What Book Will the Next Alex Haley Write?

GARLAND L.THOMPSON

February 15, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

This is the month when America dusts off old records of black heroes and offers them a Valentine. People like inventor Granville Woods, emancipator Harriet Tubman and Lewis Latimer, the draftsman-turned-engineer whose contributions were crucial to the success of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

Benjamin Banneker, Ben Franklin's Maryland contemporary who challenged Thomas Jefferson over ''all men'' being held equal under God and law, and Frederick Douglass, fabled voice of the Great Emancipation, once again emerge from the obscurity this culture reserves for blacks whose lives don't square with its images.

But too much is happening for historical Valentines to carry much sweetness this year.

Carter G. Woodson, who started the tradition with ''Negro History Week'' to protest the exclusion of blacks from the American tapestry, died 27 years before Alex Haley's ''Roots'' rewrote the rules. Dr. Woodson, the son of former slaves who went to high school at 20 and eventually followed W. E. B. DuBois as the second black history Ph.D from Harvard, also died before Thurgood Marshall's victory in Brown v. Board of Education opened up two decades of struggle over the closed doors of segregation.

One can only guess what Woodson the historian would have written about the turmoil that followed. Would he, like so many others, have believed it was a brave new world? Or would the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History have drawn critical parallels between the civil-rights era and the post-Civil War Reconstruction? There were those who did, and they are looking like prophets these days.

After 15 years of right-wing attack on the legal underpinnings of civil rights and a widely supported attack on the political rationale for an open society, many observers have noted close similarities between the anti-freedmen backlash of the 1890s and the white resentment of the 1990s.

The Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, putting a judicial gloss on the racist attitudes of a South still reeling from Civil War losses and endorsing the inhumanity of Northerners whose families were not in America when the war was raging. Jim Crow segregation became law.

Bitter race riots erupted at the turn of the century when the urban factory hands, construction craftsmen and mass-transit workers, their number swelled by massive European immigration, decided to use force to bar blacks from equal competition for jobs and social status. Woodrow Wilson completed the circle, deciding pretty much on his own to spread segregation into the federal government.

What kind of book will a new Alex Haley be writing about the turn of this century? Too bad the original Alex will not be around to push it to completion.

A black journalist reacting to Mr. Haley's death said that ''Roots'' had given American blacks the family history they had never had. There is truth to that, but it must be noted that many individual families kept long traditions many years before Kunta Kinte burst into the national consciousness.

Old people have gathered to tell stories at barber shops and in sewing circles since such meetings began, and blacks were never different. Family events such as funerals, holidays, weddings and christenings have always brought out the old storytellers. What was truly different about the effect of ''Roots'' was the cultural resonance. Those were once just old stories, with little significance in the larger cosmology of even Alex Haley himself before he made the connections that turned everybody on.

After his book wiped out the prevailing myth about the stark divide between blacks in America and their African relatives, after Chicken George and his sons vindicated Grandmamma Kizzy, it was no longer possible to pretend that generations of blacks held no fair title to this land of the free. Blacks have been significant actors in the making of America since its beginning, but Alex Haley breathed life into that plain fact as even Carter Woodson could not.

Much has been lost with the passing of Alex Haley. But much was gained by his life. His retracing of Kunta Kinte's steps back from Spotsylvania County to the Annapolis City Dock and the Lord Ligonier to Goree Island in Senegal marked the path for millions to rediscover their heritage.

In Dakar, Senegal, murals depict a famous battle fought by black African troops to put an end to the slavers' depredations. That story provides welcome relief for visitors overcome at the brutality of Goree Island's history.

It bespeaks a spirit that continues, a fitting tribute to Carter G. Woodson and Alex Haley, who put so many back in touch with their true history, banishing the shame so many had felt before.

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