Thirty-five years ago when “Roots” was all the rave, I was with Alex Haley, the late author of the phenomenal book that became a momentous television series watched by more than 100 million people, and he was a most gracious and humble celebrity during our time together at Wayne State University where he was being honored.
Two weeks ago I recalled this meeting with Bill Haley, Alex’s son, who was visiting New York City to participate in Oprah Winfrey’s tribute to “Roots”. The show will be aired Monday, January 16 at 8pm on OWN, Oprah’s network, as part of the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. Winfrey invited several of the cast members to her home at Montecito.
Haley didn’t attend that event but he was in Manhattan for an interview. He sat with the show’s producer and her crew for about two hours at the London Hotel and he said he was asked about his relationship with his father and other personal matters. “I’m not sure what part of the interview they are going to use, but I’ve been told it will be about eight minutes,” he told me.
In looks and comportment, Haley is the spitting image of his father, who died in 1992. “There’s a lot about Dad that people don’t know,” he said, saving much of that material in a proposed biography of his father that I’m working on with attorney Greg Reed of Detroit.
I was surprised to learn that Haley had deep roots in Harlem, attended P.S. 157 and George Washington High School. Like his father, who spent 20 years in the Coast Guard, Haley was in the army for 22 years. He has five children and presently resides in North Carolina.
Chief among the things he’s prepared to dispute about his father is the tarnishing of his reputation as a result of the plagiarism charges brought against him. “The large sum of money paid to Harold Courlander [more than $600,000] wasn’t paid by my father but by the publisher,” he explained. Because of the plagiarism suits, some scholars, including Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, have chosen to exclude Alex’s work from their various publications.
“For Mr. Gates and others, everything has to be empirical,” Haley said, referring to the substantiation of their research. “They leave no room for the intuit or the spiritual way information is often acquired.”
Haley had much to say about the auctioning of the Haley estate and that it was arranged by his Uncle George Haley and that nearly $100,000 was raised toward relief of the debt. He stopped short of providing details about the money and what happened to it, though one is left with the impression that all didn’t go well.
What did go well was chatting with Haley and hearing the undisclosed details of his father’s death and his marital affairs. For that, dear friends, you’ll have to wait for the biography. But there may be a few interesting disclosures on the tribute on OWN. Stay tuned.