Roots Holds Me Close

“Find the good and praise it,” Alex Haley often said. The words are engraved on a stone near a statue of him in Morningside Park here in Knoxville. For over a decade this statue was the largest statue of an African American man in the United States until the dedication of the King Memorial in Washington DC in 2011.

Many years ago I took my mother to see the statue and she loved it but she noticed that while there was a plaque marking the month of the dedication of the statue April 1998 and a list of every single politician present at the dedication ceremony – there was no plaque explaining exactly who Alex Haley was, what he accomplished or why he should be remembered. My mom said, “That makes me mad! That makes me furious!” and then she looked at me like I was supposed to do something about it. After a long pause finally I said, “Well maybe what we can do right now is find the good and praise it.”

All humor aside my mom had a very valid point. Even so, I think Alex Haley would have appreciated this off the cuff response. He was known for similar kinds of observations. Once he was interviewing George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi party for a magazine article who was using lots of racist language including the N-word. Rockwell told Haley it was nothing personal and Haley replied that he had been called that word his who life but then added “but this is the first time I’ve been paid for it.”

Alex Haley got his start as a professional writer when he served in the Coast Guard and his fellow crewmembers would pay him money to write love letters home to their girlfriends. Having had this brush with success he started submitting material to Reader’s Digest and gradually this became a substantial side income.

When I was a student at the University of Tennessee in the late 80’s Alex Haley was an adjunct lecturer and I went to talks he gave that were open to all students and the general public. So I heard him talk a little bit about his early days as a writer.

He said, that early on he decided that when he got a rejection slip that he would post it on his wall like wallpaper. That way when he got a rejection slip instead of beating himself up over it he would look at it like a new piece to his unfinished puzzle saying, “Now I can cover that part of the wall.”

His career took off when he began doing interviews for magazines with leaders like Martin Luther King, Myles Davis and Cassius Clay (who would later be known as Muhammad Ali.) At some point he decided to expand one of his interviews into a book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and this involved even more interviews with the famous leader of the Nation of Islam.

Before I say anything more about that book I should say it would be almost impossible to find two people more temperamentally different that Alex Haley and Malcolm X. If Alex Haley’s philosophy of life was, “Find the good and praise it,” Malcolm X’s was, “Name the evil and condemn it.”

In ministry we often talk about the difference between a pastor and prophet. To adapt a well-known phrase we might say that a pastor comforts the afflicted while the prophet afflicts the comfortable.

Alex Haley had a particular gift for putting other people at ease and this probably helped him get such good interviews. He was remarkably accessible and friendly even to complete strangers, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown. When I talked with him after his lectures at UT he did not seem to be in a hurry to be anywhere else. He was present with you and affirming of you.

Recently, I read the new book Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation by Robert Norrell in part to see if the Alex Haley I met was the Alex Haley everyone else knew. The answer to that question is yes. While I am sure everyone has off days, he was by most people’s remembrances a remarkable open, accessible and friendly person.

Alex Haley and Malcolm X were very different people. Despite these differences, the two men became very good friends, so much so that after Malcolm X’s assassination it was Alex Haley who put Malcolm’s daughter through college.

Malcolm was someone who was not afraid to meet the violence of white power with the counterpunch of black power. In our age when leaders have proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country he would remind us that many Muslims came to this country for the first time against their will, in chains as part of the slave trade.

In the autobiography Malcolm notes that the dictionary definition for the word black is negative, “destitute of light, devoid of color, enveloped in darkness, utterly dismal or gloomy, soiled with dirt, foul, sullen, hostile, forbidding, outrageously wicked.” The dictionary definition of white, on the other hand, is positive: “the color of pure snow, the opposite of black, free from spot or blemish, innocent, pure, without evil intent, harmless, square deal, honest.”

Malcolm X looked over the history of our country, slavery, lynching, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. He named the evil and condemned it. He was not afraid to say that the word white can be defined as foul, hostile and wicked. It was the power and strength of his condemnation that was an enormous source of his power.

The paradox is that one of the reasons we know so much about the fiery critique of Malcolm X is because the pastoral presence of Alex Haley who did what pastors do. He paid attention. He listened intently. He heard the pain. He felt compassion. And then he told the story.

Even the most pastoral minister must tell the story of the crucifixion of Christ and so Alex Haley assisted Malcolm in telling the story of the crucifixion on the slave block, the crucifixion of the whipping post, the crucifixion of the lynching tree, the crucifixion in the electric chair, the crucifixion stories that are a part of our nation’s history.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a bestseller. His next bestseller would be Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It was his family’s history from their roots in Africa to more contemporary America. His aunt once said to him, “Our history needs to be writ. We can’t expect white folks to write our history for us. They are too busy writing about themselves.”

Haley grew up listening to his aunts and family talk about their family history over the years on the front porch of his childhood home. There were many references to the African and some of the Mandinka words that he had been passed down to them. The adult Haley took on the task of researching these stories and piecing together a more detailed family history, one that would read like a novel.

There has been much controversy over whether Roots is fiction or non-fiction. It would probably be most accurately categorized as “faction.” Because the outline of the story is based in solid research, however, Haley also wrote dialogue between people and described the interior thoughts of the characters, which no one can really know.

The story is about Kunte Kinte who was captured by slave traders in Africa and endured the unspeakable trauma of the Middle Passage. According to records 30 percent of the captured slaves died on board that ship. Kinte was one of the survivors. Haley said that writing about the Middle Passage was a traumatizing experience so much so that considered suicide. Later the actors who acted out those scenes for the television mini-series had a similar level of trauma, so writing this book and telling this story was an emotionally distressing experience.

Kunte Kinte was sold into slavery in America. After repeated escape attempts his master took an axe and chopped off part of his foot so he could no longer try to escape. Kunte Kinte’s grown daughter Kizzy was raped by her master and she gave birth to a son who would be known as Chicken George.

Chicken George eventually earned his own freedom through his prowess as a chicken fighter and helped his extended family find a new home after Emancipation. My copy of Roots is 899 pages so there is no way to summarize it succinctly. But I mention these details because in this book he does name the evil and condemn it, or at least he tells the story in a way that the evil is so self-evident that the reader has no choice but to condemn it.

The book won a Pulitzer Prize, spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a television mini-series. The show debuted in 1977. This year marks its 40th anniversary. I recently re-watched that series on DVD. It stands the test of time even though I couldn’t help but notice that the American South looked more like Southern California and the soundtrack sounds like it comes straight from 70’s television detective show.

The acting is stellar with an all-star cast and a then new and unknown actor Levar Burton. The spirit of the book shines through if not the letter as the television writers took some liberties with the story in their adaption. The History Channel has put out a remake of Roots this year. I haven’t been able to watch the remake because I do not have cable. The music on the preview is much better built around African drumming rather 70’s muzak. Possibly it will stick more faithfully to the letter as well as the spirit.

Robert Norrell argues convincingly that Roots has shaped our culture even more so than other works that are given greater credit like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind and I might add To Kill a Mockingbird in part because it reached more people. It was viewed by 130 million people, which to date is the largest television audience in our country’s history.

Before Roots TV depictions of Africa were often negative caricatures leading Haley to say, “One of the most important things about Roots is that it replaced Tarzan and Jungle Jim with Kunte Kinte.” Haley fundamentally changed the way Americans look at Africa. One way to say it is he rewrote the culture’s dictionary so that the words black and Africa are now unambiguously positive words.

Alex Haley’s reputation has suffered since his heyday with accusations of plagiarism. Norrell points out that the parts of Roots in question amount to less than one percent of the text of the book. Some of Haley’s research conclusions have been question by scholars. Of course, research is always being questioned by scholars. That’s what scholars do.

Personally, I think we need to remember Haley not as an academic or a scholar but as a story teller, someone who reached a far larger audience than most academics ever will and thus he affected more people transforming our culture by ensuring that when we do history we tell the whole story and not just part of it.

On a personal level and a spiritual level, let me say that Haley’s phrase, “Find the good and praise it” is my working definition of worship and describes what we are doing here this Sunday and every Sunday. His wallpaper of rejection slips reminds me to always respond to experiences of rejection with creativity. And that moment in the book and the mini-series where Kunte Kinte holds up his baby daughter to the starry night above and says to her, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” informs how I feel we should all treat our children both as parents and as a church.

February is Black History Month and a Los Angeles Times reporter once called Alex Haley, “The Man February Forgot,” which brings me back to Morningside Park and the wonderful statue of a storyteller and why it is so important that we remember him.

So this week I wrote to the State Historical Commission to ask how I could apply for a historical marker to be placed near the statue. Also this week I will be meeting with the Mayor Rogero as part of KICMA (Knoxville Interdenominational Christian Ministerial Alliance) and I will raise the same question and I will bring this sermon to a close by offering a first draft of what the marker might say.

Alex Haley 1921 – 1992 spent his last years in East Tennessee. He was a journalist known for his interviews with luminaries such as Myles Davies and Martin Luther King Jr. He was the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family books that profoundly changed the way the nation viewed African American history. He was a consultant on the Roots television mini-series that reached the largest television audience in history. He was our neighbor, our friend, our teacher and encourager who constantly reminded us even in the most difficult times to “Find the good and praise it.”

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Chris Buice.)



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