It was not surprising that Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X had such a powerful effect on My when she was in high school. Like Malcolm, My suffered the loss of a parent who went mad--perhaps for no other reason than that racial pressures were too much to bear.
"One of the reasons for the popularity of The Autobiography is that so many of us had gone through these experiences one way or another that it touched a chord," says My.
Plus, Malcolm's story gave young black people the sense of possibility--if Malcolm could transform himself from a pimp and dope dealer to a prominent world figure, why couldn't they change their lives?
As My plodded through her doctoral courses in communication at Ohio State University, she got a job counseling black students. She was amazed to see that they, too, were inspired by the Alex Haley book. "This was the period when the [Lyndon] Johnson Great Society programs allowed the gateways to open up for students who otherwise might not have been admitted," she says.
"Some of the students couldn't read very well," she says. "Some could barely talk very well. But they cradled this book about Detroit Red, who became Minister Malcolm, because he was a model of possibility. With that model of Malcolm they graduated and made it through in such a way that I knew they had the mettle to go on and do other good things."
Before My got her Ph.D., she listened to a tape of Alex Haley talking about his unpublished book Roots. She could no longer hold herself back. Her destiny, she concluded, was to be with this great man who "could light a fire under you with his words."
She began writing letters to Haley, and sent him a rsum via a mutual friend. But she got no reply.
In the meantime, My earned her Ph.D. in communication from Ohio State University.
Julia Dickerson was so proud she packed cake and fried chicken and took the Greyhound to Columbus. On the night before My graduated, Julia shined and shined her granddaughter's shoes. And then, when she thought My was asleep, she sneaked into her bedroom and ran her hands up and down the graduation robe. Then she tiptoed over to her granddaughter's bed, touched her fingers to My's forehead and blessed her.
Dr. Myran Lewis was primed to be a gatekeeper of the African-American legacy. Her counselors at Ohio State University begged her to accept any one of a number of job offers from universities across the country either to set up or to work in Black Studies departments.
They were especially eager for her to take up a teaching assistantship offer at Harvard.
But she clung to the hope that Alex Haley would answer her letters.
The day she had to inform Harvard of her decision to work there, Alex Haley sent her a telegram inviting her to Jamaica. In no time, she was winging her way to Jamaica to meet the man she already adored.
@body:He met her at the airport in Montego Bay in November 1974.
She was 26. He was 52. They liked each other immediately.
"It was like we had known each other for years," she says of that first drive from Montego Bay to Negril, where Alex had rented a cottage facing a vast beach of white sand. She remembers walking into that house and knowing he needed her. The writing room was a mess. She could set up a work station, help him plan his days. Type his copy. Keep people away from him while he wrote. Arrange for his meals. "I did have skills that came intact to contribute to him. I had discipline, fire and enthusiasm. I had the worshipful sense that an apprentice has for the master, and that encourages the master to do more wonderful things. I had a joy of living.
"I don't know if I ever saw the man Alex in a true way for years. I had fallen in love with the calling. I had fallen in love with a dream: the Alex of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Alex of the Roots tape," she says. And of course, the fact that the two were in the tropics, looking out on a beautiful beach and orchid gardens, only made it all the more "glorious."
They had a lot in common. Both worshiped their grandmothers, both came from families that struggled to do better. Education was a recurrent theme in both families.
Like My's family, Alex's family had focused on assimilating. The phrase My prefers, though, is "upward mobility through education."