Black Reflections: BET 1980-2010

Memories from 30 years of Black Entertainment Television...

What Alex Haley Taught Me About Writing & The Artist Way

Published by: Maxie Collier on 13th Jun 2010 | View all blogs by Maxie Collier

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Me, author Alex Haley, and camera operator Darryl Player, after Mr. Haley's appearance on Our Voices, 1991. He passed away the next year. Photo courtesy of Darryl Player.

During my seven years working full-time and freelance at BET, I can't begin to count the number of celebrities and VIPs I encountered over those years.

It still seems like moments ago when I was taking Mrs. Rosa Park's hand and helping her off of the stage after an episode of the talk show Our Voices. Or, when the young Fugees performed on Teen Summit and kicked into some great Bob Marley freestyles- right after the live show ended, and a couple of years before they blew-up with The Score album.

Or, when George Clinton and Bootsy Collins talked about their process recording the song Flashlight, a staple of my childhood funk diet. Putting the mic on President Bill Clinton, while BET founder Bob Johnson and a room full of Secret Service people watched. And volumes of other recollections.

But even among these many episodes, there are several moments, individuals, and conversations that have impacted me far deeper than others. One of those wonderful, unhurried dialogues was with the late author Alex Haley.

As the child of Southern writers and Black activists, I grew up hearing the name Alex Haley as far back as I can recall. First, because of his  work on the Autobiography of Malcolm X, then later as a result of his book Roots and the milestone TV series it produced.

However, our connection on that relaxed evening, following a taping of Our Voices, started with me saying "Mr. Haley, my name is Maxie Collier, I'm a writer,  and my family is also from Tennessee."

He stopped and replied with a smile "How nice, I know a lot of Collier history in Tennessee."

We talked more about my family, his family, and our Southern heritages. Then I asked him "Can you tell me about your writing process... how do you manage to get such comprehensive works completed?"

He started off by telling my about his decades in the Coast Guard and the writing habits he developed being away at sea for so many years. He said that even after his Coast Guard years, he would take long trips on merchant ships. Not the all you can eat/drink/sleep cruise ships, but the commercial cargo ships that rented unglamorous, low cost rooms for long transcontinential voyages. He said he spent much time alone and away from people, while focusing on his research and manuscripts.
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The US Coast Guard ship Alex Haley, named in honor of the late writer and 30 year Coast Guard veteran.

I immediately recognized a similar pattern in my own life. Growing up in a house full of family members, I had started sneaking away on the commuter buses from Columbia, MD to DC, at thirteen and fourteen years old, trekking on my own to the Library of Congress, museums, National Archives, and Howard University's Library, trying to claim quiet time and feed my appetite for knowledge and adventures.

Then by seventeen, I made my first of many voyages across the country on a Greyhound bus, writing and chronicling the stories and people I encountered.  A habit that still continues today.

But at the time and prior to my conversation with Mr. Haley,  I was often told and felt that my trips were aimless and that  I " should be focusing my time and energy" on more traditional pursuits, in more conventional manners.

However, that moment and those words with Mr. Haley helped me understand that the artist way is rarely conventional and often filled with days, weeks, and stretches alone, in our works, our words, and our worlds... prior to gifting the outcomes to those who may or may not receive it.

My brief but memorable encounter with Alex Haley, helped my feel far more assured and far less misunderstood. When he died, a few months after this meeting, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with him and the spirit, words, and graciousness that he bestowed to me.

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