On Alex Haley’s Birthday

I remember when the book ‘Roots…’ came out. We either got it from Publisher’s Clearinghouse or the Readers Digest book club. I also remember thinking that Alex Haley was the author of ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. I digress here because my mother was reading that book when she had to go into the hospital. She insisted that I conceal it with a plain book cover so the nurses and doctors wouldn’t change their level of care and treatment.

My mother, Pearle, didn’t live to see the television program of ‘Roots’. Neither did my Dad, William, who passed in 1977. I did. What Alex Haley did for me, was to give me permission, unconditionally, to ask about my heritage and ancestry. You see, my parents never spoke or told me about my Ancestors. They spent most of their lives dis-remembering their past. They spent most of their lives trying to make situations and circumstances for their four surviving children; of which I was the last.

Shortly after the series, myself and many African Americans got interested in genealogy. We learned about family history clubs and societies. I’m here to say that my early attempts to join, share and participate were rebuffed. I was not welcomed and received little support. As a result, for many of us, all we had was Alex Haley for inspiration and guidance. I recall the genealogy books back in the 70’s had very little content relative to African American genealogy.

Ironically, I witnessed a huge upsurge in interest for family history and genealogy. It all pointed back to Alex Haley. Yes, we can comfortably say that he re-energized the field. Subsequently, the academics and critics chose a path of scrutinizing and analyzing his research methods and his findings. Plagiarism was found. Misdeeds were noted. From that point on Alex Haley was demonized.

Black folks get it. I get it. None-the-less, Alex Haley remains an absolute hero to me. His crimes don’t even begin to approach the academic atrocities that happened to me directly. He instilled in a sense that I do have a family history worth researching. He informed me that we African Americans have stories worth telling. He stirred our imagination to what was possible. He let us know, unconditionally, that we can make a connection to Africa.

I’m reminded that a lot of White folks, Native Americans, Asians and Latinos can point to Alex Haley as the one who got them started in genealogy. That is the greater good of his legacy. For those who forever want to discredit him, I can only comment that they probably don’t see the greater good in anything.