where the writers are
My Favorite Work of African-American Literature
Pat with Alex Haley

Roots, Alex Haley's epic masterpiece and a classic of American Literature, has influenced millions of people regardless of skin color, including me, a woman as white as a glass of milk. When I first met Alex he was working on a book titled Before This Anger, that later became Roots, based on stories his grandmother told him about "the African" when he was a boy.  She said he lived across the ocean, near a river he called "Kamby Bolongo" and he was making a drum one day when he was set upon by four men beaten, chained and dragged aboard a slave ship bound for Colonial America.

Still vividly remembering those stories after he became an adult and a writer, Alex began searching for documentation. When I visited him at his home in Rome, New York, Alex and his researcher George Sims, led me to a wooden library filing cabinet with rows of little drawers and white tags indicating the subject. Opening one of the drawers, Alex pulled out a white card with the name Kunta Kinte neatly written on it in green ink. "That's the African my grandmother talked about, Patsy. I've traveled to Africa so many times I've lost count," he laughed, "but I found my ancestors and got the whole story," Alex said. It took him ten years.

A mesmerizing storyteller, soft spoken and gentle, Alex had no trouble keeping an audience enthralled. In 1976, when he attended one of my Roundtable luncheons, I recorded him telling this story. Try to read it with the voice of Alex in mind, slowly, with emotion, softly, with humor and the cadences of his Tennessee upbringing.

"I do have an anecdote because what Jim said reminded me of my father. I think from the day I was born he was determined that I was going to get a Ph.D. He had a Masters degree, so the children were gonna do better. I was equally determined I wasn't going to get a Ph.D. from the day I was old enough to know what that was.

"Well, when my Dad was in Cornell he had joined some fraternity and every Sunday when he dressed for church he wore a vest and a very fine chain on which hung this fraternity key. After church he would always hold court in the churchyard and people would gather 'round and listen to him because he was so wise. And while he talked he would swing this little key. It hypnotized his audience.

"Except for Scrap Green. One Sunday she asked, ''Fessor Haley, what is that thing?' That was all he needed. He launched into an erudite explanation that included much Latin and Greek and of course nobody understood a word. And when he was through Scrap asked him, "But 'Fessor Haley what do that key open?"

Comments
4 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Patsy I am a big fan of Alex

Patsy I am a big fan of Alex as well as Roots.I read and re-read it many times and believe me, every time I had tears in my eyes,knowing the tragedy of poor slaves.I proudly tell my friends that one of my friend knows Alex.Great!Isn't it?

Comment Bubble Tip

Great Story

I always enjoy reading "the stories behind the stories" and this was a very good one. Thank you for sharing it.

Aberjhani
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

Comment Bubble Tip

Better late...

Aberjhani: Thank you for your February comment regarding Alex Haley. Forgive me for taking such a long time to respond but I’ve been hard at work writing a childhood memoir with the illustrious title of Peeing On Hot Coals. Hardly like your elevated titles so mystical and inspired. Aberjhani, you remind me so much of Alex, your way with words, the soft tones I hear from your southern roots, make me want to meet you right now! Do you ever get to southern California? I feel a spiritual connection with you.

Comment Bubble Tip

Quite a title and quite an image :-)

I trust the work on "Peeing on Hot Coals" went well Pat; it will definitely grab readers' attention and I'd love to see it on the NYT bestseller list. Plus I promise you I've got a few not-so-sublime titles of my own.

It's been a long while since I've made it to the west coast and I am due for a visit sometime within the next couple of years. Stay blessed and prolific,

Aberjhani
Founder of Creative Thinkers International
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)