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Alex Haley: the storyteller

Published Oct. 10, 2005

In traditional West African society, going back centuries, the griot is king.

It wasn't the tribal elders or even the village chief who commanded the greatest respect. That distinction was held by the griot (pronounced gree-oh). They were storytellers. They were poets. They were musicians. They were entertainers. Most of all, they were oral historians.

Poet Nikki Giovanni calls them the walking encyclopedias. They provided the tribal memory for generations to come. They were _ and are _ the soul of the people.

Alex Haley was just such a griot.

It was his storytelling that captured the hearts and imagination of a world of people. All different kinds of people.

At a time when this country was wrestling with its collective guilt over its racial problems, along came Haley to provide understanding. His writings and later his speeches did not gloss over the problems. They gave voice to them.

With The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965, Haley disclosed the seething anger of an increasingly militant segment of the black population. Malcolm X, the chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam, had issued challenges radically different from those issued by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the other great black leader of the day. Malcolm screamed for resolution of the conflict; Martin prayed for reconciliation.

A bridge between the two approaches came in 1976, with Haley's best effort and one of the greatest books of this century _ Roots.

Haley's story of his mother's side of the family, going back six generations to a time in Africa before slavery, told an American account many didn't understand. The scope of the book, published in 37 languages, was broadened with the airing of a TV miniseries seen by a record 100-million Americans.

Until then, the story of slavery was for many just words on paper. Haley's book and later the miniseries gave an active voice to the cruelty that was slavery. People of all colors finally had to own up to what had happened to America's black citizens in the birthing of a nation. From there it was a short leap to try to understand the impact of the vestiges of slavery, later segregation and now desegregation.

It is amazing that such a message could come from one like Haley. He was a humble man, an unlettered man, a military man. (His 37 degrees were all honorary.) But he had a clear understanding of people and what interested them. That continued until his sudden death Monday in Seattle. Just a few days earlier he was in St. Petersburg. When a total stranger told him where he was raised, Haley ticked off the names of three residents of the man's hometown. Two of them turned out to be acquaintances of the man. "Well, you tell them I said hello," Haley said as if he had known the man for years.

Haley's successful search for his ancestors took him to a village in Gambia. After traveling more than half a million miles and examining documents in 50 libraries on three continents, he found Kunta Kinte's family _ his family. Thus he inspired a renewed interest in genealogy as millions around the world sought out their own roots.

His descriptive historical accounts had the ring of a Hollywood production. He had a flair for the dramatic. He told his stories even better (and certainly faster) than he could write them. I remember sitting with him in April 1989 at a downtown Washington hotel with my wife, Mary Esther. Haley delighted us _ and nearly a dozen others, necks craned forward to hear _ with a new story. He sounded like a youngster recounting a just-heard children's tale.

Haley's storytelling will be remembered. His quiet and humble nature will be remembered. But we will also remember him for his goodness. He was a kind and caring man. He quietly had paid for the college education of nearly two-score youngsters.

Haley's legacy would have us all loosen the mental bonds that ensnare us. His exhortation in his last public speech should be as memorable as the last words of Martin or Malcolm. Haley said:

"Find the good and praise it."

We will. We shall.

Ben Johnson is an assistant managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times. He was a long-time friend of Haley's.