Article Written for Bookish

alexhaleyIn writing a biography of Alex Haley, I learned some surprising things about him and his career as a writer.

1. Haley sold more books in one day in February 1977 than I have sold in my whole career of publishing fourteen books. Both his two main works, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, sold in the neighborhood of six million books. That is mind-boggling success to me. I have never experienced celebrity, and Haley lived with it most of his adult life, with all its pleasures and its pitfalls.

2. But I found that Haley and I had some things in common. We each spent our adolescence near Huntsville, Alabama, Haley a generation before I came along. We both were born to a southern storytelling tradition, and each of us loved the act of spinning a yarn. We both felt most comfortable in the South even though each of rejected much about it. Each of us was shaped by a maternal grandmother who had made it her responsibility to pass to her grandson the family history. I followed the advice to write about what I knew, which in my case was the turmoil of the South in the 1960s. Haley’s entire writing life was in essence an exploration of his autobiography, even when on the surface he was addressing some other life, even Malcolm X’s.

3. Haley had only a little college education before he went into the military in 1939, where he had a two-decade-long apprenticeship as a free-lance writer. He was not a natural or even talented prose stylist, but he worked on his craft diligently for decades. He benefitted from excellent editing from such magazines as Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy. His writing efforts were also guided for years by his agent Paul Reynolds and his editors at Doubleday, Ken McCormick and Lisa Drew. I was astonished at the sustained and detailed critiques they gave Haley over many long years—feats of endurance and patience I have never known and I hope never needed from either an editor or agent. Over the course of the twelve years it took him to finish Roots, Haley frequently wrote Reynolds and McCormick five-to-seven-page, single-spaced letters about his progress on the book. I was amazed that they didn’t answer, “enough with interminable missives, write the damn book!” That was certainly what I was thinking when I read the letters.

4. Roots the book appeared in September 1976 and the mini-series based on it, seen by 130 million people, in January 1977. All of a sudden Haley was among the biggest celebrities in the United States and the world. Fame of that magnitude sparked envy, and various people began to criticize him. A British journalist claimed that Haley had fabricated the African background of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, and two American genealogists insisted that he had gotten all wrong the Haley family lineagein the United States. Haley and his publisher had made the mistake of promoting the book as true and factual, rather than calling it an historical novel that adhered asfaithfully as possible to known facts. At the same moment, two writers sued Haley claiming that he had plagiarized their books. One of the claims was specious but the other proved that several passages of Roots were virtually identical to some in a novel called The African. Haley won the first suit and settled the second. Both brought negative publicity that undermined Haley’s heroic status to many Americans who had admired his work.

5. All this controversy surprised me because, though I was around when it occurred, I had somehow missed it. What I remembered was that Roots revised how the popular mind in America understood slavery, changing it from being the romanticized institution depicted in “Gone with the Wind” to a realistic understanding of its violent, inhumane nature. To me, Roots remains the most important book on American slavery, and I think it should be recognized as that. That is why I wrote a biography of Alex Haley.

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History May Not Repeat Itself but it Does Rhyme

19754vMark Twain is alleged to have said "History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” I thought of this line when I heard that my home state of Alabama had closed DMV offices in the 25 counties with the highest black population in the state. This is a new cover of an old song. I wrote in Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee about a long struggle by African Americans to get the right to vote. There white opponents of black rights, who had controlled the county always though they were a 20 percent minority, simply refused to convene the Board of Registrars, the only way,  before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, that blacks could become registered voters. If there was no functioning board of registrars, then there was nothing black voters, many of whom were well-educated and well-to-do and thus amply able to meet the other requirements for registering to vote, could do. Today lots of white people in Alabama have no shame about the lengths to which they will go to diminish the influence of black people in a democracy. It seems that any anti-democratic tactic is justifiable in the name of opposition to the black president of the United States, whose occupation of the White House has propelled white supremacists to do anything, anywhere, anytime to renounce his leadership.  There is one-party politics in Alabama, and most of the South, these days, and that means that the Republicans can do as they please. They fuel the passions of “conservatives”—a euphemism for white supremacists, at least in this environment. Again, it is behavior frighteningly familiar. The old Alabama Democratic party’s motto was “White Supremacy for the Right.” Alabama—and Southern—Republicans may not have adopted the slogan but they have mimicked the behavior of the old Dixiecrats and the George Wallace movement. My hope is that I will live long enough to see history rhyme again, to witness federal action to protect the rights of one and all to vote.

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The Donald Trump Cause

"Donald Trump September 3 2015" by Michael Vadon
Why are so many Americans flocking to the Donald Trump political cause? He surely embodies the anti-foreign prejudices and the unfocused hostility to our political process that many Americans feel. To me, his appeal is lot like that of George Wallace with its ethnic prejudices and bellicose posture toward existing powers. I wrote about Wallace’s cynical appeals in Reaping the Whirlwind in 1985 and again in The House I Live In in 2005. People like Trump’s angry temper and his cocky assertions of his superiority over everyone else in the race for president. But the other thing that has accelerated Trump’s rise is he is a celebrity, not a politician. He is a celebrity more than a businessman. What makes him a celebrity? He has been on television regularly, and at times continuously, for most of his adult life. In American society, we give some people status because they are politically influential, and some because they are rich. But the people with the highest status are those who have celebrity, who are constantly in the public eye, who are talked about on television. If you have celebrity, you don’t have to be rich or powerful (though we assumed that all celebrities are rich and many are), and you certainly don’t have to advance a consistent philosophy or demonstrate evidence of good moral behavior. Celebrity absolves you of the need to prove yourself otherwise. You are important and admired because you are famous. And now it appears that your celebrity may make you president.

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Put Down the Confederate Flag

by JIM MORIN / Miami Herald

After nine people were gunned down at the Charleston church in June, there was an outpouring of opposition to displaying the Confederate flag. Governor Nikki Haley led a movement to get the flag removed from her capital, and many and sundry southerners backed her decision. The flag should be put away, because it is a symbol of racial hatred, they said. Since then I have been depressed to see the flag flying more than ever. In western North Carolina, the flag seems to be on every other pick-up truck, on nearly every motorcycle, and now clipped onto windows in the same way SEC football fans display their team’s colors. Remember Newton's third law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Only it seems that the reaction is much stronger than the original action. One commonly hears the flag defended as the symbol of our “southern heritage.” There are two things about that.

One is that the working-class Appalachians driving the pick-ups and motorcycles around me descend from people who opposed the Confederacy for the most part, and so their heritage is really on the other side—for black liberation. But most important, the flag’s meaning was changed entirely during the civil rights movement to mean opposition to black rights and preservation of segregation. That is the true southern heritage for which it stands. Why do so many whites here, most of them born after the civil rights movement, continue to hold animus for blacks? In The House I Live In in 2005, I wrote that Americans just after the civil rights movement assumed that they lived in a zero-sum society—that is, they believed if blacks gained status, power, and wealth, then whites had lost that much influence and opportunity. I think such thinking still prevails. White insecurity, and the resulting bellicose anti-black action, has been made worse by the presence of our black president. The very idea of a black man’s occupying the White House is an affront to whites’ status, and the mounting indications of President Obama’s political successes only fuel white southerners’ anxiety and racial hatred. The rising white hostility makes politicians, including the aforementioned Haley, and the right-wing media megaphones pander to white prejudice in their opposition to Black Lives Matter. The underlying presumption seems to be that if blacks raise their voice, it somehow undermines white power.

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Public Condemnation of the Black Lives Matter Movement

Alex Nabaum / NYT

On top of my feeling of depression about the poor state of race relations in this country in 2015, I have been angered by the public condemnations of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In the past week, Bill O’Reilly, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Rand Paul, the presidential candidate, have all condemned Black Lives Matter for criticizing police action. I suspect that each of these persons is acting cynically to promote their own celebrity or political future. I immediately thought about all the condemnations I heard of “outside agitators” when growing up in Alabama in the 1960s. Damning protestors was an effort to avoid hearing black complaints about the injustices of segregation. It seems clear to me that O’Reilly, Haley, and Paul have sensed there is an audience out there of people who don’t want to face the facts of injustice in today’s criminal justice system. Choose your cliché: Blame the victim, shoot the messenger. It comes down to avoiding an uncomfortable reality.

If one looks way back for the origins of civil rights activity in the South, you will find that the immediate provocation for black action often was police brutality. Many NAACP chapters in smaller southern cities and towns were first founded in the aftermath of a cop or sheriff’s deputy killing a black person. What civil right was more necessary than the protection of life from summary execution by police? What power was greater to enforce white supremacy than the power of summary execution. That was the thing about lynching, whether done in the open or in the recesses of a southern jail: it was the symbol, and fact, of the white man’s final authority over any black man.

The New York Times provided an especially lucid, well-informed comment on this matter here.

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