been confirmed!
Haley returned to the British Naval Museum in England to try and find the name of the ship that took Kinte away. He had learned from the griot that Kinte was taken from the Gambia River area in the late 1760's. Haley searched through old shipping records for seven weeks until he found the vessel, the Lord Ligonier, which brought Kinte to Annapolis on September 29, 1767. He also learned from the records that when the Lord Ligonier set sail on July 5, 1767, it carried a cargo of goods and 140 slaves. When it arrived three months later, only 98 of the slaves had survived the crossing.
As his research developed, Haley's drive for thoroughness and accuracy brought him to a small village in Ireland to trace his lone White ancestor. He describes his arrival as something of a major curiosity for these remote Irish townfolk. With a quick smile he remembers that as he explained about himself and the purpose of his visit to the priests in the local church, their helpful attitude became somewhat cool when they learned he was a Protestant!
Haley wants other Blacks to have the chance to trace their family histories. He is working on establishing the first Black genealogical library in the country in Washington.
"America is a social experiment," Haley stresses, "where the role of Blacks has for a long time been suppressed. America needs to be awakened to the significant role Blacks played in shaping our country."
Haley's years of research and labor—how he went about gathering facts for Roots—will be documented on a special television broadcast. The program, in several parts, will follow him as he journeyed to Europe and Africa in search of his family's lineage.
David Lean, the director of "Dr. Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia", will also make a four-hour documentary film on Roots, to be produced by Columbia Pictures. The movie will open with the capture of Kinte and end when Haley was a young child, sitting at his grandmother's knee, listening to her tell the stories about their family's past.
(The above interview of Alex Haley by J03 Martin A. Szostek, USN is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the May 1973 issue of Direction magazine. © 1973 Direction. All Rights Reserved.)