Son of Roots: William Alexander Haley
The publication of the book Roots made a huge difference in my life, perhaps more than anything it was an imagined celebrity status. Folks more often than not would introduce me as the son of Alex Haley or the son of Roots. I must admit that this was quite a blow to my ego. My father once asked me if it were difficult being his son, I thought of the loss of my identity and replied yes it is difficult. Dad with his signature laughter: a high pitch chuckle put his big hands on my shoulders looked me in the eye and said, “The next time you feel that way, just think of Jesus, if he can be the son of God and surely you can be the son of Alex Haley”. I never had a problem with identity after that.
My childhood memories are filled with the incessant sound of a typewriter, and small notebooks lying around filled with handwritten notes about a variety of subjects. I can remember my father always wrote about our family and that many of those stories written in the fifties and sixties became a part of the book called Roots, which started as a book to be called Henning, about our family and the characters that inhabited the town; it evolved, to a title called Before this Anger and finally the novel we know as Roots. Dad would often hold court with friends and acquaintances telling stories about grandma, Aunt Liz and Cousin Georgia and a host of others that I could hardly imagine were real. He would tell stores that sometime caused him to whisper so that these young ears might not understand what was being said. He and his friends would laugh so hard that they had to hold their breath to contain it. But they couldn’t and would bust out in unrestrained glee; we would laugh also which resulted in dad raising his eyebrow in a menacing manner saying “what you laughing at boy?”
In the mid 1950s on our way to his new assignment in San Francisco I first learned the story of Chicken George a free slave, but not from Dad, rather from Cousin Georgia whom spun the oral histories of our family from the front porch in Henning with grandma and Aunt Liz. Cousin Georgia lived in Kansas City now and was the keeper of the family history. In the days that followed, Dad related to us stories about his side of the family that we had never heard. In retrospect, I guess he was cushioning us from the fact that we couldn’t get hotel accommodations in many of the places we stopped. He made up a story about us camping out. I remember walking with him to the side door of restaurants to get food on our trip west and his upbeat attitude while smothering his pride and ego for our sake. Often, when looking at the picture of the family and our new station wagon in Kansas City, I fixate on his uniform hanging in the car window and his distance from us in the photo. The uniform, I learned from him later was to let observers know that he was on active duty and not being uppity. We had a great adventure because Dad absorbed information everywhere that we traveled; the Grand Canyon; Indian reservations; the Rocky Mountains and all the wonders of the Wild West. His stories and his strength kept us going, mother and he withstood the visors of the adventure and brought us safely to our destination, my mother and father will always be my heroes and that I owe them both a debt of gratitude. My father summed it up best when he said in his article The Power of Thank You, “I realized that from the moment of birth we are steadily receiving someone’s love, guidance, help and friendship.”
Thank you, Dad.
William A. Haley, May 2007