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I may have tried to steer Alex Haley wrong

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It is Thursday, Dec. 19, and it’s bright and brisk. Some might say it’s actually cold.

But I’ve built a fire in our hearth and at the moment, it seems to be thriving on several unsplit logs that came to me courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

This morning I’ve been contemplating the upcoming Democratic primary, wondering if Elizabeth Warren or Mayor Pete Buttigieg will dislodge Joe Biden from his front-running status in South Carolina. I have always believed I had good instincts about elections, and voters, although my instincts were wrong on Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Years ago when WJWJ did local reporting, I was sometimes asked to provide on-the-air commentary while everyone waited for the ballots to be counted. I remember sitting in the studio with Theresa Bruce and answering her questions about voting trends, momentum and what people were looking for in a candidate. I was young and thought I knew the how the world worked.

In those days I was working for Black Land Services on St Helena. Our program, funded by the John Hay Whitney Foundation, was interested in black farmers and keeping those farmers on the their land. Our offices were in the Butler Building at Penn Center.

In the 70s, Penn was a destination for the young, motivated foot soldiers engaged in the Civil Rights movement. There were meetings, retreats and workshops almost every weekend and it was not unusual to see Andrew Young or Julian Bond arguing strategy while sitting on one of the huge oak limbs that descend to within a few feet of the ground.

One afternoon I was working on a case when my partner, Joe McDomick, stuck his head in my office and said there was some wine-drinking under way down by the river. In those days Penn had a guest cottage — built by Leroy Browne — that overlooked the marsh.

If Penn was entertaining a ‘celebrity’ this is where he or she would spend the night. Usually there was a informal reception connected with that guest.

When I arrived I poured myself a glass of wine — I don’t remember the vintage, but in those days I didn’t really care about the grape or the soil that grape grew in — and retreated to the porch with its pleasant view of the water. I had been there several minutes when I noticed another man, alone, on the porch.

“Do you live on St Helena?” I asked.

“I’m just passing through,” he said. “I’m originally from Tennessee.”

These were political times and we quickly moved into a conversation about Richard Nixon. Then, tiring of that topic I said, “What do you do for a living?”

“I write,” was his response.

“Anything I might have read?”

“Not really,” he replied. “I’m trying to finish a book and its not going all that well. Actually, I’m here trying to get myself inspired.”

“And your topic?”

“Its about a black family … and it deals with the history of that family.”

“Non-fiction?”

“Let’s say I’m making it as factual as possible.”

He then told me about the research he was doing, and the frustration he was having because there weren’t a lot of records. He had come to Penn to look at some documents that he thought might help him. Then he said, “I sometimes wonder if anyone is really interested? What do you think?”

“I’ve only been at Penn for a year,” I replied. “But my clients don’t seem all that invested in their past. My mother, on the other hand, worships her ancestors. I haven’t seen that here.”

“You may be right,” he said.

“I just don’t think there’s that much interest in African-American genealogy,” I continued. “Maybe you ought to reconsider the premise of your book.”

“Perhaps I should.”

Several years later I found myself in Scribner’s — in New York City — working may way through a pyramid of newly published books.

As picked up one of these novels my eyes were drawn to a photograph of the author on the fly leaf. The man looked familiar but it took me another 30 seconds to realize this was the guy I had spoken to at Penn.

It seemed that Alex Haley’s book was selling pretty well at that particular moment in that particular store.

I remember walking out of the store, turning north on 5th Avenue, and thinking, “You know, my instincts may have been wrong on “Roots.”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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