Christopher Embree Haley, nephew of “Roots” author Alex Haley, is director of the study of the legacy of slavery for the Maryland State Archives. An actor and filmmaker, he co-hosts the radio show “Heart of a Winner” in Annapolis, Md. He talked recently with TelevisionWeek’s Valerie Swayne about his uncle and his memories of watching the “Roots” telecast as a teenager 30 years ago.
TelevisionWeek: What are your memories of your uncle, Alex Haley?
Chris Haley: I was a teenager in the ’70s. My uncle Alex was my father’s oldest brother. I was as close as I could possibly be to an uncle who was always busy. He was on the West Coast and we were on the East Coast. I remember he would be either working on research for “Roots” or [later] giving interviews.
TVWeek: How did your family feel about “Roots” airing on television?
Mr. Haley: We were thrilled; there was a feeling of disbelief. When it came out, it was a surprise to my family: Not only was it made into a two-hour movie, but a whole week-long miniseries. … “Roots 1” covered five generations back, but “Roots 2” focused on people I knew in my own life, up to my father, who was 5 years old. James Earl Jones played my Uncle George [Haley, former U.S. ambassador to Gambia and executor of Alex Haley’s estate].
TVWeek: What was your initial reaction to the show?
Mr. Haley: It was really an out-of-body experience. I remember being nervous, sitting there squinting with my head in my hands, as I was watching scenes of Kunta Kinte running. My heart was beating so fast! I wanted to pinch myself. I never thought I’d be sitting there, watching this story about my life and my family. I almost wish I could relive that moment. It was just mind-blowing.
TVWeek: What did you learn from the experience?
Mr. Haley: Every slender thread is what makes you here today. I tell people you have to accept all the slender threads in life. I had to accept the fact that a slave master raped my great-grandmother [Kizzy].
TVWeek: What was your community’s reaction to “Roots”?
Mr. Haley: People were really cool about it. I don’t recall very many negative things. I went to a racially mixed high school in D.C. I did not feel, the next day, that the black and white kids would hate each other. I wondered, in the society in general, if some tensions would be amplified.
TVWeek: What was it like to visit the set of “Roots”?
Mr. Haley: We went to Savannah, Georgia, to see the African sets of villages, from the early scenes with Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou. I remember one thing we had to be careful of were snakes in the underbrush. I saw LeVar Burton making eyes at the actress from “Hair” who played Fanta [Ren Woods]; I wondered if that was implying that I had cousins somewhere. Part of me didn’t like that.
TVWeek: What impact has “Roots” had on your own life?
Mr. Haley: When “Roots” came out, I was already into black history. “Roots” made me think about genealogy-who was there before me. People kept saying after “Roots,” you already know your family history. But I only knew one side. Uncle Alex traced my father’s side, but I traced my mother’s side. I certainly didn’t understand the magnitude of what it could be. Afterward I remember thinking what it would be like to have a famous relative. Now, I’m recognized for who I’m related to. It’s very challenging to negotiate at times. … The door opens because I’m Alex Haley’s nephew, but the door stays open because I’m decent at what I do.
TVWeek: How did you feel about LeVar Burton playing Kunta Kinte?
Mr. Haley: LeVar Burton was an unknown actor then. He went to USC and played Curly in “Oklahoma.” I was a young actor myself at the time, and part of me was thinking, I should be in there somewhere as an actor. Putting vanity and ego aside, it would be hard to accept someone playing my family, someone I’ve never seen. When I really got into accepting him was in the second episode when he’s resisting the master [and he is whipped until he answers to the name Toby]. The natural impulse to root for someone is modified by your reality of what is being portrayed. I was hoping [Kunta Kinte] would escape, but if he had then I wouldn’t be here.