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Best known for his acclaimed historical novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), Alex Haley inspired the nation to take an interest in black history and the study of African American genealogy. Haley’s book, which traces his Afro-American ancestry back to a tiny village in Gambia, West Africa, spawned one of the most ambitious television productions ever undertaken.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Stories About Africa
Alex Murray Palmer Haley was born August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. He was the oldest of three sons born to Simon Alexander Haley, a college professor, and Bertha George Palmer, a teacher. When he was young, they took Alex to Henning, Tennessee, where he grew up with his extended family. He remembers listening for hours as his family reminisced about their ancestors. One story in particular, told by his grandmother, piqued Haley’s interest. An African ancestor refused to respond to the slave name “Toby,” declaring instead that his name was “Kintay.” These initial stories would serve as the basis from which the Roots saga grew.
Adventures on the Seas Leads to Writing
Not a stellar student in high school, Haley graduated with a C average at the age of fifteen. He then entered college preparing for a career in education. In 1939, Haley opted for a different path and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a messboy. To alleviate the boredom while cruising in the southwestern Pacific, he began writing. His first venture included writing love letters for his shipmates. He expanded his range with maritime adventure stories that he submitted to several American magazines. A series of rejection slips followed before his first work was accepted for publication by This Week, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. The Coast Guard, pleased with the positive publicity, created a position for Haley—chief journalist.
A Starving Freelance Writer
In 1959, Haley retired from the Coast Guard and decided to become a full-time writer. Determined to make a living at writing, Haley moved into a basement apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He was in debt and saw no brightness in his immediate future. Finally, Haley received a check for an article he had written. The payment fell short of the recognition he desired, but it did herald the beginning of assignments from more and more magazines, one of which was Reader’s Digest.
Eventually, Haley’s commitment to writing paid off when he received an assignment from Playboy to interview jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, creating the interview feature for the magazine. Soon afterward, he was asked to write a feature about Black Muslim leader Malcolm X. Malcolm asked Haley to assist him with his autobiography. The book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), was published just weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated.
A Career Launched
The Autobiography of Malcolm X sold over five million copies and launched Haley’s writing career. Published at the height of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which eliminated various barriers to voting registration), and the Black Power movement, the autobiography became required reading for many courses in colleges. It was not uncommon to find young black men on street corners, in subways, or walking along the streets with copies of the book in their hands.
With his reputation established as a writer, Haley began research on his next project, a book about civil rights. However, he became sidetracked when he wandered into the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and began researching his own genealogy. At the time, Haley did not know that this search would eventually lead him to ”50 or more archives, libraries and research repositories on three continents,” before his curiosity would be satisfied, and that his efforts would culminate with the writing of Roots, published twelve years later.
Researching the Family Tree
For the next eleven years, Haley traced his family tree and recorded his findings, his research funded by a publishing house as well as Reader’s Digest. Haley relied on his grandmother’s oral history and traveled to Gambia where he met a griot, or oral historian. Haley learned the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man from the small village of Juffure, Gambia in West Africa, who was captured into slavery and sent to America.
In Haley’s book, he chronicles the life of Kunta Kinte, a proud African forced to endure the middle passage—the brutal shipment of Africans to be sold in the Americas— and made a slave on the Waller plantation in the United States. The narrative is based on factual events, whereas the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Although it took Haley twelve years to research and write Roots, it did not take nearly that long for it to reach the pinnacle of success.
Roots Becomes a Phenomenon
Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in 1976, the same year the United States celebrated its bicentennial. The work reminded Americans about the country’s past, both shameful and honorable. Though the book became a bestseller, much of the success of Roots can be attributed to the airing of the television mini-series in early 1977, which dramatically portrayed the saga outlined in the book.
The television show attracted one hundred and thirty million American viewers. Many critics felt 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. Two years following its publication, the book had won two hundred seventy-one awards, including a citation from the judges of the 1977 National Book Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Within this short time, over eight million copies of the book had been printed in twenty-six languages. The television adaptation was nominated for thirty-seven Emmys. During this time, 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.
Controversy and Lawsuits
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. 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.
Life After Roots
The Roots phenomenon turned Haley into an entrepreneur. He formed the Kinte Corporation in California, a foundation for the study of black American genealogy. Haley’s success was marked by relentless hours of autographing tours and press interviews on radio and television, as well as in newspapers. Nevertheless, he found time to write a novella, A Different Kind of Christmas (1988), a book about slave escapes during the 1850s, and begin another epic novel, Queen: The Story of an American Family (1993), a book that traces three generations of the paternal side of Haley’s family. The work was completed by David Stevens. In 1992, while traveling to a speaking engagement in Seattle, Washington, Haley suffered a heart attack. He was buried in his hometown in Henning, Tennessee.
Works in Literary Context
Historical Fiction and African Heritage
Alex Haley’s reputation in the literary world rests upon Roots; however, critics seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. Upon its release, it was classified as nonfiction. Historians criticized the work, claiming it contained numerous errors. Haley, however, never claimed the book was factual, calling it “faction,” a mixture of fact and fiction. Despite the 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.”
Haley attempted to authenticate as much of the material in Roots as possible. With over ten years of extensive research and meticulous attention to detail, Haley emerged as the first black American to trace his ancestry back to Africa. He is credited by many for helping to foster better race relations. Hence, his mark on history will not only be as a creative writer but as a civil rights advocate. Haley bridged a part of the gap between the historical liaisons of Africans and Afro-Americans, and his name has become synonymous with the desire to know about heritage and roots.
Works in Critical Context
Haley’s literary fame rests on two books: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It is Roots that has brought him international recognition. The book itself has been judged to be ”an epic work destined to become a classic of American literature.”
Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Notonly is Roots a story about Haley’s ancestors, it is also a story about American history and slavery. The book and television series penetrated domestic, foreign, societal, cultural, geographical, racial, gender, age, and socioeconomic barriers with a laser effect. Of that effect, Paul Zimmerman of Newsweek wrote that ”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.” In regard to the televised version, Vernon Jordan, former director of the National Urban League, remarked in a Time article that Roots was ”the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America.”
Not all critics were impressed with Haley’s work. Some noted the wording was clunky, and the characters nothing more than stereotypes. They found fault with his portrayal of the slave trade and criticized his fictionalization of history. Regardless of the flaws, Roots provided a black perspective to America about its black heritage. It provided a view of history that was previously untold. In the thirtieth year edition of Roots, Michael Eric Dyson writes in the introduction,
Haley’s monumental achievement helped convince the nation that the black story is the American story.
He also made it clear that black humanity is a shining beacon that miraculously endured slavery’s brutal horrors …. [it] sparked curiosity among ordinary citizens by making the intricate relations between race, politics and culture eminently accessible.
- The Black Press U.S.A. Iowa State University Press, 1990.
- Gonzales, Doreen. Alex Haley: Author of Roots. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1994.
- Shirley, David. Alex Haley. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
- Williams, Sylvia B. Alex Haley. Edina, Minn.: Abdo & Daughters, 1996.
- Ames, Katrine and Ronald Henkoff. “Uprooted.” Newsweek 93 (January 22, 1979): 10.
- Boyd, H. ”Plagiarism and the Roots Suits.” First World 2, no. 3 (1979): 31-33.
- Elliot, Jeffrey. ”Alex Haley Talks to Jeffrey Elliot,” Negro History Bulletin 41 (January 1978): 782-785.
- Forbes, Cheryl. ”From These Roots: The Real Significance of Haley’s Phenomenon.” Christianity Today 21 (May 6, 1977): 19-22.
- Granfeld, M. ”Uncle Tom’s Roots.” Newsweek 89 (February 4, 1977): 100.
- The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, Inc. Retrieved September 25,2008, from http://www.kintehaley.org/. Last updated 2003.
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