7 Roots Unraveled

By 1980, Haley’s two made-for-TV movies had generated tens of millions of dollars. That same year he coproduced Palmerstown, a television show, loosely based on his childhood. Formerly the script consultant to Roots, Haley’s behind-the-camera role had greatly expanded. But the show was cancelled after one and a half seasons.

Though the Roots phenomenon began to wane, Haley’s presence still inspired jaw-dropping reactions from fans. Always having relished the adoration, the novelty of celebrity nevertheless had worn thin. Speaking to thousands on any given night had become routine. He was almost sixty. It was no longer an adventure to drive 160 miles at four in the morning from Grand Rapids to Detroit on a few hours sleep. Nor to fly from Seattle to Boise then drive to Idaho Falls and leave the next morning for Salt Lake City, ending the evening with a flight to Columbus, Ohio.

His adoring fans had become more intrusive, asking how much money he made, how much sex he was having, and becoming belligerent if he failed to autograph a book or photograph. Then there were the professional con artists scouting out his fortune. There were constant letters and phone calls from so-called old friends and supposed long-lost relatives demanding handouts. He became less tolerant, less personable, and less friendly.

If the general public could be rude, academics could be ruthless. Two white Southern genealogists from the University of Alabama conducted an analysis of Alex Haley’s family as depicted in his book. A husband-and-wife team, Gary and Elizabeth Shown Mills published their findings in the prestigious Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Since they did not have access to Haley’s working notes, and Roots had neither footnotes nor a reference section, the Mills team was forced to comb through primary source documents from records offices in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia. Using what they described as the “most recent guide to genealogical standards” for their benchmark, they discovered that Roots failed to meet any of the ten criteria genealogists used to trace lineage. Roots, the couple contended, did not meet even the “most basic standards of genealogical inquiry.” They found contradictions. They found fabrication. They found inaccuracies in “every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots.” By the end of her research, Elizabeth Mills was convinced that Haley’s “mistakes” had been expedient, or, worse, intentional.

Once the Mills’ article was out, the media again harassed Haley. He was quick to dismiss the “pious pristine people” who didn’t even offer him an opportunity to dispute their findings before publication. Then there was Professor Donald Wright of State University of New York at Courtland. He published similar conclusions in another scholarly journal. An expert in West African oral history, Wright (also white) confirmed Mark Ottaway’s earlier assertion that Haley had relied far too heavily on a griot, who was an unreliable source. According to Wright, Haley violated every one of the principles for conducting professional research: Don’t make assumptions. Record interviews when possible. Do not provide the answers you are seeking to the interviewee in advance. Do not rely on a single source.

Haley rallied. Those who “come along and say Roots was not so . . . [were insinuating] slavery never happened.” He promised to address their concerns in his upcoming book, Search. Harriet Beecher Stowe had written a similar book more than a century earlier, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, following the success of her controversial slave novel. In response to pro-slavery critics, she offered a detailed explanation of the facts behind her story and characters. But Haley’s Search would never be published.

By 1982, the author was looking to make changes in his life. Although he still spent the majority of his time on the road, his home (where his now-estranged wife, Lewis, continued to reside) was in Los Angeles. But the fast-pace of Angelinos did not suit him. That same year the city of Knoxville was scheduled to host the World’s Fair. Haley accepted an invitation to participate as a celebrated guest. He was immediately infatuated with the down-to-earth lifestyle he experienced in Tennessee’s third largest city. He even made a new friend, John Rice Irwin, a white, educated, eastern-Tennessee native who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and was the founder of the Museum of Appalachia. The two men hit it off, frequently spending hours discussing history, their love for Tennessee, and future plans.

Haley purchased a massive farm, a fixer-upper, located twenty miles north of Knoxville. He was soon the most popular man in town. Everywhere he went, people, both black and white, greeted him with smiles and open arms. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, even hired him as a part-time lecturer. He returned the favor, setting up scholarships at both the university and at nearby schools. He hired locals to maintain his residence and the 127 acres of vegetation that surrounded it.

He developed a reputation around town for being generous, and some residents took advantage of it. Haley was seen as a bit naïve when it came to loaning people money. He was a millionaire many times over in a region where that type of wealth was rare. “Everybody was hoping to get a chunk of his money,” according to the spouse of a former employee of his farm. Those who were close to Haley during these years felt protective of the author, trying to shield him from the unscrupulous. On one occasion, Haley had confided to his housekeeper that his own children “would never get in touch with him except when they wanted something.” He neglected to mention that he’d been far from a model father.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, when he had the time, Haley would escape his still hectic schedule to be at sea. He would travel frequently for weeks or even months, usually by himself. He preferred commercial freight ships that carried only a dozen passengers and crewmembers. Nothing relaxed him more, Haley often said, than being in the middle of the ocean working on a new book or article. In 1988, he published a one-hundred-page novella, A Different Kind of Christmas. In comparison to Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, its sales were unremarkable.

By the end of the decade, Haley had financially “spread himself out too thin.” Bad real-estate deals, loans that went unpaid, questionable practices by his financial advisors back in Los Angeles, erratic spending (Haley loved ordering from mail-order catalogs), and slowing sales of Roots forced him to liquidate some of his assets in order to stay afloat.

In 1990, at sixty-eight-years-old and in poor health, Haley was now an overweight diabetic who did little to curb his sweet tooth. He still managed to surround himself with a number of girlfriends, in some cases even younger than his estranged wife. Against the wishes of his doctors and close friends, he refused to slow down. His home wasn’t in Knoxville, Los Angeles, New York City, or, for that matter, Henning. He was a nomad—ironically, rootless. His life was his writing and his love was lecturing—as long as the touring schedule didn’t exceed his limits. A natural orator, there was nowhere else he’d rather be than standing in front of a group of people and telling a story. The size of an audience never mattered, though the audiences were smaller and more intimate now. Fulton Oursler Jr., his former editor at Reader’s Digest, remembered that Haley could “hypnotize one human being or a crowd of a hundred thousand people.”

In early February 1992, Haley left his farm and flew to the West Coast for a series of lectures, endorsement deals, and meetings with Hollywood executives. A few days later, on February 10, while en route to a speaking engagement in Seattle, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

 


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Roots Unraveled Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.

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