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Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley

BOOK: Alex Haley
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Alex Haley

And the Books That Changed a Nation

Robert J. Norrell

St. Martin's Press

New York

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About the Author

Copyright Page


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For Mary Ann Graham Norrell, in celebration of her ninety years


This book tells the story of Alex Haley, a tale whose significance is larger than one man's biography. It is the story of the remaking of American society's understanding of the black experience. Haley wrote the two most influential books on African American history in the second half of the twentieth century. Each of his books sold at least six million copies, and the films made from them were viewed and appreciated by the masses of Americans. Haley sold more books than any other African American author and all but a few white ones.

He shaped the racial sensibilities of more Americans than any other writer, black or white. Although he was not himself a black nationalist, his works, more than any other writing, gave texture and substance to black nationalism. Haley and his work deserve to be recognized as seminal influences on black identity and American thought about race.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
gave millions of Americans a look into the world of blacks in twentieth-century ghettos and especially the anger that life there engendered. The book made Malcolm into an icon of black manliness and resistance to oppression. Haley's rendering of Malcolm created an archetype that challenged the image of the loving, nonviolent black male personified by Martin Luther King Jr. After Malcolm's assassination in 1965, his influence on the popular imagination grew steadily, helped always by his autobiography, written by Haley.

cast slavery and the black family in an entirely new light. Haley retrieved the African past of black Americans for the benefit of all people, adding new depth to our understanding of the experiences of African Americans. He created memorable characters that live today in the minds of those who read
or who saw the television productions based on the book. He opened the eyes of millions of whites to the hard realities of black life over the generations and spurred a national movement among Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, to seek their family origins. Along the way, Haley taught us that our families' experiences actually composed the nation's history.

Despite the publishing success and the celebrity that came with it, controversy enveloped Haley soon after the publication of
and plagued him for the rest of his life. He was castigated personally and accused of malfeasance as a writer. The controversy hurt Haley's professional reputation and to some extent undermined his works' influence on American culture. This book tries to explain how and why that happened—and also why Haley should still be remembered and his books still read.


A grant from the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green University in Ohio boosted this project at an early stage. Jeffrey Paul's continuing interest in my work has been gratifying. W. Fitzhugh Brundage at the University of North Carolina and Daryl Michael Scott at Howard University clarified my thinking about the issues raised in this book. Josh Durbin gave extensive help in the early stages of research, and Alicia Maskley aided at the end. Tracey Hayes Norrell and Jay Norrell each made many helpful editorial suggestions. Geri Thoma at Writers House found a home for the book. I am particularly indebted to Lisa Drew, George Berger, and Bruce Wheeler for advising me on particular issues in the research.


Grandma's Boy

On a September evening in 1921, Simon and Bertha Haley drove into Bertha's hometown of Henning, in western Tennessee, a village of five hundred souls lying in the lowlands not far from the Mississippi River. Bertha brought a present for her parents, Will and Cynthia Palmer. When Cynthia opened the door that night, Bertha thrust a blanketed bundle toward her mother, saying, “Here's a surprise for you.” It was a six-week-old baby boy. Bertha had kept her pregnancy a secret from her parents. The concealment was odd, especially because Bertha enjoyed a loving relationship with her parents, and it probably indicated ambivalence about having a baby in her early twenties.

Simon and Bertha had traveled a thousand miles from Ithaca, New York, where Simon was a graduate student at the Cornell University School of Agriculture. They were newlyweds, having met at all-black Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and married the previous year at the New Hope Colored Methodist Church of Henning. The nuptials had been grand by Henning standards. Will Palmer had bused in the Lane choir to perform at the wedding of his only child, a sign of the prosperity Will had enjoyed during his twenty-five years as proprietor of the W. E. Palmer Lumber Company. The clearest indication of Will's wealth was the new, twelve-room house to which Simon and Bertha brought their son.

Will and Cynthia were overjoyed with their grandbaby, called Palmer but also named Alexander for Simon's father and Murray for Cynthia's father, Tom Murray, who had established his family in Henning in 1874. Will Palmer had longed for a son. His and Cynthia's own firstborn, a boy, had died as an infant. Will immediately began minding little Palmer. He built a crib and installed it at the lumber company in order that he might take the baby to work with him. Cynthia doted on the little boy almost as much. Early on, she took over much responsibility from Bertha for rearing Palmer.

A tall, brown-skinned woman with flowing dark hair, Bertha considered herself a musician above all. She had studied with a white teacher from Memphis, then at Lane, and at the music conservatory at Cornell during the previous year. In his new house, Will built a music room from which Bertha conducted Saturday afternoon recitals for residents of Henning, black and white. Simon, the grandson of two Irish immigrants who fathered children with slave women, was light enough to pass for white. He grew up in poverty in Savannah in western Tennessee, but he intended to move up in the world. After Lane, he graduated from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. He enlisted in the military, serving in World War I and rising to the rank of sergeant in an all-black unit that fought at the Argonne Forest, where they were gassed. Simon enjoyed taking Henning residents into Will Palmer's vegetable garden and identifying okra and cabbage by their Latin names. At the New Hope church, Simon had sung “In the Garden” with Bertha's accompaniment, and he liked to opine after services on subjects about which he was expert, all the while twirling the Phi Beta Kappa key attached to the lapel of his three-piece suit. “Dad would start talking all kind of wisdom, using big words that not a soul in the crowd understood a syllable of except him,” Palmer recalled. “After a while all eyes in the crowd were on that little key.” Sister Scrap Scott, a feisty local woman, always stood directly in front of Simon as he pontificated. One day she pointed at the key. “'Fessor Haley, what is that?” He explained in Greek and Latin phrases about the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Sister Scrap was not satisfied. “But 'Fessor Haley, what do it open?”

Palmer, who would become the writer Alex Haley, had been born into an African American family atypical in the early twentieth century. Both of his parents had been to college, and his father would earn a graduate degree from an Ivy League university. Also unusual was Will Palmer, who in 1895 had been asked by white men in Henning to take over the lumber company at which he worked from the drunken white man who had driven the business into bankruptcy. Will proceeded to make the company into a thriving enterprise highly valued by local whites. He was well-to-do and occupied the finest new house in the town, set amid white neighbors. He spoke deliberately, and everyone paid attention to what Will Palmer said and did. He was something of an autocrat from his living room rocking chair. When Will spoke, his grandson later said, “nobody dared utter a whisper. . . . You just listened to grandpa. . . . And when he would quit speaking, there would generally be a respectful little lull . . . before anybody else would venture something.”

These unusual circumstances occurred in a time of terrible discri
mination against African Americans. Lauderdale County was typical of the Mississippi Delta with its large population of black sharecroppers. Henning sat fifteen miles from old Fort Pillow, where in 1864 General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his Confederate cavalry massacred hundreds of black Union soldiers after they had surrendered. In 1866 blacks were murdered during rioting in Memphis, fifty miles to the south. Blacks were disfranchised throughout Tennessee in 1889 and relegated to inferior schools and public accommodations. African Americans were often lynched in the South starting in the 1880s, with incidents near Henning in 1917 and in 1931. As far as little Palmer knew, however, blacks were not treated harshly but were just considered to be different from whites. Society “decreed everything about the two was different.”

Bertha was not adept at either cooking or housekeeping, whereas Cynthia was master of all domestic arts and was such a tireless worker that she sometimes accompanied her friends to pick cotton in order to enjoy the sociability of the field. She considered her daughter overeducated and impractical. “You just don't know nothing about raising a young'un,” she told Bertha, who saw herself as different from her mother. Cynthia's family stories about slavery embarrassed her. Bertha would say, “Ma, why don't you quit talking about that old-timey slavery mess,” to which Cynthia would retort: “If you don't care nothin' about who you come from, I sho' does.” In his first years, Bertha and Simon left Palmer in Henning as Simon filled short-term appointments at various black colleges. Palmer grew up more attached to Cynthia than to Bertha.

He entered the Palmer-Turner Grammar School, one of the youngest and smallest children in his class. The first black school in the area, it was named for both his grandfather and Carrie White Turner, its first teacher. Palmer read avidly from an early age. He loved adventure tales and the Bible stories read and told at the New Hope church. Will Palmer's house was the only one in Henning with a library, and he made sure that it was well stocked. A black traveling bookseller would come around, especially in the fall, when people had money from the cotton harvest. Books usually cost one dollar each, except for Bibles, which were more. A local man, Lewis Young, claimed to have read a hundred books.

In 1926, when Palmer was five, his grandfather fell gravely ill. “He real low,” visitors whispered after sitting at his bedside. Cynthia showed her stress by being unusually irritable with little Palmer. He fled outdoors and hid beneath honeysuckle vines outside the window of the sick room, wanting to be in calling distance if his grandpa needed him. Under the honeysuckle, he found a crippled cricket, for which he made a tiny splint. He hoped both the cricket and Grandpa could recover. In his hideaway Palmer also watched a hummingbird that he imagined moved like the angels he had heard described in Sunday school and that he feared might be coming for his grandfather. “Grandpa was so heroic in my world that I just equated him with God,” Palmer later said. Finally, he watched the doctor try without success to resuscitate Will, after which the boy ran to the lumber mill, shouting, “Grandpa's dead!” His grandfather's passing was the most momentous event of Palmer's early life.

With Will's death, Bertha and Simon returned to Henning to live. Simon took over the running of the lumber company to get it ready to sell. Bertha taught at the Palmer-Turner Grammar School, where Palmer began first grade. A second son, George, had arrived, and in 1929 would come a third, Julius. Simon discovered that the lumber company had debts enough to reduce its worth below what they hoped to get to secure Cynthia's future. Meanwhile, Cynthia's grief was intense. She neglected cooking and housework and sat for hours on the front porch, staring outward, often with baby George in her lap. Passersby asked how she was doing. “Just settin',” she answered. Palmer played at the edge of the porch, “feeling that I needed to stay protectively near her because Grandpa was gone now.” The family assembled after supper on the front porch, where Simon “said light and funny things just in an effort to see if he could get Grandma to laugh.” It seemed to Palmer that she never smiled anymore.

Simon had finished his master's degree and yearned to get back to academia. He landed a position teaching poultry science at Lane College, his and Bertha's alma mater. Suddenly, Cynthia came out of the fog of her grief and returned to frenetic bouts of housekeeping, cooking, gardening, and vegetable canning. “With her big black pots steaming atop the wood-burning cast-iron stove,” Palmer remembered, she began to “ladle wonderful-smelling things into freshly-scaled quart-sized Mason jars, until rows upon rows of them were stacked in the cool, dark basement.”

Cynthia also found comfort in writing letters to family members. She had five sisters and many nieces widely scattered, a reflection of the migration of blacks from the South after 1910. Every afternoon she put pencil to paper and composed a letter. “She would call out a word and then she would call out the spelling,” Palmer later recounted. “And if that spelling didn't please her, then she would try another spelling until one sounded right. And then she would start writing character for character. And whenever she finished one word, she would put the tip of this little nubby pencil up to her lip or up to her tongue as if to recharge it.” The next morning, as she addressed the envelope, she called out the place where the letter was going, “backed it” with her return address, and walked to the Henning post office to buy a two-cent stamp. Palmer learned his “first concept of communication”: if you write a letter, “probably somebody would write to you.” This lesson made Palmer a lifelong, habitual letter writer. In the spring of 1927, having overcome her worst grief, Cynthia began to invite the women of her family to visit. Palmer remembered the excitement that always accompanied a letter from a relative announcing her time of arrival. He would go with Grandma to the Henning train depot to “welcome them in a welter of kissings and huggings.” The visitors included Mathilda Merriwether, “Aunt Till,” from Jackson, Tennessee, wife of a prominent minister; “Cousin Pie” from Chicago, daughter of a long-dead sister, who taught school and spoke with a northern accent; Aunt Mattie Fisher from Carbondale, Illinois; Aunt Posey from St. Louis, actually Cynthia's sister-in-law; and Cousin Millie Brooks from Louisville. Cousin Georgia Anderson from Kansas City talked so fast and said so much that she often exasperated the others. She brought along her teenaged daughter, who played with Palmer.

Cynthia was closest to her sister Elizabeth Murray, who came from Oklahoma, where she was an “old-maid” schoolteacher. “Aunt Liz” was thought to reveal the Indian blood in the family tree. She had long, straight, black hair that she braided and dyed jet-black and high cheekbones and copper-toned skin. The other women were various shades of brown. Elizabeth had never married; her family rejected her suitor because he was too light-skinned—certainly an irony given the complement of white blood that had entered the family line during slavery. She carried herself so proudly that people in Henning speculated that she was wealthy from Oklahoma oil. Having retired, Aunt Liz was moving to live with Cynthia permanently. She became almost as much a fixture in the lives of the Haley boys as their grandmother.

After supper, the Murray women gathered on Cynthia's broad front porch. Palmer crouched behind Cynthia's chair, and the women rocked back and forth like “so many metronomes.”
They dipped sweet Garrett snuff. “They'd pull out their lower lips and load them up,” Palmer remembered, and in a while one of them would tilt her head, lift her chin, say “skeet,” and let go a stream of snuff juice. The champion spitter was Liz. “There in the gathering darkness, she would knock a lightning bug on the fly.” At first Palmer did not understand the stories the women told on the porch. What was an “Old Massa” and a plantation? “Early I gathered that white folks had done lots of bad things to our folks, things I couldn't figure out why.” He began to imagine scenes in the stories, just as he visualized “Noah and his ark, Jesus feeding that big multitude with nothing but five loaves and two fishes.” The great protagonist of the women's stories was the one remembered as “the African.” They told how he was kidnapped and brought in chains to “Naplis,” where he was bought by a planter named Waller and taken to a plantation in Virginia. The African tried so often to escape that a slave catcher finally cut off part of his foot.

Palmer did not understand why people were so mean to the African. The women exclaimed against the cruelty, and Cousin Georgia sprang from her chair, “her small eyes flashing,” as she enacted how the African walked with only the rear half of his foot. Palmer said the women practically stood “my hair on end” as they whispered that slave nurses stuck “darning needles into the heads of their massa's infants.” The planter's brother, a doctor, saved the African by buying him. He named the African Toby, and that angered the African, who insisted he should be called “Kin-tay.” Eventually the African “jumped over the broom” with a cook named Bell, and they had a girl named Kizzy, whom Kin-tay taught African words. He called a banjo “ko” and a river “Kamby Bolongo.” Kizzy was sold away to a white man who “vi-lated” her. She handed down the information about the African to her son, George, who was the source of endless fascination to the ladies on the porch for his clever tongue, quick mind, and insatiable appetite for female flesh. George was the father of Tom Murray, who migrated to Henning in 1874 and was the father of Cynthia and her sisters.

BOOK: Alex Haley
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