Page 8 of 12

Alex's inability to settle down and establish intimate relationships, the apparent coldness he displayed when he isolated the people in his life, foreshadowed the lack of emotion George exhibited in handling the literary legacy.

The way My saw it, her husband's public life was so demanding that she was just glad to receive his calls on the telephone several times a day.

"I adored him for his desire to want to enhance humanity with powerful words," she says. "I had great hero worship and honor for this man of powerful words. That kind of stuff is thick. You can't cut through that so easily. People can say, 'He's this and he's that,' 'He's treating you this way and that way,' but when you've got that other thing, it's hard to cut through."
The question lingers: Why would My Haley endure this relationship? One answer is that the pattern was familiar to her.

@body:Looking back on it, My Haley will reluctantly concede similarities between Alex Haley and her father, James Lewis. She recalls, for instance, that her father segmented his life, too, was incredibly charismatic, and was much older than his wife. And, like Alex, James Lewis could be verbally abusive.

James Lewis was known around town for his good looks. He was a "very light complexioned" black with what was called "good hair," which meant it was straight, says My, "like white people had."

James Lewis and his young wife, Lillian, a legal secretary, were what My calls "partyers." He was a club owner, some 28 years older than Lillian. They lived in South Charleston, West Virginia.

"He was a man of great mystery and respect uptown," says My of her father. "Uptown was where his family lived. They were the light, bourgeois blacks. My father was the one to work and put his brothers and sisters through college."
Her father kept My away from his family, much as Alex would with his own family years later. She suspects part of the reason was that My's skin was dark.

James Lewis eventually gave up the clubs, says My, because he felt "the life" would set a bad example for his children. His decision turned out to be a terrible mistake.

"He found out that for an uneducated, however handsome, black man, there were very few possibilities," she says. "He began to take jobs that were demeaning to him. He was a night watchman at the state capitol. He was a bellboy at a hotel where people slipped him 50 cents for carrying their bags. He didn't give language to it, but I could almost tell that something was dying inside of him."
With her father slipping in and out of her life and her mother busy working two jobs, My became devoted to her grandmother, Julia Dickerson.

"There are two people in the world I worshiped. One was Grandmother and the other was Alex Haley," she says.

Julia Dickerson did "day work" for white people. She became determined that her little, dark-skinned grandaughter would succeed just as much as any of the white children whose rooms she cleaned, whose clothes she ironed.

So Julia watched. When the white children worked with flash cards, she would insist that My's mother make flash cards for My.

And even though Julia Dickerson could barely read, she memorized books and held My on her lap, "reading," with the child's fingers pressed to the grandmother's voice box so that My could understand "the power of the word."

What My adored about her grandmother most was that she gave to her a sense that anything was possible--that she, My, was a special child who could do anything she set out to do.

When My was 8, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio. Her father became more abusive, and often let it be known that his children would never amount to anything, meaning that he would never amount to anything.

One night James Lewis went mad. He held his family hostage at knife point all night, until My's brother managed to sneak out to get the police.

James died in a state mental institution. His family says his madness was caused by a tumor.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene