Wednesday, July 17, 2024

My Haley on The Roots Of A Working Love

February 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Feature


My Haley

Las Vegas Black Image Magazine was recently honored with the opportunity to sit down for a wide-ranging discussion with My Haley — the brilliant author and widow of famed author Alex Haley, with whom she worked closely on the timeless book “Roots.”

Today, Haley — who was raised primarily in Columbus, Ohio and has made her home in Las Vegas for the last five years — is preparing for the imminent release of her latest work, “The Treason of Mary Louvestre.” It is the fact-based account of a fearless slave woman who, while enslaved during the Civil War, risked her life to help the Union defeat the Confederacy. She performed this amazing feat by walking from Norfolk, Va. to Washington, D.C. to deliver her master’s secret war plans to the secretary of the Navy.

In a unique oral history, we share the words of woman with an inimitable talent for bringing history to life — whether it be her own, or the hidden moments in African-American history that she possesses an uncanny talent for uncovering.

A Chance Encounter
The day was full of anticipation, because I knew that tomorrow would be the day that I would have to defend my dissertation at Ohio State University. A fellow classmate, who was African, informed me that he was headed out to hear the author Alex Haley speak at the local auditorium. Even though I was an admirer of his work, I knew that it was crucial to be prepared for the following day. Despite my reservations, I disregarded my better judgment and went to hear him speak anyway. The auditorium was standing room only, and the crowd, marveling at his work — “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” — waited to be fed. He spoke with a strong bass tone that drew everyone in. His style was easy, and he never — within the two-and-a-half hours that he spoke — used a note. He spoke of his research about his family tree, and how African words that were passed down by his relatives led him to seek out the research assistance of a grio [a person who has knowledge of oral traditions that are considered treasures in African villages]. It was fascinating to hear about his ancestors, who included a young African, Kunta Kinte, who while gathering sticks to build a drum for his brother, was captured by slave traders and taken — across what would later be called The Middle Passage — to America, where he was auctioned off into slavery. Everyone around me was listening intently to every word Alex spoke, and were full of excitement to hear what followed. Some were crying, and others jumped out of their seats screeching with joy because of what they heard from the mouth of Alex Haley. This community of people who were in the audience were all saying, “He is telling the story of all of us.” I knew then that my dream was to somehow work with Alex Haley.

Alex Haley

The Letter Came
I became obsessed with trying to contact Alex Haley, to express my desire to work with him. I wanted to emulate him and tell stories that would captivate people. It wasn’t easy, and my attempts to contact him through his publisher and publicist proved unsuccessful. I went on to receive my Ph.D and was interviewing with colleges and universities around the country. On one occasion, while interviewing with the University of Colorado at Boulder for a position as chairman of their African-American Studies department, I started sharing my dream to one day work for Alex Haley and how I really didn’t think I wanted to do anything else. I realized after the interview that instead of showing that I was passionate about the job, I gave them every reason not to hire me. So, as I was leaving the hall, this kind black woman grabbed my arm and said, “I would really like to talk to you.” After the interview, I really didn’t feel like socializing, but she was persistent and I didn’t take it seriously, because people say these kinds of things often. Nevertheless, she said, “I know how to get in touch with Alex Haley.” I couldn’t believe it, but I was so excited that I practically pulled her arm out of socket. She told me that she knew how it was to have a dream, and I gave her a copy of my resume. She said, “I promise to get this to him.” Later, I found out that I was having trouble getting to Alex because he would often go out on freighters for two or three months to write. I went back to Ohio State University, where I worked as the only black intern for the executive vice president. One day, as I was getting my mail at my apartment, I noticed a letter from Harvard University and they were offering me a job. Many would consider this a dream job, but to me it was making my dream deferred a reality. I slid down my apartment wall, boo-hooing and crying. The next morning, as I was going to work and approaching the reception desk, one of my co-workers was waving a yellow envelope. I saw the name Alex Haley in the corner of the envelope — and I knew if someone didn’t put a chair underneath me, my behind was sure to hit the floor. I was shaking uncontrollably — so badly, that I couldn’t open the telegram. My boss heard all the commotion, and came out of his office and gladly opened the letter that read, “I am sending you this telegram and an airline ticket to meet with me in Jamaica, where I live, in order to talk about working with me.” I hadn’t been out of the country before, and my ticket was for Air Jamaica Airlines. First, when the plane landed, I waited for everyone to get off the plane because meeting your dream is a momentous occasion. So, I got off the plane and went through customs in Montego Bay. Alex lived 45 minutes away, so we had plenty of time to talk in his car before arriving at his office. We talked about our interests, and he wanted to know why I was so enthusiastic about working with him. Needless to say, by the time we arrived at his office, I had the job — whatever that was. He indicated swiftly that he couldn’t pay me, “But if you want to work with me and help me with this huge job, I would be glad to have you, because from your resume you are very smart.”

The Collaboration
I could hear reggae music playing as I entered Alex’s cottage, which was 10 steps from the ocean. The smell of papaya was in the air, demanding my attention, and we had lunch while continuing to talk about our backgrounds and our families. After lunch, we got right to work and I remember seeing stacks of goldenrod paper as high as I am tall. He indicated that the paper was the layout for the book, “Roots.” Alex had been working on the book for 12 years before we met, and I was a fiery, driven person. Eighteen months later, the “Roots” manuscript was completed, and I delivered it to the publishers. While working every day together, romance was percolating as we both shared our dreams. I once asked Alex, “Can you feel the shift underneath your feet?” He said, “What are you talking about?” I told him that this work, “Roots,” was going to be huge, and he might as well get ready for it. Alex was such a humble man, and he would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah — if it happens we will deal with it at that time.” I remember feeling the spark of love when we were role-playing the “Roots” characters Chicken George and Matilda, and making sure we would write the right dialogue. We ended up in the kitchen after role-playing, and decided to make a cherry cheesecake together.

Alex and My on their wedding day.

Life Lessons
Alex had a problem with discipline, and I did not. One of my roles with him was to convince him to work every day. One particular day, he said he wanted to share something with me. So, he took me to the local seaside market, where the fishermen would sell their catches of the day. One bucket had a bunch of live crabs in it, and Alex asked me to look inside to see if I saw what he saw. The crabs were moving around frantically, and one crab worked real hard to get to the lip of the bucket, in order to pull himself out, but the other crabs pulled him back down. I did see what he saw, and Alex looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Remember this life lesson: Whether it’s other people pulling you back, or your own fears and frustrations pulling you back — never let this happen. Know that you can always make it free at the lip of the bucket, if you just keep going.” Now, that was romance.

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