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Alex Haley Interviewed By Willard McGuire
An Interview With Alex Haley By Willard McGuire
(Alex Haley was interviewed by Vice-President Willard McGuire and Marion S. Clayton of Today's Education in September / October 1977.)

Alex Haley Interviewed By Willard McGuireAn Interview With Alex Haley (1977)
In Henning, Tennessee, in the 1920's, Cynthia Palmer spent her summers with her sisters, Viney, Liz, and Til, and her cousin, Georgia. Most evenings they sat on the front porch and reminisced about their ancestors. Seated with them and listening intently to the family narratives was Cynthia's grandson, Alex Haley.
Among the things Haley remembers from the stories are the names "Chicken George," "The African," "Uncle Mingo"; a place called " 'Naplis"; a river, "Kamby Bolongo"; and a guitar called a "ko." The idea for Haley's most recent book, Roots, came from these reminiscences.
Haley's writing career began when be became the first Chief Journalist of the U.S. Coast Guard, with which he served for 20 years. Later, he worked as an interviewer for Playboy Magazine. His first bestseller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published in 1965. He spent the next 12 years working on Roots.
Delegates to NEA's 1972 convention were privileged to hear a firsthand account of Haley's search for his past. Following the talk, the NEA Council on Human Relations honored him for his contributions to cultural and racial understanding. At the NEA's 1977 Representative Assembly meeting, Haley received an NEA Committee on Human Rights Special Award, and, after speaking to the Representative Assembly he was presented a plaque by the NEA Black Caucus "in recognition and appreciation of his masterpiece, Roots."
Recently Haley, while visiting the NEA Center, was interviewed by NEA Vice-President Willard McGuire and Marion S. Clayton, a staff representative of Today's Education.
An Interview With Alex Haley
McGuire: What was your purpose in writing Roots?
Haley: Actually, I didn't have a purpose in mind when I began this project. I was simply curious about stories Grandma and others of the family told me years before.
When I first heard the stories, I was a little boy and I didn't associate the people my relatives were talking about with those who had gone before us. But I heard the tales so many times that I learned them, much as I learned parables from the Bible. I suppose I equated "Chicken George" and "Ol' Massa" with David and Goliath.
Some years later, I went to the Archives here in Washington and checked the census records. There, on microfilm, were the same names Grandma and the others had talked about. My curiosity led me into further research and eventually the writing.
So you see, I was drawn into writing this. I didn't just sit down to write a book with a purpose.
McGuire: Some critics say Roots may be detrimental to racial harmony. What do you think its effects may be?
Haley: I see nothing detrimental to racial harmony in it. I view Roots as one of the most positive things that has happened not only to Blacks but to all Americans if we understand it in the context in which it was written.
Consider that for generations all of us in this country, and other countries as well, got our images of Africa largely from Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies. It's interesting that no one ever said these were detrimental to racial harmony.
McGuire: It's true that the book negates the Tarzan Image of Africa, but the TV adaptation showed little of African life. On the other hand, cruelties in slave quarters were a major part of the drama. Wouldn't a greater emphasis on African culture have been more helpful in making everyone aware of the Black heritage?
Haley: Well, I was involved in the filming from the beginning, and that was the most anguishing decision we had to make. The problem was that we had just 12 hours of film time—an unprecedented amount, but still only enough to tell a part of the story.
I wanted very much to use the story of Kunta's first 15 years to accentuate the disciplined, moralistic Africa—its structured laws, its schools, and its religious customs. But we realized that if we were to show all phases of Kunta's life in Africa, we might never leave the village of Juffure. Then, too, giving more time to this portion of the book would mean four actors to play Kunta—a baby, a 10-year-old, a 15-year-old, and an adult.
So you see, we finally decided to show Kunta's birth, women and girls admiring the baby, and after a commercial, Kunta at age 15.
McGuire: The television series had one of the largest viewing audiences ever recorded, and we believe the book will become a popular reading assignment in schools. What else can teachers do to further increase student understanding and appreciation for the Black heritage?
Haley: I'd like to see teachers get all their students to trace their genealogies. It is as important for all ethnic groups to learn the history of their own and other peoples as it is for Blacks. Certainly much more needs to be known about the Black heritage because there is such a dearth of information.
Then, supportive readings for supplemental study ought to be available in school and public libraries. Finally, students might enjoy sharing information about their backgrounds after completing the assignments.
McGuire: The genealogy project would not only provide students with experience in doing research, it would also enable them to become more involved with their families.
Haley: Sure. The first thing students will have to do is get to the oldest members of their families and find out everything they can about their backgrounds. When students have collected all they can, they should record this information in clear and simple language and share it with all members of the family.
Eventually, students may appreciate the importance of preserving old photographs and letters. For most families, these are the archives.
As a matter of fact, this project is urgent. If our elders and their records disappear, we'll never know about ourselves. Our past will be lost.
McGuire: Slave families were frequently separated, and the majority of them had little knowledge of their lineage. Is it possible, then, that Black students won't be able to trace their heritage?
Haley: Yes, most won't be able to trace their roots back to Africa. But you see, the important thing is not that they go back to Africa but that they care enough to go looking at all. This in itself would be a change from what you and I know to be true: Years ago, Black people never talked about their slave forebears. We wanted nothing to do with Africa.
If students can go back as far as their grandparents—and are digging with pride—they are infinitely better if they were ashamed to go digging at all. It is the spirit of the search that I am concerned with. I want students to say, "I wish I knew more about me," and "I am proud of my ancestors."
It's beginning to happen, not only in schools, but among adults, also. What we have now, all across the nation, are Blacks proudly searching for knowledge of their ancestors.
McGuire: The NEA was really enthusiastic about Roots. During the eight nights of the broadcasts, teachers all around the country let us know that they were using it in their classrooms to stimulate learning. Do you think this appreciation of the Black struggle will contribute to the whole equalization process for Blacks?
Haley: Unfortunately attitudes left by slavery still grip much of our society. One of the problems caused by this is that too often Whites and Blacks do not perceive Blacks as true Americans. Knowing more about us will help to change this perception and will eventually result in a better understanding between the races.
McGuire: What is your opinion of busing schoolchildren as another device to bring about a better understanding between the races?
Haley: There are many facets to this question, so there is no one-dimensional answer. Busing itself has been around since the combustion engine, and it didn't bother anybody until Blacks began to be bused to mostly white schools.
On the one hand, I think busing is, creating a lot of problems among parents of both races. (Most of the problems, in fact, seem to lie with adults. Children appear not to be bothered so much.)
Haley: On the other hand I think the kind of friction busing is generating will have some worthwhile results. For one thing, the quality of education in what were predominantly Black schools is certainly improving.
I think the overall result will be positive. I have faith in us as a country, and I truly believe that our strength is derived from friction among the various ethnic groups.
McGuire: Then you feel progress is being made?
Haley: Of course progress is being made. But we should never fall into the trap of believing that everything is all right. You know, as long as we need to have this type of discussion, we still have a long way to go.
McGuire: Before the interview ends, we'd like to know if you have a message that teachers may take to their students?
Haley: I would like to see kids become more excited about the pursuit of excellence. Many adults wish they had another chance to take advantage of the opportunities they had in school—and I guess I'm like those adults. When I was in high school, I earned D's and C's, and I've had to work hard all my life to overcome that.
My dad was a college professor, and his greatest dream was that his three sons would become Ph.D's. He thought that perhaps God would smile on us and one would become a college president. I was the oldest, so I was supposed to lead the way, but I dropped out after two years of college. For a long time, Dad didn't forgive me for that.
After my first book became a bestseller, he sent me a clipping about the book and attached a note that was very typical of him. It said, "I think I will consider this equivalent to your degree." ~ Alex Haley
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published within the September / October 1977 issue of Today's Education. © 1977 National Education Association. All Rights Reserved.)

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