Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was a guest speaker in my senior class—Black Political Thought in American History—at Cal-State University, Hayward, spring 1972. Our classroom wouldn’t be large enough to accommodate the students and a few faculty members, so our instructor scheduled the hour lecture for the cafeteria.
This was the same Alex Haley that was a senior editor for Reader’s Digest, as well as responsible for Playboy’s magazine notable interviews with Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., defense attorney Melvin Belli, Quincy Jones, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and many other famous personalities during the 1960s.
Yes, he was the same Alex Haley who would score success from his novel ROOTS, that would subsequently be published in 37 languages, adapted into a popular television miniseries and be given a Special Award for his work in 1977 from the Pulitzer Board. But, all of that happened years later, after his lecture to unsuspecting students one day before his appearance.
Being the white minority in the class I arrived early for the lecture as did the 34 other students, our instructor, one third of the faculty and approximately 500 more students, charging the cafeteria for seats to absorb Mr. Haley’s celebrity.
What was the subject of the lecture? Black Political Thought in American History as we all imagined. I thought perhaps the campus would become a political statement by the Black Panther Party, with appearances by Bobby Seale or Huey P. Newton, picketing and demonstrating, creating a violent atmosphere for the few of us who just wanted to listen to the man we all knew was inquisitive and intelligent, energetic and creative, a person from whom we could peacefully learn about politics, racism and sexism in black America.
The crowd gathered, scavenging for seats. I happened to be seated in the front. The college staff multitasked as security and organizers. Our instructor introduced Alex Haley. He came from the kitchen dressed in a black suit and a smile as large as the Grand Canyon.
I expected to hear shouts like “Power to the people” and “Police the police” but the audience remained silent after an applause. The topic; black political thought in American history was massaged by Haley. The first half hour he detailed five years of research into his family ancestry, and how it was going to be the saga of an American family in novel form. He related his partial story and we listened.
The second half of the lecture became convoluted because of one question I asked; “Mr. Haley, you’ve interviewed many black Americans. After all is said and done, how black is America to you?”
He hesitated, looked at the skin colors in the room, which was mostly African-American, and said, “Not black at all. Look around you, we’re all just Americans.”
The applause and standing ovation was magical. It was an excellent experience to have lived one hour with Alex Haley, an American writer.