Alex HaleyJun 12th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Education, Social Sciences
1921-1992 Alex Haley, the acclaimed author of the novel Roots, dedicated much of his career to lecturing on African American genealogy. His work encouraged black families to explore the rich histories of their ancestors.
A Nomadic Life
Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921. His father, Simon Haley, was a graduate student in agriculture at Cornell University at the time of his birth. Haley’s mother, Bertha Palmer Haley, felt isolated in the cold northern town, and after the birth of their children, she convinced her husband to allow them to move south to Henning, Tennessee, and live with her parents while he continued his studies. The family remained separated while Simon Haley completed his graduate degree.
In Tennessee, Haley’s grandmother played a vital role in his upbringing. She was an animated storyteller, and entertained Haley and his two younger brothers with tales of their ancestors and the African village where their family had originated. This idyllic childhood did not last, however, as the boys were separated from their grandmother in 1929 when Haley’s father accepted a teaching position in Alabama. Two years later, when Haley was 10 years old, his mother died suddenly, leaving her husband alone to raise three sons.
Although Haley graduated from high school at age 15, he never excelled as a student. He attended college for two years before becoming restless, and at the outbreak of the second World War, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a mess boy in 1939. Frustrated and bored on long voyages, Haley began to write short stories to amuse himself. He began to devote more time to his writing, and eventually, the stories were published in small magazines and journals. The Coast Guard also began to take notice of Haley’s writing talent, and in 1952, he was promoted to chief journalist. He served in this position for seven years, covering internal issues and overseeing Coast Guard public relations. By 1959, Haley had served 20 years with the Guard, and resigned his post in the hopes of becoming a full-time writer.
Initially, the transition was difficult; Haley was already 38 years old, and had no connections outside the military in the literary or publishing worlds. Slowly, however, he began to make a name for himself and soon was writing regularly for Reader’s Digest magazine. In addition, Haley began working for Playboy magazine. He convinced the magazine to initiate a new feature, the “Playboy Interviews,” which eventually led to his first book. In the early 1960s, Haley interviewed Malcolm X and immediately began work on a longer piece about the black leader’s life. The final book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, published in 1965, was an overnight success. It was eventually translated into eight languages and sold more than six million copies. Although the book launched Haley’s career as an American writer, its publication was bittersweet; Malcolm X was shot and killed only a few months before it was completed.
Pursuing African Ancestors
Riding on the success of his first book, Haley began to search for a new project. The stories his grandmother had told him as a child still haunted him, and in the late 1960s, he began to research his own genealogy. In the Library of Congress, pouring over slave ship records, Haley eventually found the names of family members about whom his grandmother had told him. Then, consulting African language experts at various American institutions, he was able to trace the origins of words that his grandmother claimed were part of their native African language. Eventually, Haley traveled to the village of Juffure in Gambia, West Africa, where the “griot,” or local storyteller, was able to confirm his grandmother’s story of the boy Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped in the forest by slave traders at age 16.
Over the next 11 years, Haley made many trips to Africa. He lectured extensively on African slavery and wrote magazine articles chronicling his travels. All of this work culminated in the 1976 publication of his novel Roots: Saga of An American Family. Roots received wide critical acclaim. It won multiple awards including the National Book Award in 1976 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The book was so popular that a year after its release, the American Broadcasting Company created a 12-hour miniseries by the same name. The entire broadcast was eventually viewed by more than 130 million people. Two years later, ABC created a second series, also written by Haley, entitled Roots: The Next Generation.
Roots, however, was not devoid of controversy. Two writers brought lawsuits against Haley, claiming that he had plagiarized sections of the novel from their own works. Eventually, one of the suits, brought by Harold Courlander, was settled out of court after sections of Haley’s novel were found to contain almost identical passages from Courlander’s book The African. Haley maintained that this similarity was due to an oversight by a research assistant who gave him the material without telling him where it came from. As the controversy waned, he continued to write books that dwelled on African tradition, history, and geneology. Haley produced several literary works late in life including A Different Kind of Christmas, published in 1988, and Queen, an epic novel about his father’s family, published in 1993. This last novel was published posthumously as he died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, just before completing the book.
Despite the allegations of plagiarism, Roots remains one of the seminal works about slavery in American literature. Haley donated proceeds from the sale of the book to fund the construction of a new mosque in the village of Juffure, and he founded the Kinte Foundation with his brothers as a repository for African American history.