A Conversation With Dr. My Haley, Alex Haley’s Widow And Longtime Collaborator

Screenshot 2014-06-30 at 6.12.29 PM(Dr. My Haley and Nzingha Nommo, the owner of Afriware Books & Gifts. Photo by Michael Romain for The Village Free Press).

Monday, June 30, 2014 || By Michael Romain

Screenshot 2014-06-30 at 6.11.49 PM

MAYWOOD–Dr. My Haley, the widow of Alex Haley and co-collaborator on his groundbreaking book Roots, was in Maywood twice last week. On Thursday, she spoke at a Rotary Club meeting at Meal of the Day Cafe, located in Eisenhower Tower. On Saturday, she appeared at Afriware Books & Gifts, also in Eisenhower Tower, to make a presentation and sign copies of her historical novel The Treason of Mary Louvestre. You can buy the book in person at Afriware or order the book on Afriware’s website here.

According to a synopsis of the book provided on Dr. Haley’s website, the novel “is based on the true story of a seamstress slave from the Confederate town of Norfolk, Virginia. When her owner gets involved with modifications to the ironclad CSS Virginia, Mary copies the plans and sets out to commit treason against the South. Facing certain death as a spy if caught, she treks two hundred miles during the bitter winter of 1862 to reach the office of Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, where she hands over the plans.”

I caught up with Dr. Haley before her presentation at Afriware. We talked about the book, her visit to Chicagoland and some Maywood history.

What made you want to write about the central character in your novel?

I was inspired by Mary’s boldness. Can you imagine a woman having that kind of commitment? Imagine somebody telling you today that you’re going to have to become a government spy. I fell in love with Mary’s commitment.

I got the story of Mary right after I was helping Alex finish his second miniseries. I kept putting off the project to focus on our work. When Alex died in 1992, I gradually returned to the idea. It was after my entire family died of cancer that I really got into Mary’s shoes, because once you look death in the face, it changes you. I began to empathize with Mary’s situation even more.

How’s your visit to the Chicago area been? Do you make it out here a lot?

I don’t get here often. This is my second visit to the Chicago area, but it’s been a good visit. I really like the energy of the city.

Will you only be discussing the book today?

I’m not only talking about the book, I’m talking about our history as blacks. This novel is really one part of a six-book series called The Fabric of America. When you go back far enough, you’ll find that we’re all connected.

How important is the past to understanding the present? And how important is what you’re doing to raising awareness and understanding about that past?

I was at an event somewhere, and I encountered this very well-dressed and very articulate young man. He came up to me and asked, ‘Was slavery all that bad?’ This was a young, African American man. That tells me about a person who is disconnected. Another person came up to me and wanted to know ‘about that guy, you know, that black guy [who gave the speech]?’ I said, you mean Dr. Martin Luther King?’

He was African American?

Yes!

You have to have a personal stake in [a specific] history to really get it. When you don’t have a personal stake, you have this disconnect.

Talk about how important the idea of space is–tightly knit neighborhoods and communities–to cultivating that personal stake? Maywood, for instance, is a town with an incredibly rich, dense African American core. There was a tradition that is deeply rooted in the black experience in America that materialized out of the fact that a few hundred black families were forced to live very closely with, and rely extensively, upon each other. 

Sure. That’s not unusual at all. That also came out of slavery. White’s wouldn’t allow former slaves and freed slaves to set up their own businesses, so they started their own. Today, the offspring of many of those early black entrepreneurs and businessmen and women have turned into today’s black super-elite.

I think people with opportunity and freedom have some choices to make. You can choose to forget your history or you can embrace it. We have to relay this information about the past to the black community, because if we don’t it will be lost. When you forget your roots, you can’t dream dreams; or if you do, you can’t activate them. You lose your power. VFP

Afriware Books & Gifts is located on the fifth floor of Eisenhower Tower (1701 S. 1st Ave, Suite 503) in Maywood. For more information about the store or on how to order a copy of Dr. Haley’s book, call 708-524-8398, or visit their website here. They’re open Thurs-Fri: 10-6pm, Sat: 10-5:30pm. 

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