It had been a week of trial and frustration for Alex Haley—a week in which the road-weary author of Roots had seen his book’s historical accuracy called into question and in which his integrity itself would be challenged. Yet for a moment, standing on the deck of Gambia’s sleek presidential yacht on the river his forebears called Kamby Bolongo, he was able to leave the turmoil behind him. “Used to be a different thing, black folks moving on this river,” Haley mused, staring out at the slavers’ fort that rose in the distance. “Wasn’t nobody on yachts then, baby.”
Once again, more than 200 years after the abduction of his putative Mandinka ancestor Kunta Kinte and two years after the author’s last visit to the Gambian village that holds the answers to his past, Alex Haley was coming home to Juffure. Bright flags of welcome fluttered by the wayside as Haley and his party, led by a delegation of village elders, trudged dutifully to the visitors’ tree. Mandinka women erupted in a hip-wiggling, foot-stomping tag dance, mothers thrust out infants for Haley’s approval, a drummer shrilled on a chrome-plated whistle. The drenching heat, the blur of color, the chanting seemed almost dangerously out of control. Then, suddenly, silence fell, and there in the gateway of the Kinte compound—a barren plot with a single tin-roofed clay hut—stood grandmother Binta Kinte Fofana, widow of the village griot (see cover). Her husband’s recitations had enabled Haley to link his own history with that of Juffure, and Haley tearfully rushed to embrace her. “It is Kunta we are seeing today,” announced her grandson Abdouli triumphantly. “This is Kunta Kinte standing before us!”
But was it? Haley, for one, is sure, though he concedes that Roots is both fiction and fact. Infuriated by British journalist Mark Ottaway’s recent charges that the book is flawed by historical inaccuracies, he counterattacked angrily on a visit to England and was still seething on arrival in Gambia. “When you consider how many blacks were taken out of here,” he observed tartly, “it seems like the Good Lord would let one of us trace his family tree back to his ancestors. It just incenses me that if one was able to do it—after nine years of research—some s.o.b. would come here and question it. I feel like a prophet. I don’t think this is just my family story; it’s a saga of American blacks. If I don’t put him down, everyone can say blacks have no history.”
Haley’s touchiness, one suspects, derives from fatigue as well as righteous conviction. Bedeviled by his superstar status—”I’d like to be famous one day a month,” he confides wistfully—he has been signing at least 500 books a day in the U.S. since the publication of Roots last October and has spoken to a daily average of 6,000 people. He has round-tripped coast-to-coast at least once a week and has slept at home (a rented house in the Cheviot Hills section of Los Angeles) exactly six times.
“You find that the people who celebrate you will kill you,” Haley observed in Africa, where the press dogged him everywhere. “They forget you are blood and flesh and bone. I have had days and weeks and months of schedules where everything from my breakfast to my last waking moment was planned for me—where I had to make some phony excuse just to go to the bathroom because there was no room in the damned schedule for it! I haven’t been in touch with my deepest friends, and I know they can’t understand how busy you can get—that you don’t have the five minutes for a phone call, that you really become sort of deadened. Someone has you by the arm and is moving you from room to room. Then people grab at you! You’re actually pummeled—hit with books—and you ask yourself, ‘My God, what Is this?’ “
But at least Haley can fend for himself. What of tiny Juffure, laid open to the world after centuries? Already the change has begun. “This morning I greeted a child in Mandinka,” noted a Gambian official who traveled with Haley, “and she answered coyly, ‘Hello’—in English. These are warm-hearted people, if poor,” he added ironically, “yet eventually they will be put out of what you Westerners call ‘their misery.’ “
For years Scandinavians have flocked to Gambia for “the complete African experience”—often including male and female prostitution. Now, because of Roots, more than “10 jetloads of American tourists will descend on Juffure this summer. Haley prefers to look on the bright side. “Whenever a good thing happens, there are a lot of people who worry about it,” he says, “but there’s no progress without taking chances. Besides, we weren’t the first yacht to pull up here. Civilization is catching up. It’s a force bigger than me and Roots that’s imposing the world on these people.”
Haley, of course, has no intention of deserting Juffure. He has bought land near the village for a mosque—though he is a Methodist—and talks vaguely of building a little house for himself “with enough conveniences so that an old civilization-spoiled guy like me could survive.” He hopes eventually to bring young Juffurians to the U.S. to study. “The family has made it clear that as the son who has gone away and made good, I am now to take care of all the Kintes,” he explains with a laugh.
(Before leaving Juffure, Haley stunned his brother George, a Washington lawyer who accompanied him to Africa, by suggesting they take grandmother Fofana back to the U.S. “In those flowing robes, can’t you imagine how majestic she’d be on the talk shows?” Alex asked. “That’s just like Alex,” muttered George. “He’d get her there, and then I’d be stuck trying to figure out what to do with her.”)
But Haley first must take care of himself and parry the endless assaults on his privacy. He receives as many as five marriage proposals a week, while rumors of liaisons swirl about him incessantly. “It’s got to the point where all I’d have to say to a woman is ‘now,'” he says, “but I respect women too much for that, and I respect me too much. Besides, honey, with the schedule I got, I need my sleep.” Twice married and divorced (with two grown children and a 12-year-old daughter), the 55-year-old author has been linked romantically with both his 29-year-old research assistant, My Lewis, and a long-time male friend.
“I told a reporter she was the most comprehensively compatible person I’d ever known,” Haley says of his assistant, Lewis, “and the next thing I knew Newsweek wanted to cover the wedding.” (But will they marry? “Very possibly yes,” he concedes.) As for the homosexual slander, Haley dismisses it with tired resignation. “It just appalls me that anyone would think that,” he says. “I’d sooner drop dead. But I’ll tell you this, baby—my friend, he’d drop dead quicker.”
Not all his problems, of course, are mere rumor. Though Roots has sold more than 1.7 million copies in hard-cover (at $12.50 each), Haley is suing his publisher, Doubleday & Company, for $5 million, charging that the book was improperly marketed. And no sooner had Haley finished rebutting Ottaway’s attack on his credibility than he was sued for plagiarism by one writer—black novelist Margaret (Jubilee) Walker—and threatened with a suit by another. “It’s beginning to sound as if I went around finding various books to copy,” complained Haley. “Well, it wouldn’t take me 12 years to do that. I type faster than that.”
Tribulations aside, Haley is mining a bonanza and knows it. Recent calculations show he has made more than $3 million on book sales alone, and the intangible rewards are matching the tangibles. Arriving home in the U.S. last month, he was waiting in line to clear customs when word came he had won a special Pulitzer Prize. He paused for an instant, reflecting, then let a silly smile spread slowly across his face. “Aw shit, baby,” he murmured. “Ain’t that incredible? It’s just part of the whole meant-to-be.”