Alex Haley is one of the best-known and most widely read authors in the world. His book Roots, published in 1976, and the television series based on the book, which aired in 1977, were not only critical and commercial successes, they were also unique cultural events. James Baldwin wrote about the book in The New York Times: "Roots is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one—the action of love, or the effect of the avsence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can't but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us."
Among other honors, Mr. Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for Roots, a work he calls "faction," a combination of fact and fiction. Earlier Mr. Haley had won critical acclaim for his authorship of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
And now Alex Haley has a new book A Different Kind of Christmas, that will appeal to readers of all ages. The novella follows a young Southerner who becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad and helps mastermind the escape of slaves from his father's plantation on Christmas Eve, 1855. Editor Roger Bishop recently interviewed Mr. Haley at the author's farm in Norris, Tennessee. The conversation centered on the new book with occasional discussion of other subjects. What follows are the excerpts from the interview:
RB: Mr. Haley, your new book, A Different Kind of Christmas, is a powerful story that should appeal to the widest possible audience. Without giving too much away, would you describe the story?
AH: Somebody wrote in USA Today that it is a story wherein a white college student had become self-influenced to join the Underground Railroad and organized an escape of slaves. That's in essence what happens.
In a broader sense, I have always been intrigued how we as a culture tend to have tunnel-vision images of things and don't include facets of it. For instance, slavery, which I researched a great deal in the course of Roots. I think most people when you say slavery tend to see a group of anonymous people pulling cotton sacks in great plantation fields, and that is largely true. But it’s always intrigued me that amidst the group called slaves there were individuals who were extremely able, who were extremely colorful, who were powerful personalities, who by no means fit the usual images of slaves. They were people who, through their personalities and abilities, were very respected in the community where they lived by both black and white. Such a person was Chicken George out of Roots. You couldn’t think of Chicken George as some anonymous cipher. He was Chicken George. And so with this in mind, in this book I have created the character Harpin’ John. Harpin’ is because he was a very expert harmonica player together with which he was a very expert barbecue man. Now in the South, today and then, anybody who is really a virtuoso on the harp and at the barbecue pit is somebody to reckon with. He was a major character in his slave community, and he was a slave—but he was also Harpin’ John. Another thing I enjoyed about his name is that it sounds like hoppin’ john, the food.
The principal character is a young, white college student, Fletcher Randall, at The College of New Jersey (what we now know as Princeton University). It’s set in 1855. His father is a senator from North Carolina and a large plantation owner. At that time many young, Southern men were sent to school up North because their parents thought they would get a better education in the Yankee country, although they despised the Yankees. And some of them, like this boy’s father, covered it by saying to know what the Yankees were up to they had to send their boys to Yankee schools. And it is there in college, that Fletcher, a Southerner by birth and trend, begins to question the mores of his heritage and culture.
RB: Although A Different Kind of Christmas is fiction, were there actual incidents that you were aware of when you wrote?
AH: Oh yes. Everything in it is to be found. White converts to the antislave belief made the Underground Railroad work. Only the whites had the power to subvert slavery. The Quakers, as a religious group, were one of the main forces. They forbade any member to own slaves, so many Quaker men who had owned slaves simply released them into freedom. Everything in the book has happened and has happened many times. Many slaves, like Harpin' John, were agents. The most famous being Harriet Tubman, who was called the general, because she went back so many times to get so many people out.
RB: You write of the strong bond between the black slaves in the United States in 1855 (the time of your story) and the American Indians. Would you please speak about that relationship?
AH: By that time the Indian Removal had occurred, and there were not many Indians left, but there were pockets here and there. It was a very close bond and not too much is written about it. Anyway, here you have two groups of people who were disenfranchised. They were both thrust outside of society—both rejected and wanted in that they were both used. The Indians had been used worse than the slaves in that their land —everything—had been taken. But they were still living around in enclaves hither and there. There was a great deal of inbreeding between the Indians and the slaves. Genetically speaking, black people are some part black, some part European, and most of us are some part Indian. In my own family, we are part Cherokee. There was a lot of marriage both directions, but mostly Indian men and slave women.
RB: You have said that you have never lost your love for the South despite the region’s history of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination. Here is a direct quote from you: “There’s more substance here, so much more to write about. I don’t know anything I treasure more as a writer than being a Southerner. I love to write about the South and try to convey the experience of it, the history of it. It has been pointed at negatively in so many ways, and so few people for a long time appreciated the physical beauty of the South.” Perhaps that says it all.
AH: Well, I would only reiterate most of it to say the thing I find I love so much here is the culture which is comprised of people who tend to have been raised better than people in the North. We all grew up as children who learned how to say yes mam and no sir and mean it with respect for elders. And somehow, it seems to me that in the South, at least as I know it, you could go up in that yard and find you a grasshopper to follow, or you could go and get your grandmother’s spool she’d used all the thread off of, notch the edges, get a rubber band, and make you a little tractor. Everywhere you turn there is something that with a little thought, ingenuity and a whole lot of precedence you could do to entertain yourself. There are so many, many more things that are the South—the music. The South has more detail to write about. We have so much more grass for one thing, and all the things that happen in the grass are denied to those people who, for the most part, live in the Northern cities. Just the grass alone is an arena to deal with. I feel very close to the South. I am of the South. And the racial prejudice that which is so strongly associated with the South is not unique to the South. The North had racial riots—one after another—which were all deflected in the finger pointing at the South. What we are dealing with now is the new South which is a very different place.
RB: In your essay, which serves as the Preface to The Prevailing Past: Life and Politics in a Changing Culture, you write about the black Republicans in Henning, Tennessee, then you say: “It is poignant how little attention history has paid to the fact that from the early years of Reconstruction, in many Southern localities, the Republican Party’s principal custodians were these and similar groups of blacks who voted in each national election as an act of holy ritual, no matter what obstacles were thrust into their paths, including physical threats.” Would you speak about these Republicans?
AH: The fundamental reason for these Republicans was Abraham Lincoln, who was seen as the great emancipator, and because he was a Republican, the black people just flocked to that party and stayed with it very loyally right on up to FDR. He was the man who turned the tide for the Democrats. And the reason was obviously the Depression. People were down to their last whatever, and it wasn’t just the blacks but the whites as well. And when FDR came along with his alphabetical government and all the things it offered—the CCC, the NRA and various other programs—he was a revolutionary for a whole culture, it wasn’t just the blacks. But for black Republicans he was as dramatic as Lincoln had been earlier. Here was a world in which black women, at least in Henning, Tennessee, were all domestics. They found jobs more quickly than black men. Now when that was the way the world was then and along came FDR with these programs which, for the first time, allowed men to get jobs and be paid 7 or 8 dollars a day instead of 1 dollar (which was standard at that time), it just altogether changed their thinking. So, it was these influences, which were very practical influences, which caused the blacks to go Democrat.
RB: In A Different Kind of Christmas your main character has his Christian conscience challenged and comes to the aid of the slaves. Are there any generalizations that you can make about individuals such as Fletcher Randall?
AH: Fletcher manifests my feelings how as Christians we should behave. The only reason the Underground Railroad really existed was because there were a lot of Fletchers. Some who were innately against slavery, and some who, like Fletcher, gradually came to be and who, having come to be, took some activist role. Society ought to be led by its Christian leaders, not by political leaders, at least in the areas of morality. For instance, the drug thing we’ve got today, it’s not just an annoyance, it’s a dire thread to this nation. Years ago, had somebody been positively identified in the community as selling drugs to any of us as children, I think he would have probably been found one morning—well, you know. And I think more probably it would’ve been done by the deacons and the stewards of the churches. And the reason is that they simply would not have allowed that in their community. but now we simply allow it. You know it could be stopped, of course it could be stopped. We just simply permit it to go on. If the public said no, it would really be all over it. And maybe one day we will before it will have done us in.
RB: Before your international recognition with the publication of Roots you had achieved a distinguished career as a journalist and the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. You conducted the first interview with Miles Davis in the Playboy magazine interviews. You went on in that series of interviews to interview Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X which subsequently led to your authorship of his autobiography. As one who interviewed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and grew to know the latter so well, could you speak in a general way about those two men—how they were alike and how they were different in your experience with them?
AH: The thing that has always intrigued me about Dr. King and Malcolm was how easily either of them might have been the other. Now if you had taken Malcolm in the eighth grade, precocious youngster, living in Michigan at the time, an outstanding student in his class—sharp, articulate. If that Malcolm could have then gone to the top black high school where Dr. King went in Atlanta, and from high school to the Boston College School of Theology, think of what a minister and leader we would’ve had.
If Dr. King, age eighth grade, entering that high school and had instead been told, like Malcolm, it was ridiculous to think about being a lawyer, so why doesn’t he become a carpenter. He was so popular in school that proves that white people would hire him to do carpentry. That’s what Malcolm’s class advisor told him. Had Martin Luther King, age eighth grade, gone instead to his aunt’s home in Rockville, Massachusetts (suburban Boston) and learned to hustle—and was taught by a guy who called him homeboy because he was from the same area—was taught first how to hustle shinning shoes. (If you’re gonna shine shoes, let the rag hang limp so it would pop louder for a quarter extra tip). Then learned how to sell marijuana and to do the things that’s hustling. And when he had become a pretty able hustler, go for (what Malcolm called) his graduate studies and get on a train and make it to Harlem where he could get into crime and into this and that and the other. Dr. Kin would’ve made a tremendous hustler. And Malcolm would’ve made a tremendous theologian. Both of them were great powers in their own way. And so to me always the intrigue has been the two men are a case of “…but for the grace of God…” And as a matter of fact, not enough recognition is given to the fact that Malcolm was most helpful to Dr. King. The way I mean it is Malcolm scared people. And what it did was shake people enough so that when Dr. King came along, speaking of turning the other cheek and the Ghandi principles, he was a lot less threatening. So preceded by Malcolm, Dr. King went forward.
RB: Are you engaged in any other writing projects at the moment?
AH: My next book will be called Henning, Tennessee. It is a book about the people and events in the little town where I grew up 50 miles north of Memphis. with any kind of luck it will be out next September. And then will come a book about Madame C.J. Walker who was an absolutely fantastic personality.