Haley, Alex 1921–1992
Alex Haley 1921–1992
The late Alex Haley gave America a bicentennial gift that will not soon be forgotten—his fact-based book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley’s account of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, who was captured by slave traders in 1767 and brought to America against his will, won a special Pulitzer Prize and a citation from the National Book Award committee. An international bestseller published in more than 30 languages with six million copies sold, Roots made its author a millionaire celebrity. It also did more to foster interest in black history and genealogy than any novel before or since. Such critics as Essence magazine correspondent Betty Winston Baye hailed the author as “a national treasure [of lasting] importance to the world.”
“Few works in the post-World War II era can match the searing impact Roots had on a racially troubled land,” assessed Mark Goodman in People. Indeed, the book and the subsequent television miniseries marked a watershed for the nation. The original eight-night run of the Roots television show attracted a staggering audience. TV Guide contributor Larry L. King noted, “At least 130 million Americans, more than half the country, tuned in at least one episode.” The book topped the nonfiction bestseller lists for six months and has sold briskly ever since. King maintained that in both the print and screen versions, Haley “drew on the deep, natural well-spring of familial love.... Roots hardly could have missed. Alex Haley simply had one of America’s, and mankind’s, most powerful stories to tell.”
The path leading to the publication of that powerful story was a long and painful one. Haley labored for a dozen years on the project, beginning with only the most slender leads from his grandmother’s oral history of her family. In an effort to trace that history, the author searched through dozens of archives and eventually found his way to his ancestral village on the Gambia River in West Africa. There, Haley was able to link the threads of his grandmother’s stories with the history of the Kinte clan through the tale of the young man captured by white-faced traders. Meeting his relatives in Gambia was a high point for Haley. Another was the overwhelming reception his book received when it was published at long last in 1976. “Do you know what it’s like to go from the YMCA to the Waldorf?” he asked a People reporter. “If I’d known I’d be this successful, I would have typed faster.”
Born Alex Palmer Haley, August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, NY; died of a heart attack February 10, 1992, in Seattle, WA; son of Simon Alexander (a college professor) and Bertha George (a teacher; maiden name, Palmer) Haley; married Nannie Branch, 1941 (divorced, 1964); married Juliette Collins, 1964 (divorced, 1972); married Myra Lewis, c. 1977; children: Lydia Ann, William Alexander, Cynthia Gertrude. Education: Attended Elizabeth City Teachers College, 1937-39.
Author, free-lance writer, speaker, and genealogy consultant, 1959-92. Script consultant for television miniseries Roots, Roots: The Next Generation, and Palmerstown, U.S.A. Adviser to African American Heritage Association, Detroit, Ml. Military service: U.S. Coast Guard, 1939-59; retired as chief journalist.
Awards: Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1977; special citation from National Book Award committee and special Pulitzer Prize, both 1977, both for Roots; nominated to Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1981; numerous honorary degrees.
Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921. His father was a scholar at Cornell University, working toward a master’s degree in agriculture. When Haley was only six weeks old, his mother took him south, to Henning, Tennessee, in order to live with her parents. Haley spent a happy early childhood in Henning, where his grandfather owned a successful lumber company. He and his two younger brothers benefitted from the attention of an extended family that eventually included both of his parents, his maternal grandparents, and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Haley’s father eventually earned advanced degrees and began teaching at universities in the South. Young Alex, however, continued to spend his summers in Henning— even after his mother’s death in 1931. At every annual family reunion Haley would hear his grandmother Palmer talk about her ancestors, including the “furthest-back person,” a slave named Toby who had come from Africa. Haley’s grandmother could even repeat a few African words, handed down from generation to generation— “ko” meaning banjo, and “kamby bolongo” which meant river. She also claimed that this African ancestor had arrived in America through a place called “Naplis” and had been bought by a plantation owner named Waller in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
The stories were interesting, but young Haley tucked them into his subconscious and went about establishing a career. After graduating from high school at fifteen, he spent two years in college preparing for a teaching degree. Instead of pursuing a career in education, in 1939 Haley joined the United States Coast Guard. He was given the lowly job of kitchen messboy, but eventually worked his way up to ship’s cook during the Second World War.
His work with the Coast Guard took Haley all over the world—including service in the South Pacific during the war—which served to satisfy some of his wanderlust. He remained with the Guard after the war and began serving as an unofficial chronicler of events. Using his portable typewriter he would write letters home and helped the other seamen correspond with their families as well. He read whatever he was able to find in the various tiny ship’s libraries, and he gradually began to write adventure stories of his own. “The idea that one could roll a blank sheet of paper into a typewriter and write something on it that other people would care to read challenged, intrigued, exhilarated me,” Haley wrote in the final chapter of Roots.
Haley received hundreds of rejection slips before anyone accepted his work for publication. Slowly, however, the situation began to change, and he found his way into print. His early works were maritime adventure stories based on events he had seen or heard about from other sailors. Coast Guard administrators were so pleased with his success that they created a new position for Haley—chief journalist.
In 1959 Haley became eligible for retirement from the Coast Guard. He decided to take a financial risk and stake his future on his ability to earn a living as a writer. The going was certainly rough. In a Publishers Weekly interview, Haley recalled that he lived in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village and was “prepared to starve. One day, I was down to 18 cents and a couple of cans of sardines, and that was it.” Luckily, payment for an article arrived the next day, and the crisis was over for the moment. Later, Haley framed the sardine cans and the meager 18 cents as a reminder of his determination.
In 1962 Haley interviewed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for Playboy. The article was the first of the now-standard and well-known “Playboy Interviews.” A few months later, Haley interviewed controversial civil rights activist Malcolm X for the same publication. Haley found much to admire in the charismatic leader and was intrigued when Malcolm asked him to collaborate on an autobiography. Haley spent a year conducting exhaustive interviews with Malcolm and another year writing the book. He finished the project just two weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X has sold more than six million copies since it was first published in 1965. Early editions did not include Haley’s name, but he has since received credit for the work. “The book represents the best I could put on paper of what Malcolm said about his own life from his own mouth,” Haley asserted in Essence. “I’m glad the book exists because otherwise Malcolm would be a pile of apocryphal and self-serving stories. I have dozens of people, usually men, who come to me and say that they were with Malcolm or did something for him, and they never did.”
In 1964 Haley was about to begin a book about the civil rights era when he visited the British Museum in London. There he saw the Rosetta Stone, an ancient rock covered with mysterious hieroglyphics. Haley was fascinated by the process scientists used to decipher the messages written on the stone. He wondered if he could apply the same approach to the strange African words he had learned from his grandmother. He sought the help of linguist Jan Vansina who identified them as Mandinka, the language of the Mandingo people who lived along the Gambia River. Haley also traveled to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and located another slave ancestor in the census records for Alamance County, North Carolina. His curiosity piqued, Haley began in earnest his quest for more information concerning his forebears.
For nine years Haley traced his origins and recorded his findings in volumes of notes. He discovered the ship’s log for the Lord Ligonier, which had sailed from Gambia in 1767 with a cargo of slaves and docked in Annapolis, Maryland—the “Naplis” of his grandmother’s tale. He took a safari to Juffure, Gambia, and listened to the village griot—a performer whose skits tell of the tribe’s history and genealogies—enabling him to locate sixth cousins who were descended from brothers and sisters of Kunta Kinte. In all, Haley visited more than fifty libraries and archives on three continents before he even began to write the story of Kunta Kinte, his proud daughter Kizzy, and their descendants who made the difficult transition from slavery to freedom.
Much of Haley’s research was funded by advances from the Doubleday publishing house and Reader’s Digest, but still his finances were tight, and, at times, his resolve was weakened by the magnitude of the project. At one point, on a freighter bound from Africa to America, Haley spent hours lying on a wooden plank to somehow duplicate his ancestor’s suffering. On the fourth night at sea, he described in People how he had stood at the ship’s stern and thought, “All I have to do is step over this railing and drop into the sea, and I’d be out of my misery forever.” Then, he continued, “I heard voices—Kunta, Kizzy, Chicken George and my grandmother—telling me, ’No, you must go on and finish it.”
While some scholars found fault with Haley’s portrayal of certain aspects of the slave trade and criticized his blend of fiction and fact, the American public made Roots a bestseller and took its hard vision of slavery to heart. The book was published in 1976, just as the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, and the story reminded Americans of both races that their national history held tragedy as well as triumph. The miniseries appeared on television early in 1977 and only served to widen the audience for Haley’s message. Newsweek reviewer Harry F. Waters declared, “In one swoop, [Roots] has demolished the myth that white America will not sit still for a black dramatic series, or for a work with a heavy socio-historic theme.”
In the wake of the success of Roots, Haley and his brother established the Kinte Corporation, a foundation for the study of black-American genealogy. The author was also recruited for the lecture circuit, receiving $4000 for each appearance. “When Roots came out, I was suddenly in hot demand,” Haley commented in People.“One calendar year, I spent 226 nights in motels.” The pace took its toll. “It’s been just about near impossible for me to find the time to write the way I used to,” Haley admitted in an Essence interview shortly before his death. “For the last decade, I haven’t been a writer. I’ve been the author of Roots, and I need to turn that around. I’ve got to write.”
Haley was developing several projects in the early 1990s, including a history of Henning, Tennessee; a biography of Madame C. J. Walker, founder of a black hair care products company and the first female millionaire in America; and the story of his grandmother, a slave named Queen, set in the post-Civil War years. (The miniseries Alex Haley’s Queen was broadcast on CBS-TV one year after the author’s death.) Haley even moved his home base from Los Angeles back to rural Tennessee in order to have more time to work. He continued to accept speaking engagements, however. He died of a heart attack en route to one such engagement in Seattle, Washington, on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. After a funeral service in Memphis, Tennessee, he was buried in the front yard of his grandparents’ home in Henning.
Wanderlust and the urge to write made family relations difficult for Haley. He confessed in Essence that writing contributed to the breakup of two marriages, his first to Nannie Branch and his second to Juliette Collins. “In both cases,” he pointed out, “the ’other woman’ was a typewriter.” At the time of his death Haley was separated from his third wife, Myra Lewis, a television script writer. He is survived by three children and several grandchildren. As Mark Goodman noted in People, however, Haley left his own children—and millions of Americans, black and white—“a profound sense of family continuity that transcended racial strife.”
For his part, Haley never took complete credit for his vast success and for the impact his book had on the American conscience. He was always inspired, he maintained in People, by “little people who did whatever they did and died and would never be thought about again if I didn’t write about them.” To emphasize that his was not a singlehanded rise to fame, Haley concluded in People: “Whenever you see a turtle up on a fence post, you know he had some help.”
(With Malcolm X) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove, 1965.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Doubleday, 1976.
A Different Kind of Christmas, Doubleday, 1988.
Alex Haley’s Queen (miniseries), broadcast on CBS-TV, beginning February 14, 1993.
Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from “Contemporary Authors,” Gale, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 38, Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Haley, Alex, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Doubleday, 1976.
Ebony, April 1977.
Essence, February 1992.
Newsweek, September 27, 1976; February 14, 1977.
New York Times, October 14, 1976; February 11, 1992.
New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1976; January 2, 1977; February 27, 1977.
New York Times Magazine, July 16, 1972.
Parade magazine, January 24, 1993.
People, March 28, 1977; December 12, 1988; February 24, 1992.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1976.
Time, October 18, 1976; February 14, 1977.
TV Guide, December 10, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Haley, Alex 1921–1992." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/haley-alex-1921-1992
"Haley, Alex 1921–1992." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/haley-alex-1921-1992
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Alex Haley (1921-1992) is the celebrated author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). By April 1977 almost two million hardcover copies of the book had been sold and 130 million people had seen all or part of the eight-episode television series. Roots is thus considered by many critics a classic in African-American literature and culture.
Haley, who was born in Ithaca, New York, and raised in the small town of Henning, Tennessee, became interested in his ancestry while listening to colorful stories told by his family. One story in particular, about an African ancestor who refused to be called by his slave name "Toby" and declared instead that his name was "Kintay, " impressed Haley deeply. Young Haley was so fascinated by this account that he later spent twelve years researching and documenting the life of "Kunta Kinte, " the character in his famous Roots. School records indicate that Haley was not an exceptional student. At the age of eighteen he joined the U.S. Coast Guard and began a twenty-year career in the service. He practiced his writing, at first only to alleviate boredom on the ship, and soon found himself composing love letters for his shipmates to send home to their wives and girlfriends. He wrote serious pieces as well and submitted them to various magazines.
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley decided to become a full-time writer and journalist. His first book, TheAutobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which he cowrote with Malcolm X, was widely acclaimed upon its publication. The work sold over five million copies and launched Haley's writing career. Malcolm X was at first reluctant to work with Haley. He later told the writer:"I don't completely trust anyone … you I trust about twenty-five percent." Critics praised Haley for sensitively handling Malcolm X's volatile life, and the book quickly became required reading in many schools. Two weeks after The Autobiography of Malcolm X was completed, Haley began work on his next project, Roots. The tale chronicles the life of Kunta Kinte, a proud African who is kidnapped from his village in West Africa, forced to endure the middle passage—the brutal shipment of Africans to be sold in the Americas—on the slave ship Lord Ligonier, and made a slave on the Waller plantation in the United States. To authenticate Kunta's life and that of Kunta's grandson, Chicken George, Haley visited archives, libraries, and research repositories on three continents. He even reenacted Kunta's experience on the Lord Ligonier. "[Haley] somehow scourged up some money and flew to Liberia where he booked passage on the first U. S. bound ship, " an Ebony interviewer related. "Once at sea, he spent the night lying on a board in the hold of the ship, stripped to his underwear to get a rough idea of what his African ancestor might have experienced."
Although critics generally lauded Roots, they seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. While the narrative is based on factual events, the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Haley himself described the book as "faction, " a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics concurred and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. Despite the fictional characterizations, Willie Lee Rose suggested in the New York Review of Books that Kunta Kinte's parents Omoro and Binte "could possibly become the African proto-parents of millions of Americans who are going to admire their dignity and grace." Newsweek applauded Haley's decision to fictionalize:"Instead of writing a scholarly monograph of little social impact, Haley has written a blockbuster in the best sense—a book that is bold in concept and ardent in execution, one that will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves."
Some voiced concern, however—especially at the time of the television series—that racial tension in America would be aggravated by Roots. While Time did report several incidents of racial violence following the telecast, it commented that "most observers thought that in the long term, Roots would improve race relations, particularly because of the televised version's profound impact on whites. … A broad consensus seemed to be emerging that Roots would spur black identity, and hence black pride, and eventually pay important dividends." Some black leaders viewed Roots "as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma, " according to Time. Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, called it "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Speaking of the appeal of Roots among blacks, Haley added:"The blacks who are buying books are not buying them to go out and fight someone, but because they want to know who they are. … [The] book has touched a strong, subliminal chord."
For months after the publication of Roots in October 1976, Haley signed at least five hundred copies of the book daily, spoke to an average of six thousand people a day, and traveled round trip coast-to-coast at least once a week. Scarcely two years later, Roots had already won 271 awards, and its television adaptation had been nominated for a recordbreaking thirty-seven Emmys. Over eight million copies of the book were in print, and the text was translated into twenty-six languages. In addition to fame and fortune, Roots also brought Haley controversy. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, alleged separately that Haley plagiarized their work in Roots. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander $500, 000. The same year other accusations also arose. Mark Ottaway in The Sunday Times questioned Haley's research methods and the credibility of his informants, accusing Haley of "bending" data to fit his objectives. Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills also challenged some of Haley's assertions. Writing in 1981 in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, they cited evidence that there was indeed a slave named Toby living on the Waller plantation. He was there, however, at least five years before the arrival of the Lord Ligonier, supposedly with Kunta on board.
Haley's supporters maintain that Haley never claimed Roots as fact or history. And even in the presence of controversy, the public image of Roots appears not to have suffered. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their curriculum. According to Haley himself, Roots is important not for its names and dates but as a reflection of human nature:"Roots is all of our stories. … It's just a matter of filling in the blanks …; when you start talking about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth." Indeed, Haley's admirers contend, Roots remains a great book because it is the universal story of humankind's own search for its identity.
The Black Press U.S.A., Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 12, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955:Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Black Collegian, September/October, 1985.
Christianity Today, May 6, 1977.
Ebony, April, 1977.
Forbes, February 15, 1977. □
"Alex Haley." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alex-haley
"Alex Haley." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alex-haley
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Alex Haley is the celebrated author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). By April 1977 almost two million hardcover copies of the book had been sold and 130 million people had seen all or part of the eight-episode television series. Roots is considered by many critics a classic in African American literature and culture.
Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, and raised in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. His father managed the family lumber business while his mother was a schoolteacher. Growing up, Haley became interested in his ancestry while listening to colorful stories told by his family. These stories, which traced seven generations, would become the source and inspiration for Haley's later work.
School records indicate that Haley was not an exceptional student, and at the age of eighteen he joined the U.S. Coast Guard and began a twenty-year career in the service. He practiced his writing, at first only to cure boredom on the ship, and soon found himself writing love letters for his shipmates to send home to their wives and girlfriends. He wrote serious pieces as well and submitted them to various magazines.
A literary career
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley decided to become a full-time writer and journalist. His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which he cowrote with Malcolm X (1925–1965), was well-received by both critics and the public. The work sold more than five million copies and launched Haley's writing career.
Two weeks after the book was completed, Haley began work on his next project, Roots. The tale follows the life of Kunta Kinte, a proud African who was kidnapped from his village in West Africa. After surviving the middle passage (the brutal shipment of Africans to be sold in the Americas), he was made a slave on a plantation in the United States. Haley visited archives, libraries, and research repositories on three continents to make the book as authentic (real) as possible. He even reenacted Kunta's experience during the middle passage by spending a night in the hold of a ship (the storage room below deck) stripped to his underwear.
The impact of Roots
Haley himself described Roots as a "faction," a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics agreed and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. However, some voiced concerns—especially at the time of the television series—that racial tension in America would be aggravated by Roots.
Many activists viewed Roots to be an important part of the civil rights movement, where African Americans and other minorities fought for equality. Vernon E. Jordan (1935–), the executive director of the National Urban League, called the television series "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Speaking of the appeal of Roots among blacks, Haley added: "The blacks who are buying books are not buying them to go out and fight someone, but because they want to know who they are.… [The] book has touched a strong, subliminal chord."
Barely two years after the book was published, Roots had already won 271 awards, and its television adaptation had been nominated for a record-breaking thirty-seven Emmys, the top awards for television programming. Over eight million copies of the book were in print, and the text was translated into twenty-six languages.
In addition to fame and fortune, Roots also brought Haley controversy. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, accused Haley of plagiarizing (to steal and use as one's own) their work. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander $500,000.
Regardless of the controversies, the popularity of Roots is very clear. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their assigned reading.
Stardom took its toll on Haley, though. The New Times reported that on a trip to his ancestral village in Africa, Haley complained: "You'll find that people who celebrate you will kill you. They forget you are blood and flesh and bone. I have had days and weeks and months of schedules where everything from my breakfast to my last waking moment was planned for me."
Roots was so successful that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) produced a sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, a $16.6-million production that ran for fourteen hours. The story line of Roots II, as it was called, begins in 1882, twelve years after the end of the Roots I, and it concludes in 1967.
In 1985 Haley was working on a novel set in the Appalachian culture that he had researched extensively. The novel was centered around the relationships among a mountain father, son, and grandson. Because this book was not about blacks but primarily about whites, Haley said of the project, "I think one of the most fascinating things you can do after you learn about your own people is to study something about the history and culture of other people."
Haley also researched his paternal heritage (his father's ancestry), which became the book Queen. But before he could finish the book, Haley died on February 10, 1992. (David Stevens would complete the work on Queen. ) In 1993 Queen became a three-episode miniseries which aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Accusations surfaced about the historical accuracy of Queen, and critics questioned whether a romance had actually existed between Queen and her slave-owning master. According to Melinda Henneberger in the The New York Times, the tapes left by Haley did not mention a romance between his paternal great-grandparents. Producer Mark Wolper indicated "Haley had become convinced by his later inquiries … that his great-grandparents had actually been in love."
Haley also planned to write a book detailing the life of millionaire Madame C. J. Walker (1867–1919) and her daughter A'Lelia. Haley had signed a three-book contract with Ballantine for its new multicultural publishing program, for which his first title was to be a history of his hometown—Henning. Those who knew Haley well say his research on Henning predated the writing of Roots. Haley was buried on the grounds of his Henning homestead.
For More Information
Gonzales, Doreen. Alex Haley: Author of Roots. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1994.
Shirley, David. Alex Haley. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
"Haley, Alex." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/haley-alex
"Haley, Alex." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/haley-alex