Over the last few years, there have been a handful of films dedicated to one of America's greatest sins: slavery. The first one to broadcast this controversial topic through television was late Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alex Haley. While conducting groundbreaking interviews and writing stories for Playboy during the 1960s, he began the arduous task of tracing and uncovering his lineage dating back to the arrival of his first ancestor on US soil. Through his research, he discovered that Kunta Kinte, called "Toby" by his enslavers, was located on a plantation in a small town in Virginia. Eventually, Haley wrote his novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Though the popular Roots miniseries that followed faced it's share of scrutiny, its impact on popular culture remains undeniable.
We sat down with Haley’s grandson, Michael Baker to discuss why he returned to Virginia to retrace his lineage and his family’s legacy moving forward.
EBONY: What made you decide to come back to Spotsylvania County, VA?
Michael Baker: Once I found out that no one in my family had been here to bless this site, with the exception of my grandfather, Alex Haley, in 1976-77, I felt it was necessary to come back here. I feel that I’m now in a leadership role because my uncle George Haley just passed away earlier this week. All of my grandfather’s siblings are deceased, so it’s up to the grandchildren to keep our family’s legacy alive. I’ve always felt an attachment to Kunta. In 1767, when Kunta was sent out to make a drum for his brother in Gambia, Jufureh, he was captured, but the drum always remained. When I was 16, I started playing the djembe, but as I began playing it, it sounded like I had been playing for years. So – I feel I have a strong spiritual connection to him. It’s been an honor to come back here to see the actual documentation of Toby.
EBONY: What are some of the things that people may not know about your grandfather and the amount of work he put into creating Roots?
MB: He was an entertainer. If he didn’t like to do anything else, he liked to entertain people. I’ll tell you a story about him. One day, he was on a flight, and he was flying into Tennessee. They had a long layover for about five or six hours. The people on the plane recognized who he was, so he took photos with him, and he signed autographs. When my grandfather found out how long the flight was going to be delayed, he called a Greyhound bus and had them bring one of their buses to the airport. He had them get all of those people on the bus, and he called out to his farm in Knoxville to his cook, and he told him how many people were coming. He told him he wanted him to prepare a nice little meal for them. After they ate, he got them back to the airport in time for their flight. He loved solidarity.
Also, I think most people don’t know about his former history as a journalist. He wrote for Playboy, Reader’s Digest, TIME, and other writing jobs he completed. When he was in the United States Coast Guard, he used to write letters for his shipmates to their wives and girlfriends. This is what made him start writing because he received a lot of praise from them off the responses they received. He also ghostwrote the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which led him into writing his only screenplay, Super Fly T.N.T. All of these things led up to him exploring his own heritage and the end result was Roots.
EBONY: Since you’re his first born grandson, how was it growing up as a child in the Haley family?
MB: I had a beautiful childhood. Actually, in 1977, when Roots first came out, it was like a whirlwind of attention. I didn’t really understand the significance behind the impact of Roots. I didn’t know what it was until I was about 17. The notoriety that came with being Alex Haley’s grandson was challenging at times because I didn’t live a life full of luxury. People always thought I had this or that, but I was fortunate to travel with the Dance Theater of Harlem. I played with Marie Brooks Children’s Dance Theater Company. We did performances for my grandfather at the Waldorf Astoria and Tropicana Hotels, and Avery Fisher Hall. These performances were pertaining to Roots. At the end of each show, I would be introduced as his grandson.
Also, I got caught up in the limelight. Many people tried to get next to me to get close to my mother because she was the daughter of Alex Haley. My mother was in the music industry for quite some time, so I met a lot of fashion designers, musicians, and artists. They would be at my house every day, but they were ordinary people to me. On the other hand, people would be in awe. One of my greatest joys was introducing my friends to them. For instance, if Luther [Vandross] was at my house, I would bring a couple friends over to meet him. My friends would be blown away, and I would see their joy. But I got to the point where I started to not care about anything. I started to get a big ego. I didn’t have a clue about who I was, because everywhere I went, I was always Alex Haley’s grandson. At first, I grew to like the attention because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but after a while, it got played out due to the fact that people were passing judgment and their opinions on what they thought I should have. I just got tired of it. But overall, it’s been a good experience.
EBONY: How influential was your grandmother Nannie Branch Haley in your upbringing?
MB: She was my rock. When my mother and father separated, she decided to take me and raise me because my mother knew she would do a great job raising me. I started living with her when I was 4. We stayed on 139th and Lennox Ave until I was 12. By that time, my family sent me to go live with my other grandmother, which was different altogether. Once I moved to the South, I had to learn to say, “Yes, ma’am and yes, sir.” It was all about having manners around them and going to church on Sundays. I don’t fault my grandmother in New York for that, but it was a whole different atmosphere when I came down South. I stayed down there from sixth grade to eleventh grade, then I returned to New York. No matter what I was going through, she would always be supportive. She gave me a spiritual upbringing. She was a woman full of morals and principles. She always saw the good in me. I owe everything to her.
EBONY: Talk to me about how her support of your grandfather and his work helped him to become great.
MB: From my perspective, I just saw loyalty and a woman that was standing by her man. She was always supportive of him and his work. In every relationship, there are ups and downs, but she let my grandfather become the great man that the world knows today. She always encouraged him to pursue his writing career.
EBONY: Did you ever witness him during one of his writing sessions?
MB: I witnessed him writing on two separate occasions. He stopped by our house one day, and I saw him working on something. The other time was when we were in New York at his hotel. He was staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He was working on his Queen project at the time.
EBONY: Years after the success of Roots, your grandfather underwent some controversial times. How did that impact you and your family?
MB: Speaking for myself, everyone has an opinion on if it was real or if it was stolen. My belief is, it took him twelve years to do his research. I also want to stress that Roots isn’t about just one family. Roots is about every African-American family and giving people the opportunity to learn about their oral histories and keeping that alive. People say Kunta is buried here or he is buried there, well, I don’t know because I didn’t do the research, but I believe the work my grandfather put into his history and our history is true.
EBONY: Can you describe the emotions you’ve felt in coming back to this area and learning new history about your family?
MB: When I saw the historical documents of Toby, I became very emotional. Being able to go to the John J. Wright Museum, and look at their history, then going to the Spotsylvania Courthouse and to experience the history of my ancestors was just overwhelming. I feel rejuvenated now. I feel blessed that God created this opportunity for me. Also, I feel a sense of responsibility to carry on our legacy. It really is on the grandchildren to step up and take this on.
EBONY: What are your feelings about the plans cable TV has for early next year to rebroadcast Roots?
MB: I’m curious to see how it all turns out. I hope it has as much of an impact as the original broadcast had back in the seventies.
EBONY: Since all of the elders in your family are gone, how does your family plan on continuing the proud legacy of the Haley family?
MB: I feel our family is going to lead a strong movement in continuing the Haley legacy. It’s going to be heartfelt, educational, and motivational. It’s up to the grandchildren to make this happen because we’re in a new era. I’m the oldest grandchild, then there’s Bill Jr., which is my mother’s brother’s son. I’d like my legacy as his grandson to be someone who gave back to his community, helped others accomplish their dreams, and started a foundation in his wife’s name.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.