We Left Our Heart in Knoxville

In mid-February, InsideofKnoxville.com published a post I had written about my experience in Knoxville, Tennessee.

To my surprise, the blog was a hit, having been shared on Facebook by more than 250 users and receiving a record number of comments (in comparison to the other blog posts).

Most of the comments in response were pleasant  such as “great story” or “made me more homesick than about anything I’ve read in the last 20 years.”

There was one, though, who was not pleased, but rather offended: 

“So the locals being puzzled by two Californians being in Knoxville, as if they were Lewis and Clark taking a wrong turn and landing in Miami, seems odd.” 

Ha, ha, I suppose.

If you haven’t read the post, here it is in its entirety. Enjoy – AH

***

It was my first trip to Tennessee.

Though I had visited Austin and Miami, hardly representative of Dixie, I think it would be safe to say that this was my first experience in the South.

Traveling from the bluest of blue states, California, where Obama and Planned Parenthood bumper stickers are proudly displayed, my girlfriend (soon-to-be wife) Jen and I were in for a bit of culture shock when we arrived in Knoxville.

“What brings you here,” was the most frequent question we were asked during our brief stay. Locals were puzzled why two West Coasters would make the trek to the Eastern part of the Volunteer State.

Two words (and it wasn’t the Smoky Mountains).

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

“Alex Haley.”

Immediately, we were told to go to the Alex Haley Heritage Square, which I was planning to visit. My purpose, however, was to conduct research for the first biography of the author of Roots. Although his personal papers are under lock and key, Haley’s designated biographer, Anne Romaine (who died in 1995), made her research open to the public. The material she had gathered was so vast and vital to anyone wanting to reconstruct Haley’s life, a visit to Knoxville was a must.

Since I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, I was covering the entire costs for the two plane tickets, five-nights in a downtown hotel, meals and incidentals.

“So, we travelled all the way to Knoxville to go a library,” Jen continued to inquire in the taxi en route to our hotel while passing by a Pro-Life billboard and many gun shops. “That seems so strange.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll go out to dinner and there will be a place to shop.”

A smile emerged, but just a little one.

The first two days in Knoxville were spent at the university’s library. We arrived when the Special Collections division opened and stayed until we were asked to leave. Our lunch consisted of a bagel, yogurt, a banana and coffee at the library’s in-house Starbucks–of course, we couldn’t take any of the goodies inside.  Jen helped out with making copies, which numbered in the hundreds, and kept the files and folders organized to the staff’s delight.

On the third and final full day of research, I cut it short so we could explore the city’s downtown. We walked over to Market Square to find it bustling with outdoor dining venues, live music, sidewalk vendors, and couples and families mulling about, enjoying the temperate weather.  Jen and I were taken aback.

It had all the characteristics of a European city. Was this really Knoxville?

Gay Street, Downtown Knoxville, TN

With her shopping radar on, Jen immediately zeroed in on Bliss, a chic fashion boutique. She was in heaven.

An hour later, we ate delicious pizza at Tomato Head. From there, we walked along Gay Street, admiring the architecture, the Tennessee Theater marquee, and, eventually, the waterfront.

I admit I had preconceived notions of what life was like in Knoxville. This was not what I had expected.

The next day, we rented a car, stopped by Alex Haley Square (and of course, took a picture), and drove north to visit John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia. On our way back, we stopped off in the older section of town. Surrounded by railroad tracks and abandoned buildings, we stumbled upon a pub, a tattoo parlor, and a used record store, the capstone to any hip town.

Now, I was in heaven!

That evening we walked back down Gay Street, toward the waterfront and ate at The Bistro. Our friendly and inquisitive waiter (who not surprisingly asked, “what brings you to Knoxville?”), provided us with two complimentary tickets to a bluegrass show at the Bijou Theater, which was next door. The show was entertaining and on our jaunt back to the hotel, we wandered through World’s Fair Park.

Relaxing along the river that runs through the park, with the golden golf ball staring down upon us, Jen, cradled in my arms, whispered to me.

“I could live here.”

I agreed.

Although reality sunk in once we returned to family and jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, our fondness for the “Obscure Prismatic City” will always remain.

***

  • To read the comments from the original post, click HERE.
  • For more information about visiting Knoxville, click HERE.

Dead Rock Stars at 27: Is it a Coincidence?

“Tragedy is so romantic when people write about it, but it is horrible to see. There is nothing pretty about a person destroying themselves.” – a close friend of The Doors’ Jim Morrison

Kurt-kurt-cobain-1285543-1024-768This April 5 will serve as the twentieth anniversary of the death of the musical group Nirvana’s iconic frontman, Kurt Cobain, who took his own life at the age of 27. I recently reviewed a book for San Francisco Book Review about the strange and coincidental deaths of a half-dozen rock stars who each died at 27 years old.  

With Kurt’s death expected to be the topic of news over the coming weeks, I thought this review was not only timely, but serve as a reminder (especially in light of the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose) about the  lethal mixture of  drugs, alcohol, and fame. 

***

After reading Howard Sounes, 27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, I am reluctant to utter ever again the popular phrase, “party like a rock star.” Partying like a rock star is often used to describe a night of drug and alcohol debauchery, not uncommon among well-known entertainers in the music industry.

Several, in fact, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and, most recently, Amy Winehouse, met an untimely end; all dead at the young age of twenty seven. Is this just a random coincidence? Coincidence or not, pop culture biographer Howard Sounes was determined to get to the bottom of these tragedies.

Using both a quantitative and qualitative approach, Sounes furthers our understanding of what happened to these talented, young people. In his statistical study, the author tabulated over three thousand individuals connected to the music industry during the past century and, using a bar graph, displayed a range of ages of when these individuals had died. What was most revealing was a “spike in music industry deaths at twenty-seven.”51nBeBGqb2L._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU15_

Through a series of mini-biographies, the British author then channeled his focus to the psychological characteristics shared by the six notable members of the Twenty-seven Club. The commonalities identified were not surprising. The rock stars all used drugs at an early age; had unhappy childhoods; prior to their success, had run-ins with police; and experienced stardom at an early age and very swiftly, which proved “overwhelming.”

Even though only one had died from a documented suicide (Cobain), they were all headed down a self-destructive path. If the autopsies that had been performed took into account the stars’ personal histories, there’s no question, according to the author, that the death certificates would likely be changed from accidental overdose to suicide.

Unlike Cobain who left a note, failure to leave a message, Sounes argues, does not necessarily mean that suicide should be ruled out. Another common pattern was the conspiracy theories linked to the tragedies. From Kurt Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love to Brian Jones’ home contractor, a relative or associate were considered suspects in each of the cases. In view of their premature deaths, fans (as well as the media) were of the opinion that these twenty-seven-year-olds were victims of foul play. But as the author explains, the deaths in questions were almost predictable.

British Author Howard Sounes

British Author Howard Sounes

For anyone expecting in-depth biographies of these particular rock icons, you will be disappointed. In Sounes’ defense, though, that was not the objective. Aside from the improvable assertion that “Creative people are often bipolar, and the disorder is found in many members of the Twenty-seven Club,” this is a provocative and persuasive read that goes further than any other publication on this particular topic.

Of greatest import, Sounes’ book is a reminder to any aspiring or current rock/hip-hop/country star (or any young person whatever the industry), there is a price you pay for partying like a rock star.

***

For more information…

 

Q&A with Producer of Documentary about O.J. Simpson Trial

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Following my December 15, 2013 Blogcritics review of Jeffery Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I was contacted by the executive producer for the recent independent documentary film, “Overlooked Suspect.”

Based on author William C. Dear’s book, O.J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It (2012), the former Florida police officer turned longtime international private investigator, has spent over 18 years exploring the details of one of America’s most infamous murder trials.

As with any case that attracts such notoriety, conspiracy theories are aplenty. At what point, though, does it stop becoming a conspiracy theory and the public should start listening?

I spoke with the producer, Howard Barrett, about the case, his film, and the possibility that a real killer is on the loose.

 ***

What’s your background in film? And how did you connect with Mr. Dear? 

This is my first feature documentary. I’ve been involved in the film and television industry for many years through my Marketing and Media firm. Mr. Dear is the other executive producer. We met through a mutual associate, who is the film’s director. William had been investigating the case for many years, but the film project itself started about 3 years ago. From the moment the trial begun and based on over 50 years in crime solving, he never felt right about it. There were too many unanswered questions.

William C. Dear

William C. Dear

Aside from the assassination of JFK, there are few, if any, other murder cases that have the created the number of conspiracy theories as the OJ Simpson case. Given the potential for criticism, why did you stick with this project?

As a producer, you look for a great story and, when you can- the Truth. This case had all the trappings–Hollywood, murder, race relations, divorce and, how could we forget, the infamous car chase that was viewed live by over 90 million people–even before YouTube!

What Mr. Dear proves to us, in the end, is that OJ, at the core, is a father protecting his own son, Jason, who is the “Overlooked Suspect” and based on all evidence collected, the main suspect and alleged killer.

Jason is from O.J.’s first marriage and has had many personal problems. He was the one present when his youngest sister drowned as an infant. Perhaps he blamed himself for her death. He suffers from bipolar and rage disorder and was taking lots of medication for many years. He has a history of rage, including being on probation, before the murders, of a run-in with a former employer for assault with a deadly weapon. As you’ll see in the film, there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows Jason should be the key suspect and alleged killer–including his personal dairies, his own knife, telling photographs and the jeep Jason was driving the night of the homicides, now in William Dear’s possession.

OJ flyerWhere is Jason? What’s he up to? Has Mr. Dear had any contact with him? 

We have no relationship with Jason, the Simpson family or any of his associates. However, from Williams’ investigation, he has been a bit quite transient and has resided in Atlanta for a while.

Do you think this film is going to force legal authorities to retry the case? Has Mr. Dear heard from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office? 

In order to try the case again, one must have indisputable evidence. Based on feedback to date, it appears they do not want to reopen the case. Although it’s highly unlikely that the case will ever be retried, Mr. Dear believes that the public and the parents of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman are owed the truth. We hope this film will serve as a catalyst.

My prime objective is to get a broadcast airing of the film so all Americans can judge for and “vote” themselves. Every week I am asked when the film will be on television!

We have been screened at a variety of film festivals. We also held a private screening in Los Angeles that included accomplished criminal defense lawyers. Each time our film is aired, we ask the audience to raise their hands if they think that O.J. was the killer. Almost every single hand is usually raised. After screening, when asked the very same question, almost no hands are ever raised. It reflects the level of detail and credibility in both Mr. Dear’s investigation plus the actual physical evidence discovered. It’s not unusual for him to display actual evidence at screenings, which always goes over big with educated audiences –which have included senior law enforcement officials, lawyers, criminologists and psychiatrists, among others.

To learn more about the film, visit www.overlookedsuspect.com or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/overlookedsuspect

 

 

 

Alex Haley’s Roots eBook on SALE!

Book Cover

For the next 72 hours, Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey will be on SALE at Amazon for only $0.99!

That’s a 67% discount off the cover price!

If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance. Don’t miss out!

Click HERE to purchase it.

In other news…stay tuned for another podcast interview I participated in for the website, Black Ripley….also, Alex Haley’s Roots was chosen as one of three “Disovered Books” by author D.G. Kaye (Thanks Debbie!)….the next blog should be a fascinating one as I interview a producer for a documentary film about who should have been on trial for murder in the infamous OJ Simpson case…and finally, I’d like to wish the cast and crew of12 Years a Slave” best of luck at tonight’s Oscars!

Book Review: “The Boys On The Bus”

In honor of President’s Day, I have posted a review of a reporter’s fascinating memoir from the 1972 presidential “Watergate break-in” campaign  between President Nixon  and Senator McGovern.  

Be aware, my weekly blog will now be an every other week blog as I set forth on my next book, Black Spring – the story of baseball’s integration of spring training. 

***

When Theodore White published his iconic The Making of the President 1960, no one could have predicted its unintended consequences.ethics-corner

Up until the publication of White’s book, the public had little knowledge of what really took place on the presidential campaign trail. It was understood by most reporters that coverage of the candidates was limited to public functions. By documenting the day-to-day, hour-by-hour private conversations and movements of the candidates in a full-length narrative, White, whether he realized it or not, forever altered the reporting of campaigns for the nation’s highest office.

While White’s book on the 1960 election was viewed as cutting edge when it was released, his subsequent books (the elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972), which were written in a similar tone and style, were deemed by his younger and more aggressive contemporaries as antiquated and benign.

When his final campaign book was published, the public was not as interested in what he had to report. Americans didn’t have to wait for “Teddy White’s book [to] come out.” The stories that White included had already run in the daily paper or on the six o’clock news.

In contrast to White’s work, in The Boys on The Bus (1973), Timothy Crouse did not focus primarily on candidates and campaigns, but instead explored how news was gathered and reported during the presidential contest of 1972. The investigative journalism that White had pioneered more than a decade before, Crouse demonstrated, was now standard practice in the field. Nothing was off limits to reporters — a candidate’s family, his donors, blunders, even medical history.

Author Timothy Crouse

In fact, the major scandal of the 1972 campaign was not about a candidate’s voting record or fraudulent activity at the polls, but the Democrat Party’s vice presidential nominee’s medical issues. Only a decade earlier, this topic would have most likely been swept under the rug. Not in today’s media orbit.

As Senator George McGovern waivered on how to handle his running mate’s decision to receive electro shock treatment for depression years earlier, reporters were out in force, investigating every possible fact about the nominee, Thomas Eagleton. It was apparent to everyone (eventually, McGovern himself) that Eagleton would be compelled to resign from the ticket, which he did.

Interestingly, Crouse, who joined his fellow Rolling Stone colleague Hunter Thompson on the campaign trail, reminded the reader what life was like before technological gadgetry dominated our lives.

Forty years ago there was no CNN, Twitter, The Daily Beast, Politico, or Fox News. It was an era when newspapers were still dominant and carried both a morning and an evening edition. Reporters didn’t email their stories to their editors, but wired it via Western Union, or, if they were in a time crunch, over the phone by reciting it verbatim. Television news was still evolving, doing its best to ward off its kinks as one camera operator experienced before a shoot: `”Oh, Christ, we ran out of film!”

Despite the technological advancements, there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed.

Political conventions, for example, served no formal purpose than to boost media ratings for the networks and newspapers (sound familiar?). Time still outsold (the now defunct) Newsweek. And Infighting within a candidate’s campaign resulted in the frontrunner, Maine Senator Ed Muskie, not being selected as his party’s nominee (somewhat similar to Hillary Clinton’s situation in 2008).

Even the Secret Service was up to the same ol’ shenanigans. In trying to predict where the next stop would be on a candidate’s itinerary, Crouse’s colleague had received a tip from a motel clerk in Las Vegas that their plane was en route to Los Angeles. Apparently, members of the candidate’s security advance team had contacted prostitutes from a brothel nearby — their services were being requested in the next state over.

Other noteworthy factoids were a few folks mentioned in the book who had little or no recognition then, but would later become embedded in popular culture.

From reporter Dan Rather to McGovern staffers Candace Bergen (Murphy Brown) and Gary Hart (senator and one-time presidential candidate) and, most importantly, two metro journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, from the Washington Post, who had recently reported on a burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

1972_McGovernCampaigns

While Crouse’s point about the transformation of the media landscape was clear, Boys on the Bus had another purpose.

In the end, it was a story about the spirit of a dedicated “pack” of journalists, all fighting for that same story. They respected one another, but would do anything to scoop one another. Crouse was part of that exclusive, mostly male fraternity. They went from one town to the next, ate and drank together, listened to the same speech over and over, schmoozed with the candidate’s staff (and in some cases, slept with them), and, hoped, that a story, somewhere, would magically appear before their deadline.

And in Crouse’s case, it did.

This review originally appeared in BlogCritics.

“Alex Haley’s Roots” featured in Podcasts

Holed up in a hotel room, where I was spending the weekend with my wife in San Francisco, I took an hour out of the day to be interviewed for my first podcast experience. The interview had been arranged weeks before, but I did my due diligence in checking with my wife before committing. Fortunately, she didn’t mind.  We were, after all, steps away from San Francisco’s Union Square.

New Book NetworksThe New Books Network (NBN) is a podcast station that interviews authors of recently published works. Each substation specializes in a particular genre ranging from broad topics like politics and history to the obscure such as spiritual practice and psychoanalysis. Interviews typically range from 20 minutes to a full hour.

On Saturday, January 11,  University of Kentucky’s Professor of English Vershawn A. Young (aka Dr. Vay) interviewed me about my eBook, Alex Haley’s Roots, for the NBN’s African American Studies substation.

University of Kentucky Professor Vershawn A. Young. Young is currently working on a book about "black men, gender anxiety, and the American Dream, which focuses on Barack Obama, playwright August Wilson, and director/producer Tyler Perry."

University of Kentucky Professor Vershawn A. Young. Young is currently working on a book about “black men, gender anxiety, and the American Dream, which focuses on Barack Obama, playwright August Wilson, and director/producer Tyler Perry.”

Whether you’re driving to work or going for a walk, when you have a moment listen to the “lively exchange” between Dr. Vay and I.  Although the quality on my end wasn’t great (and I may have uttered  “Um” one too many times; I’m new at this!), there were segments of our discussion about Alex Haley that were not included in the final draft of the eBook that I think you will enjoy.

The interview is 42 minutes in length. It can be listened to on your computer (PC or MAC), smart phone (iPhone), or tablet (iPad).

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Speaking of podcasts, yesterday I was interviewed via Skype by the blogger, Black Ripley. That podcast will be released soon. Stay tuned.

Guest Post: Tiffiny Neal, Blogger for “RootStories”

In celebration of Black History Month, I wanted to featured a guest who could share the impact Roots had on their quest to trace their own family history.

Today’s post is written by Tiffiny Neal, a blogger and genealogical hobbyist, who has been tracing her own lineage for more than two decades.

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Collage (4)

Photos from the collage include The Sadie Thomas Memorial Park, named in honor of Tiffiny’s great grand aunt, Sadie Robinson Thomas; maps of Georgia; photos of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville District, where Tiffiny’s grandfather and many other African Americans lived after relocating from the South; and photos of Tiffiny’s ancestors.

When Alex Haley’s Roots first aired on television in 1977, it was the first time that many Americans witnessed a true depiction of African bondage and post-emancipation in the United States. It awakened a new interest in African American history, allowing viewers of all races to not only have a better understanding of the cruelty of slavery but to witness the perseverance of their spirit and commitment to family customs and values, no matter how challenging.

You might think that such a global event like Roots would trigger an explosion of folks trying to find their own “Kunta Kinte,” the central character in the epic story. Yet, although we have made many gains, the reality is that we still have a lot to improve upon. There are a few reasons why I believe that we can use this event, Black History Month, as a catalyst to change opinions and confront the challenges that will allow African Americans to trace their ancestry beyond the 1870 US census, the first census that slaves were officially counted.

Prior to Roots, most African Americans knew little or nothing about their own ancestry. Watching the Roots story unfolds made many viewers wonder if their stories were similar.

“Would I be able to trace my family all the way back to Africa?”

Thanks to Roots, many tried and a few actually succeeded.

It also reminded us the importance of compiling oral histories. Much of Alex Haley’s lineage was passed down through generations by this traditional method. The problem with oral history (as a means of documentation) is that it is hard to validate many of these stories.

QuoteAt a certain point, our ancestors will pass and they will take those jewels of information with them. As a result, our family history will remain incomplete.Regardless, some genealogists have found oral histories to be the only data (such as exact birth dates or even parents’ names) they are able to collect. Retrieving the information can be difficult since I often hear many elders tell me that they are reluctant to share their background because they “don’t want to relive the past.”

Considering it might be the only way for African Americans to trace their family lineage, it is, therefore, essential that we record and document as much of their stories as we can while they are still alive.

Alex Haley had the benefit of knowing the names of his ancestors, but the majority of African Americans don’t have much to go on without the names of their enslaved ancestors.

Tiffiny Neal

Tiffiny Neal

If every person who found a slave-owning family in their lineage would publish this information on an online database, archive, or repository, we could take a giant step forward to heal our wounds.

It takes a combined effort of everyone, both whites and blacks, to make this happen.

I still have faith that we can restore the connection to our roots!

***

Tiffiny Neal, a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society,  African American Genealogy & Slave Ancestry Research, and the African American Genealogical Society of MilwaukeeTiffiny recently earned her certification in African American Genealogical Studies. 

Follow her blog RootStories, www.rootstories.wordpress.comand on Twitter @RootsGenie.