On the freeway, my wife and I sat in the car, looking ahead and hoping to find the cause of an unforeseeable, Saturday afternoon traffic jam.
Having allocated two hours before my 1:30 p.m. book talk at a retirement center, I was concerned I wouldn’t have enough time to test my PowerPoint presentation, try out the microphone, and set up my books for autographing.
Forty-five minutes into our drive, with still forty miles to go, I was less concerned about the above details and more concerned that I would make it on time. The traffic eventually let up, but I would have to accept that I would be late to my own lecture.
Fortunately, I had a warm-up act, my dad!
A retired U.S. history professor, I learned all of the tools of the trade from him. He was able to keep the audience engaged until I arrived.
At 1:45 p.m., carrying a thirty-five pound box of books, I made my way to the room, where I would deliver my lecture about Alex Haley. The 40-person audience was understanding and even surprised me with applause.
Once I settled down and assured the audience my delay was “worth the wait,” I delivered my best lecture to date.
Over the past weeks, I have worked diligently on my next book, which is about a black doctor, who led the effort to integrate Major League Baseball’s spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Besides working on the first draft, I have collected scores of material from the NAACP archives and Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame and interviewed retired St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and past National League President, Bill White, and the widow of the New York Yankee’s first African American player, Elston Howard. White and Howard remembered the doctor, , fondly, and were present at spring training in Florida before and after integration.
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There has been a date change for my next book talk, which will be taking place in Castro Valley (my hometown). Instead of June 20, it is now scheduled for Saturday, June 13. The information is below. If you are unable to make it, the next one will be October 20 in San Jose. Stay tune for details.
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Last week, Alex Haley’s younger brother, Ambassador George Haley, died at the age of 89. George was the last living member of the immediate family—Alex’s mother Bertha died in 1931; his father, Simon, passed away in 1973; Alex in 1992; and youngest brother Julius died in 2010.
Amongst the three brothers, if Alex was seen as the black sheep and Julius was regarded as the quiet one, George was treated as the leader. Although he was five years younger than Alex, it was George who took on a patriarchal role later in life, especially following his father’s passing.
The second African-American graduate of the University of Arkansas Law School, George endured severe bigotry from students and faculty alike. Alex wrote about his brother’s experience in Reader’s Digest. George was married for 60 years—unlike his elder brother, who was married and divorced three times.
Settling in Kansas City, George was elected as Deputy City Attorney. From there, he also contributed to one of the most famous legal cases in U.S. history, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Eventually, he was elected to the Kansas State Senate. Later, he served in several presidential administrations (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush) and ultimately appointed as an ambassador to, where else, The Gambia—Kunta Kinte’s native country. Click here to watch one of George Haley’s final speeches.
Roots Remake will air in 2016
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Roots is scheduled to be remade for television and will be aired next year on History, A&E Network, and Lifetime. Actor LeVar Burton, who
played Kunta Kinte in the 1977 mini-series on ABC, will be one of movie’s producers along with Mark Wolper, who’s father, David, was the producer of the original film. David Wolper’s role was critical in securing funding and garnering support from the ABC executive team, who had been reluctant about turning Alex Haley’s best-selling book into a television movie. Without David Wolper, Roots most likely would not have aired. Click hereto read the full story.
New Alex Haley biography will be published in November 2015
A few of the friends I met during my semester abroad in Prague, who I still keep in contact with through Facebook, were very excited to read my recent post. It conjured up many wonderful, carefree memories. In fact, we’re thinking of having a 15-year reunion in 2017 to be held in Prague! Coincidentally, as I write this, my Czech friend and study abroad group’s unofficial tour guide, is graciously showing around my mother-in-law and her friend as they travel through Prague.
Finally, there was a recently published article in the St. Petersburg Tribune about the subject for my next book. The story featured Dr. Ralph Wimbish’s children, who are now in their sixties, and discussed their unique upbringing, raised by two politically active parents in the 1950s and 60s. Click here to read about the article.
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In February, my local newspaper, Gilroy Dispatch, published a full-page feature (picture included) about my progress as an independently published author. The University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), an organization that serves as a conduit to send college students abroad, had contacted me a short while later after a representative got wind of the article. As an alum, USAC congratulated me on my recent accomplishment.
After a few back and forth emails, I was asked to pen a blog post about my experience in Prague, Czech Republic, where had I spent the semester. The post was published a few weeks ago, but was heavily edited (for space) and formatted differently, in a Q&A style.
You can read the post published on the USAC website here or, you can read the original below (I guarantee the latter is much more interesting).
I had only seen my father cry once before. It was when my grandmother died a decade earlier. But there he was at San Francisco International Airport at four o’clock in the morning, along with my mother (who wasn’t the crying type) unable to hold back. He used his forearm to wipe away the wetness around his eyelids.
In a few minutes, he was about to say good-bye to his only son, who was off to live and study in Prague, a city that most people hadn’t heard of before. Those who had, still associated it with the Soviet Union—even though it had been thirteen years since the disintegration of the Evil Empire.
London was my parents’ first choice
They speak English. Why make life difficult for yourself?
Paris and Barcelona was a distant second. They were relatively “safe” cities.
What about Australia? Or, Germany? Italy? Why Prague?
I couldn’t even tell you where it was located, my father, a Ph.D. in history, quipped.
You don’t even speak the language; why the hell did you take Spanish!
My parents weren’t the globetrotting type. My sisters and I were a bit more seasoned, but nothing at the magnitude I was about to embark upon—a semester abroad.
As I was emptying out the travel books my parents bought for me because my luggage exceeded the weight limit, my father stood a few feet away, with a look of disbelief.
It hadn’t even been a year since the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks.
Why do you have to go so far? The world was not a safe place anymore.
At the time, it wasn’t unusual to hear about Americans, when traveling abroad, placing Canadian flags on their backpacks, out of fear of retribution for the U.S. global war on terrorism.
As I hugged my parents and entered the security checkpoint, I choked up. It hit me. I was leaving them, my safety net. Maybe they were right, after all. Should I have studied in a more “established” country? Or, play it really safe and study in Canada? Nothing ever bad happens there.
A little teary eyed myself, I went to my gate and took off for Prague.
Many mornings on my way to class, I’d cross the 675-year old Charles Bridge at Charles University (est. 1348), while to my left was the city’s thousand year-old signature landmark, Prague Castle, a masterpiece of medieval architecture, I knew I made the right decision.
Living in Prague allowed me to travel with ease to other countries—Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Just make sure your passport is easily accessible. When I fumbled around for mine on the train to Krakow, Poland, for example, the ticket agent must have thought I was stalling and treated me with suspicion.
It was during my stay in Prague that the city hosted the annual NATO summit, the first major international conference of world leaders since 9/11 (both Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush were in attendance). Told by our hosts to leave the city or be prepared to hunker down at our dormitory, the city was in full lock-down. Military vehicles roamed the cobblestone streets as snipers positioned themselves on rooftops. Demonstrators took over a small city block although it seemed the press and police—and the curious onlookers like myself—outnumbered the protesters.
But Prague is a peaceful city, where pubs are places to meet, play chess, paint, and talk. There are no bouncers, no lines, no neon lights and it doesn’t suffer from a foul odor. Beer is served at all hours of the day—and to American college students, that’s unreal. But in Prague, it’s no big deal. Czechs don’t drink to get drunk—something we observed but never practiced.
The memories that stay with me the most are those that involve the other USAC students—all 16 of us. We were in a strange, formerly Soviet-occupied country together, going through similar highs and lows, and trying not to forget to go to class—it’s so easy when every day is a new adventure.
For a few of us, it was the last time we would be full-time college students. No kids of our own, no mortgages, no job to go back to, no ailments, and no school loans that needed to be paid back yet.
It was a dream and there was no better setting for it than Prague.
God, I’m glad I didn’t listen to my parents!
For those of you who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in learning more about Alex Haley, you are invited to my talk in my hometown, Castro Valley, at 1:00 p.m., Saturday, June 20, at Baywood Court, 21966 Dolores Street, and if you haven’t signed up for my email list, you’ll miss the opportunity to be notified about my next book, so please click here.
And if you prefer to take it out on loan, have your local library request it. Santa Clara County Library District, for example, made it available, and I was pleased to see it was checked out!
Finally, my father, Professor Emeritus Gerald S. Henig, who taught Civil War and Reconstruction studies for nearly 40 years, is back on the lecture circuit. He’ll be delivering a talk on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He will focus on “Lincoln’s Successor, Andrew Johnson: States Right’s Advocate or White Supremacist?” The talk will be held on Monday, April 13, at 1:00 p.m. at California State University, East Bay, Hayward Campus in the Library. The event is free and open to the public. In case you’re wondering, yes, he ignited my initial interest in African American history.
In case the remake wasn’t enough, there is another Roots-influenced film in the works. Showing Roots, which will star Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba, is about “a small Southern town in 1977 whose balance is turned upside down when the slavery miniseries Roots hits the airwaves.” This movie is much further ahead in production, with a complete cast and crew in place. Filming is already underway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It will be directed by well-known theater director, Michael Wilson. Showing Roots will be his first feature film. There has been no mention of a release date or whether it will be shown in movie theaters or go straight to television. The movie will feature Cicely Tyson, who played Kunta Kinte’s mother in the original Roots mini-series.
Expect these movies in their marketing campaigns to take full advantage of the approaching 40th anniversary of Roots (2017).
For all jazz lovers, there’s a new CD/digital album of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s final tour together before their split. The four-CD box set features Davis’ classic “Round Midnight” and “So What” among others. Click here for the review.
The audiobook version of Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey is now available in iTunes and Amazon’s Audible stores. A little more than two hours in length, veteran narrator Mark Westfield did an excellent job of capturing the tone of this story. If you’re interested in reviewing the book on Amazon or iTunes, please contact me and I’ll send you a free copy.
Earlier this week, my local paper, The Gilroy Dispatch, published an article about my role as a self publish biographer. Click here for the article.
“Henig tracks the life of Alex Haley after the publication of his path breaking book, Roots, offering a sad reminder of the potential downsides to achieving one’s dreams….[and] recounts the highs and lows of Haley’s life with sympathy, addressing the critiques honestly.”
Recently, I was conducting research for my next book using a Microfilm machine. I’ve used them before and with my father’s assistance, we plowed through two full months of the daily newspaper, New York Post. Although Google might be quicker and more efficient to search, I admit it’s not nearly as enjoyable as sitting at a library, lining up the film, and scrolling through an old newspaper.
Finally, if you’re interested in notification about my next book (and those after), sign-up for my email list. I promise I won’t SPAM you or send you a million updates (it will only be book-related and given that I write books every two years, rest assured there will be very few emails sent), and I won’t sell or distribute the list to a third party.
To commemorate the annual federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to share a story behind Alex Haley’s Playboy interviewof the civil rights leader, which was published exactly 50 years ago this month.
This blog post was originally posted on January 15, 2014.
During the winter of 1964, when the forty-three year-old Alex Haley approached the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for an interview in Playboy, the up-and-coming writer assumed his intended subject would happily oblige.
Having already published articles in Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and The Atlantic, and having conducted interviews Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X (all for Playboy), Haley had established himself as one of the nation’s leading African American magazine writers.
If anyone in the media could secure an interview with King, it was Haley, who was praised by the black news publication, Negro Digest, as the “most successful writer we know.”
It seemed like a sure thing.
But, it wasn’t.
When Haley made his first trip to Atlanta, King’s hometown, the Playboy interviewer had realize that he underestimated who he was dealing with.
“[I] never even got to first base; the man was that inaccessible, that committed,” Haley wrote to Alfred Balk, a fellow journalist.
King was always on the move, flying throughout the country to meet with black leaders, politicians, and the masses. As soon as he landed in one city, Haley noted, moments later it seemed King was off to the next. After another unsuccessful visit to Atlanta, Haley needed a new game plan.
What if he tried catching King at the airport, in between flights?
Gutsy, but that approach didn’t pan out.
It seemed that Haley would have to return to his editors at Playboy empty-handed. How had he been successful in luring other notable public figures, but not King?
Haley was desperate.
He was aware that the Reverend was somewhat reluctant to be featured in a magazine with nude photographs of women. To compensate, Haley approached one of King’s assistants, Andrew Young, and offered to waive his fee from the interview in the form of a donation to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Although that may have helped his cause, in the end he pursued a different strategy.
Instead of confronting King, the writer decided to contact directly the civil rights leader’s secretary, Miss Dora McDonald.
“I know that Dr. King now is immersed with Atlanta problems,” he wrote McDonald. “Give me even 15 minutes, a half hour, perhaps lunch with him, for a total time of about four hours?”
McDonald couldn’t make any promises, but she recommended that Haley attend a “church barbecue” and “let him see you there and don’t press.”
Haley heeded her advice.
He attended a picnic sponsored by the church, minded his own business, ate off his “paper plate of barbecued chicken,” and waited for an opportunity to be alone with King. The civil rights leader recognized Haley and knew what he wanted. Haley treaded carefully.
In the course of their conversation, Haley soon realized that King (who was reluctant to admit it) needed Haley and Playboy as much as they needed him. Getting his message out to the white, middle class audience that Playboy served was vital to sustaining the movement’s momentum.
Haley finally set the leader straight: “Think what you will about the girls, but you can’t ignore the audience.” (A little more than a year earlier, Haley used a similar line to entice another black leader, Malcolm X, to submit to an interview as well).
King conceded and eventually sat down with Haley, and gave one of the most memorable Playboy interviews. It was also one of King’s “longest he had ever granted to any publication.”
For only $.99, you can read the entire interview by clicking here. To read other Playboy interviews conducted by Alex Haley, click here.
Hoyt W. Fuller and Doris E. Saunders, “Perspectives,”Negro Digest, July 1962
“Letter to Alfred Balk from Alex Haley,” March 20, 1064, Box 2, Folder 105 (Haley, Alex, 1962-1973), Series 1 Correspondence 1952-2009, Alfred Balk Papers, Special Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago