By Paul Ndiho
April 1, 2010
George Haley is the brother of Alex Haley, the famous author of the much acclaimed novel, Roots. George Haley has made his own connection to West Africa as the U.S. ambassador to the Gambia, appointed by President Clinton to the post in 1998. George Haley overcame racism in post-segregation period in America to accomplish much as a young lawyer and public servant. VOA’S Paul Ndiho sat down recently for a one-on-one interview with Ambassador Haley, who says he still has an appreciation of the power of the individual.
“I can. I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Now, like I said, it is subtle, but very profound because none of us is like any other individual. Every individual is unique, and he or she has some responsibilities if he or she takes them along.”
Ambassador George Haley was born in 1925. The second of three boys, he lost his mother when he was six years old. Though times were hard, his father kept the family together in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he was teaching at the institution that eventually became the University of Arkansas. In 1998, President Clinton nominated him as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Gambia. Haley had visited the West African country numerous times, and Gambia was the setting for his brother’s novel, Roots.
“Perhaps the most important experience was my arriving as the Ambassador from the United States. When my wife and I arrived, there was just a great celebration of our coming. People were saying that “you’ve come home,” you know, I mean, they were, out with vibrations, not only from Jufree, but other parts of the Gambia when the plane set down, and we could hardly move. I mean, they were lifting us up, and there was just warmth.”
Gambia called to him across the span of two centuries, keeping alive the name of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, the great-great-great-great-grandfather who had been snatched from Africa and forced into the slavery from which he never escaped.
“It was a very emotional to think that Kunta Kinte really grew up and didn’t really have time to grow up there, he was a teenager when he was captured pretty much. But this was his village, and to think in terms of the village that my seventh generation ago relative was born in and, how he had come about, it was and continues to be a really emotional kind of thing.”
In 1976, George Haley’s brother Alex published his novel called Roots. It is the saga of an American family, starting with Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in 1767 and taken to Maryland to be sold as a slave. In 1992, Haley’s beloved brother and famed author Alex Haley died suddenly of a heart attack. George Haley says it a genealogical search by Alex led to the writing of Roots.
“He said, that he went into the archives, sometime after completing Malcolm X, and he saw these people pouring over the books that their ancestors had, and he said, “I think I’ll do that,” after having learned through grandma and others a little bit. He got down to grandma’s parents and others and he looked and he saw all of the people: his aunts, and uncles, but grandma’s name was not on there, and he couldn’t figure it out.”
Despite his family’s bleak story of slavery, 84-year-old George Haley says it feels good to have played a role in certain parts of history. He notes the struggles of other African America leaders and pays special tribute Benjamin Elijah Mays, President of Morehouse College in Atlanta, and his former schoolmate and civil right icon Martin Luther King.
“My mission is to try to make the world a better place than which I found it, to make some improvements in it. To have you and others say, well look, here’s an old guy who tried to help. Church Hill once said, “What is the use of living, unless it is to make the world better for those who come after you?” I like that, and I would like to feel that the world is a little better for my having lived.