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Alex Haley

Date of birth : 1921-08-11
Date of death : 1992-02-10
Birthplace : Ithaca, New York, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-08-31

Alexander "Alex" (Murray Palmer) Haley born August 11, 1921 – died February 10, 1992 was an African-American writer. He is best known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.


Alex Haley's reputation in the literary world largely rests upon his much acclaimed historical novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley's tracing of his African ancestry to the Mandinka tribe in a tiny village in Juffure of the Gambia region of West Africa, spawned one of the most ambitious American television productions ever undertaken and inspired a generation of ancestry-seeking Americans. Eleven years prior to the appearance of Roots, Haley had gained recognition for writing Malcolm X's "as-told-to" autobiography, which was released shortly after the charismatic leader was gunned down while giving a speech in New York. After Spike Lee released the movie Malcolm X in 1992, bookstore owners had difficulty keeping the autobiography in stock.

Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, and reared in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. He was the eldest of three sons born to Bertha George Palmer and Simon Alexander Haley, and when he was born, both his parents were in their first years of graduate school--his mother at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and his father at Cornell University. After finishing school, his parents took young Alex to Henning, where he grew up under the influence of his grandmother and aunts Viney, Mathilda, and Liz, who perpetuated stories about his African ancestor Kunte Kinte. These stories became the impetus for Roots, with which hundreds of thousands of African Americans would identify.

Before Haley became famous for this autobiographical work, however, he earned his living as a journalist. He was the first interviewer for Playboy magazine, and the volume Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews collects eleven of his conversations with notable and controversial public figures, including Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Lincoln Rockwell--a leader of the American Nazi Party--and Malcolm X. The interview with Malcolm X predates and resulted in the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Playboy Interviews also includes an excerpt from Roots.

Although it took Haley twelve years to research and write Roots, success quickly followed its publication. Recipient of numerous awards, including a citation from the judges of the 1977 National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes, the book is recognized as one of the most successful bestsellers in American publishing history, having sold millions of copies worldwide in 37 languages. Combined with the impact of the televised miniseries, Roots has become a "literary-television phenomenon" and a "sociological event," according to Time. By April, 1977, almost 2 million people had seen all or part of the first eight-episode series; and seven of those eight episodes ranked among the top ten shows in TV ratings, attaining an average of 66 percent of audience share.

Although critics generally lauded Haley for his accomplishment, they seemed unsure whether to treat Roots as a novel or as a historical account. While it 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. And 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 found that Haley's decision to fictionalize was the right approach: "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 concern was voiced, especially at the time of the first television series, that racial tension in America would be aggravated by Roots. But while Time reported 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."

Haley has heard only positive comments from both blacks and whites. He told William Marmon in a Time interview: "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. Roots is all of our stories. It's the same for me or any black. It's just a matter of filling in the blanks--which person, living in which village, going on what ship across the same ocean, slavery, emancipation, the struggle for freedom. . . . The white response is more complicated. But when you start talking about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth. We all have it; it's a great equalizer. . . . I think the book has touched a strong, subliminal chord."

But there was also concern, according to Time, that "breast-beating about the past may turn into a kind of escapism, distracting attention from the present. Only if Roots turns the anger at yesterday's slavery into anger at today's ghetto will it really matter." And James Baldwin wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Roots is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one--the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can't but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road."

For months after the publication of Roots in October, 1976, Haley signed at least 500 books daily, spoke to an average of 6,000 people a day, and traveled round trip coast- to-coast at least once a week, according to People. Stardom took its toll on Haley. 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. . . . Someone has you by the arm and is moving you from room to room. Then people grab at you. You're actually pummeled--hit with books--and you ask yourself, My God, what is this?"

Roots was so successful that ABC produced a sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, a $16.6-million production that ran for 14 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. During the 85-year span, Haley's family is depicted against the backdrop of the Ku Klux Klan, world wars, race riots, and the Great Depression; the commonalities between black and white middle-class life are dramatized as well.

Haley also researched his paternal heritage; and in 1993, CBS aired a three-episode miniseries, Queen, about his paternal great-grandmother, Queen, the daughter of a mulatto slave girl and a white slave owner. Writing in the New York Times, John J. O'Connor noted that although "the scope is considerably more limited . . . the sense of unfolding history, familial and national, is still compelling." Accusations surfaced about the historical accuracy of Queen, though, which recalled the charges of plagiarism and authenticity leveled at Roots by the author of The Africans, Harold Courtlander, who was subsequently paid $650,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Critics questioned whether a romance had actually existed between Queen and her slave-owning master. According to Melinda Henneberger in the New York Times, the tapes left by Haley did not mention a romance between his paternal great-grandparents, and David Stevens, who worked with Haley's research and outline, recalled Haley's intent to soften the relationship. Producer Mark Wolper indicated that "Haley had become convinced by his later inquiries . . . that his great-grandparents had actually been in love," wrote Henneberger, adding that "several scholars, all of whom said they would never contradict Haley's research into his own family, added that consensual, lifelong relationships between slaves and owners were exceedingly rare." Esther B. Fein noted in the New York Times that the book was published as a novel "partly because Mr. Haley could not verify all the family folklore that inspired it and died before the project was completed."

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 planned to write a book detailing the life of Madame C. J. Walker 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 comprehensive 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, but in 1992, his estate auctioned off virtually all his possessions to pay a $1.5 million debt.

A memorial to Alex Haley and Kunta Kinte, the ancestor who inspired his family history Roots, was unveiled in 2002 in Annapolis, Maryland, on the site where Kinte first set foot on American soil. The memorial, which is being turned over to the city, is dedicated by the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation. The Alex Haley Museum also opened in Annapolis in 2002.


Family: Born August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, NY; died of cardiac arrest, February 10, 1992, in Seattle, WA; son of Simon Alexander (a professor) and Bertha George (a teacher; maiden name, Palmer) Haley; married Nannie Branch, 1941 (divorced, 1964); married Juliette Collins, 1964 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Lydia Ann, William Alexander; (second marriage) Cynthia Gertrude. Education: Attended Alcorn Agricultural & Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University); attended Elizabeth City Teachers College, 1937-39. Memberships: Authors Guild, Society of Magazine Writers.


Litt.D. from Simpson College, 1971, Howard University, 1974, Williams College, 1975, and Capitol University, 1975; honorary doctorate from Seton Hall University, 1974; special citation from National Book Award committee, 1977, for Roots; special citation from Pulitzer Prize committee, 1977, for Roots; Spingarn Medal from NAACP, 1977; nominated to Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1981, for producing Palmerstown, U.S.A., 1981.


U.S. Coast Guard, 1939-59, retiring as chief journalist; freelance writer, 1959-92. Founder and president of Kinte Corporation, Los Angeles, CA, 1972-92. Board member of New College of California, 1974; member of King Hassan's Royal Academy. Script consultant for television miniseries Roots, Roots: The Next Generations, and Palmerstown, U.S.A.; has lectured extensively and appeared frequently on radio and television; adviser to African American Heritage Association, Detroit, MI.


* (With Malcolm X) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove, 1965.
* Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Doubleday, 1976.
* Alex Haley Speaks (recording), Kinte Corporation, 1980.
* A Different Kind of Christmas, Doubleday, 1988, abridged edition, Literacy Volunteers of New York City, 1991.
* Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews (edited with an introduction by Murray Fisher), Ballantine Books, 1993.
* (With David Stevens) Queen (screenplay adapted from dictation tapes), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1993.
* (With David Stevens) Mama Flora's Family: A Novel, Scribner (New York City), 1998.

Author of forewords, Somerset Homecoming, by Dorothy Redford and Michael D'Orso, Anchor/Doubleday, 1988; Marva Collins' Way: Returning to Excellence in Education, by Marva Collins, J. P. Tarcher, 1990; and They That Go Down to the Sea: A Bicentennial Pictorial History of the United States Coast Guard, by Paul A. Powers, United States Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association, 1990. Initiated "Playboy Interviews" feature for Playboy, 1962. Contributor to periodicals, including Reader's Digest, New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Harper's, and Atlantic.


Roots was adapted as two television miniseries by American Broadcasting Companies (ABC), as Roots, 1977, and Roots: The Next Generations (also known as Roots II), 1979; Haley served as script consultant for both productions. Filmmaker Spike Lee used The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the source for his 1992 film biography Malcolm X. Queen, a novel based an outline and research left by Haley, was published by Morrow in 1993.


Haley was working on the following projects at the time of his death: My Search for Roots, an account of how Roots was researched and written; a study of Henning, Tennessee, where Haley was raised.

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