Becoming his own man

UP FRONT

Spotlight

June 03, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN REPORTER

Chris Haley's family tree has extra-strong Roots.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title, his uncle Alex Haley traced the family history back to an African slave named Kunta Kinte -- and spawned a legend. The book later became a television mini-series (which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year) and one of the defining cultural events of the 1970s.

Chris Haley has embraced his legacy -- he works for the Maryland State Archives and is a longtime trustee of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, which this year will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Kunta-Kinte Heritage Festival. Haley recently talked about how his instantly recognizable last name has been a bit of a mixed blessing.

Is it hard to be a descendant of someone so well-known?

That's an issue that people in my family have had to come to terms with and accept. We've had to learn how to go on and become our own person. I'm in my 40s now, and I aspire to be more than just a nephew of Alex Haley. I aspire to be famous in my own right.

In addition to working for the state archives, aren't you also an actor and singer?

Performing is my first love. I sing regularly on Saturdays in Odenton for the Epiphany Episcopal Church's coffeehouse. I'm the director of the Utopia Film Festival, which operates every year out of the Greenbelt Arts Center. I'm also an actor, and I host two weekly radio shows, Heart of a Winner at 6 p.m. Mondays on WNAV-AM, and Undiscovered Radio at 10 p.m. Mondays on WRYR-FM.

It sounds as though you inherited your uncle's love for the arts. If he were still alive [Alex Haley died in 1992], I bet you'd have a lot of common interests.

I never remember him talking about the honors he was getting. ... He was very calm, very low-key, very soft-spoken and self-effacing. He had a smooth charm about him that never was forced.

Instead of talking about himself, he always wanted to talk about what you were up to.

After your uncle won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Roots, the book became controversial. Though your uncle always claimed that the book was a melding of fact and fiction, historians have disputed the historical accuracy of even those aspects that your uncle claimed were true. What's your take?

There's a whole lot of envy out there, and a whole lot of historians with huge egos who don't want to be trumped by anyone else. Uncle Alex based his book on what he was told by an old griot. It's oral tradition, and there's no other possible way to get that information. ...

Some of his critics have said that the griot probably just told Uncle Alex what he wanted to hear. My question is: how do they know? They weren't there.

Do you have a favorite memory of your uncle?

Before he became famous, he was known in the family as Palmer -- his full name was Alexander Palmer Haley. So he was my Uncle Palmer.

In 1991, a friend and I went to visit him at his farm in Tennessee. We had brought some original copies of Roots that my family had wanted him to sign. But due to his busy schedule, we weren't able to get together with him for more than an early breakfast here or a dinner there.

The last day of our visit he was running around trying to catch a flight. At 6 p.m., he came into our room, sat down, and said, "I hear you guys want some books signed." He was tired and sweating and so swamped, but he took the time to do us a favor. I have a picture of that day, of him with a pen in his hand.

That's a very touching memory for me.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

CHRIS HALEY

Age: 40s

Residence: Landover

Education: Bachelor's degree in English, University of Maryland, College Park

Occupation: Director of the department studying the legacy of slavery for the Maryland State Archives

Other activities: Hosts two weekly radio shows, Heart of a Winner at 6 p.m. Mondays on WNAV (1430 AM) and Undiscovered Radio at 10 p.m. Mondays on WRYR (97.5 FM).

In his spare time: An actor and singer who performs regularly at local venues; a consultant to the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation.

KUNTA KINTE HERITAGE FESTIVAL

What: Annual celebration of life, family, history and heritage.

When: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Aug. 11, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 12

Where: Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, Route 178, Crownsville

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