“When the griot dies, it is as if the library has burned to the ground,” Alex Haley wrote in the acknowledgments to his groundbreaking book Roots.
I thought the quote made for a perfect lede to the editorial tribute I wrote in the Boston Globe when Haley died in 1992.
My editor saw it differently. He had never heard of the word “griot,” which refers to the person in the African village who keeps the oral history alive, whether through stories or music. At that time, the word was not in the dictionary.
The lead I ended up with was another quote from Haley:
“‘For the last decade. I haven’t been a writer. I’ve been the author of Roots. I’ve got to write,’ Alex Haley lamented in an interview that appears in this month’s issue of Essence magazine. Haley had just begun to do that when his life was cut short by a heart attack.”
That I managed to get Essence magazine in the lead of a Globe editorial is pretty impressive. Nevertheless, 20 years later, I still bristle at the conversation with my editor.
I also wrote that “Roots inspired persons of all backgrounds throughout the world to research their family trees.”
He also can take some credit for inspiring at least the titles of The Root and The Griot, two major blogs focused on the African American experience.
Haley would have celebrated his 91st birthday this weekend.
On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.
“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘
After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”
“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.
By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.