What Alex Haley taught me and why we should read

46 years ago yesterday, one of our leading Civil Rights leaders was shot as he was giving a speech. I say Civil Rights, but Malcolm X would have corrected me and said, he did not want civil rights, he wanted Human Rights; respect as human beings! How do I know this is what he would say? Because I have read his autobiography 3 times and wrote a paper on the contrast between him and the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. I could take the time here to explain who Malcolm X was and his place in American society, but instead I encourage my readers to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ahh, there is so much we learn about other people and their unique experiences when we pick up a book.  I would not have bothered to read his story if it had not been for a high school English teacher’s frustration with me.

When I was a junior in high school our English class assignments consisted of reading the classics. Some I liked others I hated. One in particular was so tedious and horrid that the only way I could get through it was to jump in the bathtub and stay in there until I was done. It took me three long hours and many gallons of water to finish it, but finish it I did! The next day I walked into class and threw Ethan Frome down as if I were throwing a gantlet at my teacher. “There, I am done with this book (I hissed the word book as I did not feel this particular novel deserved the title book). My teacher looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and not like what she saw. “You finished this in three days?” she asked with raised brows. “No, I finished it in two days, the first day I ignored it” I replied. With her brows still raised she asked several questions, hoping to catch me in a lie. Apparently she could not fathom a student having the ability to sit and read for hours.

After satisfying herself that I had indeed read the book, Mrs. Stevens had to decide what to do with me.  She had given us a month to read the book, yet I finished it in 3 days. This was not the first time I finished a book weeks before the due date and I could tell she wanted to do something that would challenge me.  The following day she handed me a short list and directed me to go to the school library and pick between the two books on the list. I could either read Homer’s The Odyssey, or Alex Haley’s Roots. I wish I could tell you I picked Roots on principal, but in all honesty I picked it over The Odyssey because I was afraid of the Odyssey.  As a 16 year old who read, but read mostly romance books the poetic language Homer used scared me.  I think Mrs. Stevens picked it because of this, and Roots because it was the largest book in the library. I sometimes think I should have tried Homer but I have never regretted picking Roots as it changed my life (but to this day I am sure my American history teacher has never forgiven Mrs. Stevens, Oh the arguments we had).

My assignment was not a book report, that would have been too easy to fake. No, I was told to write a journal. Each time I stopped reading I was to write at least two pages talking about the thoughts and feelings the book raised in my mind.  It was a wonderful assignment, I tried very hard to articulate my thoughts, and must have done a good job as it gave me my first A+.

Roots taught me many things; that history can be taught in an interesting and entertaining manner, that American history is more than what is in our schools’ textbooks and of course, what it was really like to be a slave in America.  It was because of Haley that I now want to teach history. To teach real history, not dry boring white washed history. He is the reason my son’s name is Alex.

After I finished Roots I picked up Malcolm X. What a book! For a white girl living in the North this book was a shock to the system, not because of what Malcolm did, but because of what he went through. This was not the America I grew up in or at least the America I recognized.  After reading his book I wanted to become an activist, I wanted to right many wrongs, oh the plans I had, too bad I did not keep up this youthful enthusiasm.

Books should shock us; they should take us out of our comfort zone to show the real world around us. This is why I am always trying to get people to read nonfiction, to read something that makes them think.  Reading Malcolm X changed my world view and how I look at history. Thank you Mr. Haley and thank you Malcolm for being so brave in a world that wanted to beat you down.

So dear Reader, now it is your turn. Tell us about a book that changed your life, or changed your view on a certain subject. I am always looking at learning something new!

Happy reading,


Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

Talk to me

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