COLLEGE PARK — College Park--During the late '70s, as a little black boy living in East Africa, I heard the story of a black American man who wrote a book that traced his ancestry back to Africa. I took a vow that I would read it someday when I grew up and learned to read English.
Six days before his death in Seattle, Alex Haley, author of ''Roots'' and ''The Autobiography of Malcolm X,'' spoke at the University of Maryland. He told us about how as a young boy in the Old South, he sat next to his aunts and uncles as they exchanged stories about life in general and the story of their family in particular. We in the audience seemed to forget that he was a lecturer and we were spectators; we felt like members of the Haley family.
As a young boy listening to his family's oral history, which was no doubt similar to that of other Africans brought to the New World on slave ships, Alex Haley decided that one day, when he grew up and learned to write, he would put it in the history pages.
In praise of ''Roots,'' another great African-American author, James Baldwin, wrote: ''Alex Haley's taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage, but this book is also an act of love, and it is this which makes it haunting. It suggests with great power how each of us can't but be the vehicle of the history which produced us.''
In the Grand Ballroom of the Student Union that night, Mr. Haley told us how he dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. It was then that he discovered the writer in himself. He began composing love letters for his shipmates and collecting rejections slips for the articles he sent to magazines.
Twenty years later, in 1959, when Mr. Haley retired from serving his country on the high seas, he became a full-time writer. He was poor and penniless, rich only in rejection letters. A friend advised him to take a clerical job at $6,000 a year. On the brink of starvation, with 18 cents in his pocket and two cans of sardines to his name, he fought against those who wanted to recruit him into a desk job and literary oblivion.
An assignment from Playboy magazine to interview Malcolm X led to the publication of his first book, ''The Autobiography of Malcolm X,'' which sold more than 5 million copies. His next project was ''Roots,'' and Mr. Haley's became a household name.
He told us how he framed the two sardine cans and hung them on his wall, just above his Pulitzer Prize and his National Book Award.
The story was about Mr. Haley's personal success and road to fame and fortune. But it was also the story of America, a place where individuals achieve victory against all kinds of odds. His was, as so many have said, a quintessentially American story.
Standing in the ballroom before a thousand people representing the fabric of our nation -- blacks, whites, Asians and others -- Mr. Haley reminded us of our favorite grandfathers. He told of seeing a bumper sticker that read, ''Find the good and praise it.'' He adopted that as his personal motto. He told us there was much to appreciate about life and about each other.
He urged us to visit our grandparents, look them in the eyes, give them a hug and thank them for making it possible for us. Each time he tells that to an audience, he said, someone will run into him on a street later and tell him about bringing tears to a grandparent's eyes by following Mr. Haley's advice.
Alex Haley experienced an interesting and exciting American century. He was born into a world of segregated lunch counters, grew up in the deep South under Jim Crow laws, enlisted in the service to defend a country that discriminated against him because of his color, lived through the civil-rights era and the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, witnessed the assassination of a sitting American president, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal.
At the end of his life, Alex Haley's beloved country was radically different from that in which he was born. Such transformation didn't take place by accident. It was the work of exceptional individuals like him. As we enter the next American century, all of us ought to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants like Alex Haley.