Arts & Culture

Roots Vs. Suits: What I Learned from Alex Haley

Have you ever met someone whose amazing courage to be authentic and decent gave you extra courage to be authentic and decent in your own life? I was 22 and had recently graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio when I … Read More

By / September 18, 2008

Have you ever met someone whose amazing courage to be authentic and decent gave you extra courage to be authentic and decent in your own life?

I was 22 and had recently graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio when I got my first grown-up job in the Research Department of Doubleday Publishing in New York.  Among the many assignments in that job, the one I enjoyed most was attending meetings for an upcoming book from a man who had worked many years in the Coast Guard before trying to break in as a writer.  His name was Alex Haley and he’d signed a contract with Doubleday twelve years earlier to research and write a nonfiction account of how his ancestors were taken from Africa and eventually became his grandmother’s family in Tennessee.  He’d been researching the details for twelve years because the story of his "roots" was much more complicated and intense than he’d ever imagined.

During one of those meetings, a heated discussion arose between several of the corporate "suits" and this one courageous writer.  The "suits" were insisting that the book would only do well with African-American readers and a small percentage of whites.  The courageous writer explained that this was not just a black story but essentially the longing of every individual to find out who you are, where you come from, and what is your soul’s journey in life.   

Alex Haley said something at one of those meetings where he was severely outnumbered by corporate "suits" that I will never forget.  He leaned forward with that compelling expression on his face and said, "There are two things that I keep in mind and that help me stay true to who I am.  The first is that I am not a slave to money.  I do what I do because that’s exactly what my soul is telling me I need to be exploring and learning." 

You have to understand that in the modern world of publishing, you don’t often hear someone saying he doesn’t care about money.  It was completely silent now in the meeting room.  Then the silence was broken by Haley’s slow but deliberate speech.  He said: 

"The second thing that helps me keep my sanity is that I believe if you tell the truth and you do it with grace and respect for the person who is hearing your truth, some amazing things can happen.  Just like the Bible says ‘the truth shall set you free,’ so have I found that there is a mysterious power in seeking the truth, speaking the truth, and risking everything for the truth.  Living that way brings me more joy than focusing on dollars or the approval of others."

When he stopped talking, there was silence again.  But his passionate words have stuck in my head ever since.  I’ll admit I worry about financial security as much as the next person.  But I also began to consider the freedom and the personal integrity I saw in Alex Haley.  It made me wonder what it would mean in each of our lives to have a stronger sense of truth in our daily interactions, our business dealings, our government policies, and our connection to other people and the living things of this world?

You probably know that Haley’s book Roots sold millions of copies and inspired every ethnic group (including Jews, Irish, Italians, Latinos, and many others) to dig deeper and rediscover the wisdom and courage of their ancestors.  In my own life, I have a little voice in the back of my head whenever I am sitting in a business meeting or a non-profit volunteer gathering and the question arises of whether we should cut corners and sell out a bit.  I always hear Haley’s voice reminding me that "there is a mysterious power in seeking the truth and living that way brings me more joy than focusing on dollars or the approval of others."

Alex Haley is one of a dozen famous people profiled in my new book FITTING IN IS OVERRATED:  The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider.  (The others include "community organizer" Betty Friedan, director Ang Lee, singer/songwriter Macy Gray, environmentalist Andy Lipkis, and others).  Each of these vulnerable and compassionate people has inspired me because they found a way to put truth and healing ahead of approval-seeking and easy riches.

We live in a very impatient and greedy time in human history.  So each of us needs role models who were able to step off the rat race and they found a profoundly decent and empowering way to make a difference in the world.  I hope you find those role models in your own life, as well as the joy of knowing that you are living in the mysterious power of "emet/truth." 

(For more information about how to nourish your soul by honoring what makes you different or unique, log onto www.fittinginisoverrated.com)

Dr. Leonard Felder, author of Fitting in Is Overrated, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.

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