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Alex Haley and John Rice Irwin

Alex Haley and John Rice Irwin at the Museum of Appalachia's Bunch Cabin

Alex Haley Interviewed By Lawrence Grobel

Lawrence Grobel: Some have called Roots a novel, but you prefer another word, don't you?

Alex Haley: Faction. I saw that word in a book in London. It means a mixture of fact and fiction. Most books are. Nobody can say with absolute accuracy what happened 150 years ago. Get six books about the battle of Gettysburg and you'd think it was six different battles. The best any of us can do is do the best research we can and then try to create around that. With Roots, I worked my head off to research everything and still a lot of the book is fiction. How do I know what Chicken George said over a hundred years ago? I made it up.

Lawrence Grobel: Along with its phenomenal success came the inevitable lawsuits, including a few which claimed you plagiarized their work. Did you?

Alex Haley: The best way I can respond to that is to say that it's almost impossible for anyone to write a book like Roots where people don't bring a suit. I was at a function where twenty-four authors sat at two long tables, and every one of us had great big books. We were asked to raise our hands if we've never been involved in a lawsuit. One hand went up. Twenty-three of us were involved in lawsuits. That's why I think the greatest thing written in our time was Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. For the metaphor. This old man spent all his life learning the fish the best he knew how. One day he put his hood down and felt the bite—he knew it was a big fish and he waited until the time was right. Finally he began to fight the fish, and when it surfaced he saw it was bigger than any fish he'd ever dreamed. Then it went back down and it fought the old man. Finally, the frail old man beat the fish, and in time he was able to lash it alongside his little skip. He put up his homemade sail and started home with his prize. Then came the sharks, one after another, taking chunks of the fish until what remained was the skeleton. The metaphor that relates to being sued is that if you do a book that has the fortune to get like Roots, if you catch that big fish, you can rest assured that on your way home the sharks will come. And in the literary world, they take the form of people who bring lawsuits.

Lawrence Grobel: Did you make a financial settlement with Harold Courlander, the author of The African, which preceded Roots?

Alex Haley: Yes, and the reason I did was simply the timing. We were getting ready to film Roots 2, which is my own life story, and I had the option, after all those weeks in court, to spend at least another six weeks at yet another trial or to say, "Let's settle and let me go back and be where my life is being filmed." That was the option I took. The only thing I regret is that I didn't do it earlier.

Lawrence Grobel: What was the problem, exactly? Were certain sections accidentally lifted? Did some of your researchers include material from that book which you mistook for original research?

Alex Haley: It was said that several paragraphs in Roots came from The African. That's not true. There were two lines, as I recall, and the only thing I could come up with is that I employed sixteen different people who helped me, and I would use material they sent me relative to slavery. In the course of dealing with these bushels of material, you do not remember the source of every piece.

(Excerpted from Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives. © 2001 Lawrence Grobel. All Rights Reserved.)

The Search for Roots by Jason Berry

Jason Berry: "How much of Roots is fact and how much is fiction?"

Alex Haley: To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able to conventionally corroborate with documents. Thosc documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous life-styles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

Since I wasn't around when most of the story occurred, by far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place.

(Excerpted from The Search for Roots by Jason Berry, which was published in The Nation on October 2, 1976. © 1976 The Nation. All Rights Reserved.)

Scholars, Professors, Senators And Authors Regarding Alex Haley

Roots aside, all who really knew Alex Haley remember him most for his simplicity, his total altruism, his self-effacing humility and his keen sense of humor. No one should set out to try to do what he did, but there are a few things we can all do that would personify the qualities of the Alex Haley whose life I shared personally for some fleeting and precious moments. If all Americans could be as loving, and as giving, and as gentle to each other as Alex Haley was, then the Roots he gave us will not have been in vain. Thanks, Brother Alex Haley, and I know that God rests your beautiful soul. ~ Bill Turner.

Bill Turner is associate professor of sociology at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and special advisor to the President of Berea College in Kentucky. He is also the founder of the Black Mountain Improvement Association.

(Excerpted from the Winter 1992 issue of Journal: Appalachia. © 1992 Appalachian Regional Commission. All Rights Reserved.)

Introduction By Lawrence Otis Graham

Roots is just as powerful and poignant today as it was when Alex Palmer Haley first wrote it. His greatest gift, as you will see in this rich collection of his work, was the ability to discuss race issues in a way that made two different worlds—one black and one white—accessible to all of us, regardless of our color, our ethnicity, our religion or our age. And he did it in a way that was entertaining, insightful and elegant. ~ Lawrence Otis Graham.

Lawrence Otis Graham, one of the nation's leading experts on race, politics and class in America, is the author of 14 books, including Our Kind of People and The Senator and the Socialite, a biography of the first black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.

(Excerpted from his Introduction to: Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America's Roots. © 2007 The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Alex Haley: The Man Behind Roots

Haley and I did meet again, several more times, and have continued to meet over the years. One could say many things about Alex Haley, about his eclectic talents as a writer, journalist, interviewer, filmmaker, etc. But these are all abstract things, just so many words. More important than his list of career achievements, at least from my perspective, is what he is as a man. Like Roots, Haley is a striking testimonial to the dignity and nobility of the human spirit. He is us at our best and the best within us. I love Alex Haley—not just Alex Haley the writer, but Alex Haley the man—that wonderful man who came across the street and said, "What can I do to help? Let's get started!" ~ Professor Jeffrey M. Elliot.

Jeffrey M. Elliot was a Professor of Political Science for 28 years at North Carolina Central University. In 1925, the university was originally called the North Carolina College for Negroes—the nation's first public liberal arts college founded for African-Americans, located in Durham, North Carolina.

(Excerpted from Literary Voices #1, which was published by Borgo Press. © 1980 Jeffrey M. Elliot. © 2011 Wildside Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Author Alex Haley's Legacy Endures Two Decades After Death

[John Rice] Irwin describes Haley as a "really remarkable person who was so unselfish. I never met anyone who was more genuine."

This was a description echoed by [Senator Lamar] Alexander who noted that during Black History Month that Haley would come to fifth grade classes to discuss black history, adding, "He had a heart and could not say no to the schools. He would even fly back from speaking engagements to keep an appointment with a school."

Haley truly fits the description of "find the good and praise it." May his memory be eternal. ~ Harry Moskos.

John Rice Irwin is the founder of the Museum of Appalachia. Senator Lamar Alexander is a U.S. Senator for the State of Tennessee. Harry Moskos is a former editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

(Excerpted from Author Alex Haley's Legacy Endures Two Decades After Death. © 2012 Knoxville News Sentinel Company. All Rights Reserved.)

The King of Knoxville

I think of Alex Haley not as a statue and not as a writing partner but as a friend. He was my pal when he was poor and unknown and, more importantly, remained my pal when he was rich and famous. Loyalty was one of his many qualities that no monument could ever reflect. And yet, I understand the need for a memorial. It says something about us.

I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, the rain-washed day that Alex rose from racial historian to racial icon. A thirteen-foot-tall bronze statue of the gentle, slow-talking man who authored Roots was unveiled to a mixed crowd of 1,500 blacks and whites who couldn't stop cheering. I cheered for a different reason.

Alex died of a heart attack in 1992, burdened by the invective of critics who called him a plagiarist and demanded that the special Pulitzer awarded him be taken away. What they failed to understand was that Roots was something far more important than just a book.

His chronicle of black history perceived the spirit of a people. He had looked deep into his own soul and the souls of those who had suffered under slavery and had ultimately triumphed. In that sense, Roots was a creation for all of us, embracing the importance of family as much as it did cultural heritage. It changed our view of the "Me" generation into an "US" generation, helping us understand the concept of the global village. ~ Al Martinez.

Al Martinez is a Los Angeles Times columnist, a Pulitzer prize-winning writer, and the author of books, videos, and television movies.

Statement on the Death of Alex Haley

February 10, 1992

Barbara and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to the family of Alex Haley upon his passing. Alex Haley was an extraordinary individual and a literary giant who served his country for 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard.

He went on to produce many works, including the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots. Roots in particular has been woven into the cultural patchwork that is America. Haley's own roots, nourished in the small town values of Henning, Tennessee, were central to his writings and his life. He taught us that every community needs to strengthen and renew itself. I am particularly grateful for the encouragement that he continued to provide to thousands of Americans who work to make their communities places where education is nourished. Alex Haley understood that it was important to know where you come from—so that you could set a course for where you want to go. He will be an inspiration for generations to come. His talent and spirit will be greatly missed. ~ Administration of George Bush, 1992 / Feb. 10.

George Herbert Walker Bush (born June 12, 1924) is an American retired politician who served as the 41st President of the United States (19891993).

(Excerpted from Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents; Feb 17, 1992; 28, 7)

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