Haley, Alex(ander) Murray Palmer

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Haley, Alex(ander) Murray Palmer

(b. 11 August 1921 in Ithaca, New York; d. 10 February 1992 in Seattle, Washington), author best known for his collaboration with Malcolm X on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and for Roots: The Saga of an American Family,

Haley was the son of Simon Alexander Haley, a professor of agriculture, and Bertha George Palmer, a music teacher. He was born while his father was studying for a master’s degree at Cornell University and his mother took courses at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music (later Ithaca College). Six weeks after his birth, Haley’s parents took him to Henning, Tennessee, where he grew up in the household of his maternal grandmother, Cynthia Murray Palmer. It was on her porch that Haley heard stories about his furthest back relative, “the African,” which later led to his search for his family’s history in Africa and the United States.

Haley graduated from high school at age fifteen and entered Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Mississippi. He soon transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina. In 1939, after two years and a mediocre academic record, Haley’s father urged him to join the U.S. Coast Guard, whose three-year enlistment period was shorter than the four-year commitment of the other branches of the armed services. His father assumed that he would mature in three years, complete his college education, and become a schoolteacher. But Haley remained in the Coast Guard for twenty years, starting as a cook and rising to the position of chief journalist by the time that he retired in 1959. He married Nannie Branch in 1941; they had two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964, and Haley married Juliette Collins that same year; they had one child and divorced in 1972. Haley married Myra Lewis in 1976, from whom he was separated at the time of his death.

While in the Coast Guard, Haley read voraciously and wrote prolifically, mainly letters to everyone he knew as a way to pass the time aboard ship. Because he received so much mail, fellow sailors asked him to write love letters for them. Apparently, the love letters were very effective. He charged a dollar a letter and had so much business that he soon earned more writing love letters than his military salary. He decided to become a writer and started submitting love-confession stories to magazines such as Modern Romances and True Confessions but without success. He would write for eight years before he sold his first story.

As chief journalist of the Coast Guard, Haley edited its publication The Outpost and did public relations work, such as writing speeches and working with the press on search-and-rescue stories. When he retired from the Coast Guard, Haley moved to New York City, where he sought a public relations job. He sent out his resume to about twenty-five of the largest advertising and public relations agencies. He put his picture on each resume and got only two replies, thanking him for his interest. He did not receive a single interview, which he attributed to sending in his picture and resultant race prejudice.

Haley was determined to become a writer and eked out a meager existence in a small room in Greenwich Village. He was down to eighteen cents and two cans of sardines when he received a small check from a magazine for one of his stories. He saved the eighteen cents and the cans of sardines, which he later framed as a reminder of his lowest point. He basically wrote men’s adventure stories before landing an assignment from Reader’s Digest for a story on Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, a fast-growing organization that was making inroads among the black masses and about which most Americans knew very little. Haley studied the organization and interviewed Elijah Muhammad. He concluded that the Nation of Islam was “anti-white, anti-Christian, resentful, militant, disciplined” and that it would continue to grow unless the government and the Christian churches removed the legitimate grievances of African Americans.

In January 1963 Haley and Alfred Balk published an article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Black Merchants of Hate,” on the Nation of Islam. He seemed to be fascinated by the organization, especially its charismatic leader of the New York City temple, Malcolm X. Haley earned his major journalist break when Playboy magazine commissioned him to interview the great jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. The piece, which was published in September 1962, inaugurated the Playboy Interview as a feature of the magazine. For his second assignment, Playboy asked him to interview Malcolm X, who did not believe that Playboy would run the interview without toning down his rhetoric, but he was pleasantly surprised by the feature. The interview influenced the editor in chief at Doubleday to contract for Malcolm X to tell his life story to Haley. After reviewing the manuscript, Doubleday refused to publish it. Grove Press released The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965, and the book sold more than six million copies by 1977.

For many critics, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was Haley’s most successful literary work. Haley sensitively helped Malcolm X tell the story of his early life in poverty and his transformation from Malcolm Little, a street hustler and thief, to Malcolm X, the proud and defiant minister in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X called the American dream a nightmare for African Americans, who did not know their true identity and were victims of democracy and Christianity. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam preached racial separatism and depicted white people as devils, the natural enemies of black people. During the last stage of his life, after his break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in 1964 and a year before his assassination, Malcolm X became more universal in outlook and less pessimistic about a future for African Americans in the United States.

It appears that Haley was very much affected by the doctrine of the Nation of Islam, especially its racial separatism and disavowal of the United States as a place for African Americans. He sought to use his family’s genealogy as a source of pride and an example of the historical bond between African Americans and the United States. He initially planned to call the book “Before This Anger,” a chronicle of how his family rooted itself in the United States for over two hundred years. Two weeks after he completed the manuscript for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and searched through the U.S. Census Reports for his grandmother’s father, Tom Murray. He remembered his grandmother telling him that she had been born on the Murray Plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina. After hours of searching and some frustration, Haley found the name of his great grandfather, Tom Murray. He became convinced that his family, indeed African Americans, had a past and a heritage—one that was just not well documented.

As a child, he had heard his grandmother and her sisters talk about their family and “the African.” They said he had been brought from Africa to a place called “Naplis,” that he tried to escape four times, and that a foot was cut off after the last attempt. His owner, John Waller, who called him Toby, then sold him to his brother, William Waller. The African insisted that the other slaves call him Kunta Kinte. He had a daughter, Kizzy, who he taught the names of objects in his native language. He called a guitar a ko and referred to a nearby river as the Kamby Bolongo. He also told her that he was about seventeen rains (years) when he went out from his village to chop wood for a drum, was captured, taken to America, and sold into slavery. This story was passed down through Haley’s family for seven generations.

Haley spent about eight years researching his family’s history and some four years writing Roots: The Saga of an American Family, published in 1976. From talking with African linguists and historians, he determined that Kunta Kinte was probably Mandinkan in origin, from the Gambia in West Africa. Reader’s Digest provided Haley with a monthly stipend and travel expenses for his journey to Africa. He later published an essay on his research and a condensed version of the book in the magazine. One of the most controversial parts of the book was Haley’s meeting with a griot, an oral historian, in the village of Juffure, Gambia. The griot recounted the story of the Kinte clan and the disappearance of the son of Omoro and Binta Kinte, Kunta, who had gone out of the village to chop wood. A British Broadcasting Corporation documentary aired in 1997 carried charges of plagiarism and fraud in feeding the griot information that Haley wanted to hear before their meeting.

Haley had to contend with much criticism, accusations of plagiarism, and several lawsuits as Roots became a phenomenal success. The book appeared in thirty-seven different languages and sold 5.5 million copies by 1992. The American Broadcasting Company aired Roots, a twelve-hour miniseries, over eight nights in January 1977. More than half the country watched at least one episode of the series, which won nine Emmy awards. Its stunning success led to Roots: The Next Generations, a fourteen-hour mini-series broadcast in February 1979, which took Haley’s family story from 1882 to his search for “the African.” He later worked on the miniseries Palmerstown, the story of a friendship between a black boy and a white boy in the segregated South, which aired in 1980. Haley defended Roots against two major copyright infringement lawsuits, one by Margaret Walker Alexander, author of the novel Jubilee, and the other by Harold Courlander, author of the novel The African. The court dismissed Alexander’s case, while Haley settled Courlander’s suit out of court for $650,000. He stood by his own work and indicated that any material resembling passages from The African appeared inadvertently, the result of relying on other researchers.

The Pulitzer Prize committee gave Haley a special award in 1977 for Roots because it could not place the book in the category of fiction or history. The committee cited the work for its “important contribution to the literature of slavery.” The National Book Awards that same year gave Haley special recognition because Roots did not accommodate the category of history but transcended it. Haley maintained that the names, dates, places, and events were all true. The dialogue, thoughts, and emotions were inventions based on as much fact as possible. Doubleday published the book under the nonfiction category, and Haley preferred to call it “faction,” a combination of fact and fiction. Most major historians, however, labeled the book a historical novel.

Much in demand on the lecture circuit, Haley earned about $250,000 a year from an exhausting schedule of speeches. He spent two months on a freighter as a way to find the time to write his next book, a novella called A Different Kind of Christmas, about a slave escape on the underground railroad. From his book royalties, magazine articles, and lecture fees, Haley kept homes in Seattle, Washington; Knoxville, Tennessee; and a 127-acre farm near Norris, Tennessee. His boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee, became the site of the first black heritage museum in the state. Haley died of a heart attack in Seattle, where he was scheduled to give a lecture at the Bangor Naval Submarine Base. At the time of his death, he was working on a book and miniseries, Queen, based on the life of his paternal grandmother. The miniseries aired in February 1993, and the book was posthumously published with the assistance of David Stevens. Haley, who is buried on the front lawn of his boyhood home, was also working on a biography of Madame C. J. Walker, the black founder of a cosmetics company and the first female millionaire in the United States, and a book on Henning, Tennessee.

Although Haley had earned millions of dollars, he left a debt of $1.5 million, most of which his estate settled through an auction in October 1992. The manuscripts for Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X brought $71,500 and $110,000 respectively. The Jewett Family Foundation purchased Haley’s Pulitzer Prize and donated it to the Henning museum. Some personal letters, household furnishings, personal effects, and other manuscripts were also sold. The Playboy Foundation bought the notes, recordings, and manuscripts for his Playboy Interviews and gave them to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. The U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the 282-foot cutter Alex Haley in July, 1999, the first military vessel named for a journalist.

Through Roots, Alex Haley brought renewed pride to African Americans and sparked an interest in genealogy among all Americans. He hoped that families would seek and preserve their own histories to strengthen the family bond and to give everyone a sense of belonging. He also affirmed the close bond between African Americans and the United States as he dedicated Roots “as a birthday offering to my country within which most of Roots happened,” during the nation’s Bicentennial.

In 1991 Haley gave a collection of his manuscripts, correspondence, rewrites, research notes, newspaper articles, and trial materials relating primarily to Roots to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where they are housed in the Special Collections at the Hoskins Library. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library houses documents from the Playboy Interviews and miscellaneous Haley material, including correspondence with Malcolm X. The newsreel A Conversation with Alex Haley (San Francisco, Calif.: California News-reel, 1992) contains important biographical information. Murray Fisher’s introduction and interview of Alex Haley in Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews (1993) provides insight into his life by one of his literary collaborators. See also Arlene Clift-Pellow, “Alex Haley,” in Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Men (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Feb. 1992).

Robert L. Harris, Jr.

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