Haley, Alex (1921-1992)
Haley, Alex (1921-1992)
In 1976, author Alex Haley did something no black person had been able to do before: he got Americans to view history from a black perspective. The vehicle he used was Roots: The Saga of an American Family, his 688-page fictional interpretation of the genealogy of his family beginning with a kidnapped African boy brought to the United States as a slave in the mid-1700s. It was not the first time Haley had successfully shown readers life from the black perspective. Before he wrote Roots, he wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a story about the transformation of Malcolm Little from a street-savvy hustler to Malcolm X, a Black Muslim who went from hating whites to becoming an advocate of integration just before he was assassinated by fellow Black Muslims. When Alex Haley died, one creative writing professor, referring to Roots and Malcolm X, said that Haley had produced two classics in his lifetime. That was not bad for a college dropout who began his career in the Coast Guard as a messboy waiting on white officers.
Haley embarked upon his writing career while still in the Coast Guard. He began by composing love letters for shipmates who did not feel up to the task and then produced articles for magazines. One of his articles, "Hope Springs Eternal," appeared in Atlantic in June 1954. While it focused on one of his great aunts, the article mentioned his grandmother's having "a paper tracing her family back to a freed slave," a hint of the phenomenal family saga Haley would interpret a decade later in Roots.
About halfway through Haley's 20-year Coast Guard career, the admiral he served as a steward was so impressed by one of Haley's articles that he successfully petitioned the Coast Guard to create the rating of journalist for Haley. After retiring from the Coast Guard in 1959, Haley became a freelance writer, eventually conducting the first Playboy interview (with Miles Davis) and several others, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Cassius Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali), Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Carson, and George Lincoln Rockwell, a racist and anti-Semitic neo-Nazi.
Just as a modest article about a great aunt became Roots, Haley's interview with Malcolm X and an earlier article about the Nation of Islam for Reader's Digest led to Haley's collaborating with Malcolm X to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was in type when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 24, 1965, and Haley immediately wrote a lengthy epilogue explaining how he and Malcolm X had collaborated on it. The Autobiography of Malcolm X became a bestseller and was adopted in college literature courses around the country. The book was published at a time of growing racial divisions in the United States and rising interest in African-American leaders. Malcolm X, for example, was routinely written about in the mainstream press and his pronouncements were well publicized. His assassination increased interest in his life, although the book, because it tells the story of redemption and transformation, transcends that tragedy. Spike Lee based his movie Malcolm X on Haley's book.
When Roots appeared in 1976, it too became an immediate bestseller. News accounts tell of Haley appearing at an autograph session expecting to find hundreds of people, only to be swamped by thousands. He had given African-Americans their sense of identity; he had given them a history. The book appeared during the nation's bicentennial year and Haley dedicated it "as a birthday offering to my country within which most of Roots happened." It is worth repeating the subtitle of the book, The Saga of an American Family, for it demonstrates that Haley was trying to make a broad statement about everyone's roots, not just those of African Americans, and no doubt he struck a chord. It was as if the entire country was having an identity crisis and readers of any race could better understand their own lives through the multigenerational saga Haley had written.
Roots consumed Haley both in researching and writing, and also after it was published. He spent about 12 years doing research, even traveling in the hold of a ship to get a feel for how slaves must have felt when they were being transported in chains from Africa to the United States. He became even more popular after Roots appeared as a six-night 12-hour miniseries on television, a show watched by 130 million people. Haley was overwhelmed with speaking engagements and requests he could never satisfy. He gave the world two classics in his lifetime and that is what he will be remembered for.
—R. Thomas Berner
Berner, R. Thomas. The Literature of Journalism: Text and Context. State College, Pennsylvania, Strata Publishing, 1999.
Fisher, Murray, editor. The Playboy Interviews. New York, Ballantine, 1993.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, Grove Press, 1965.
——. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1976.
Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn. "Alex Haley." In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 38. African-American Writers After 1955. Detroit, Gale Research, 1985.