Roots Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Alex Haley

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Despite the negative reactions of some critics, Roots became one of the most-read modern American novels. In addition, for many people, both black and white, it initiated an intense interest in family histories and genealogies. The 1977 ABC miniseries version of Roots brought the novel and its creator to the attention to an even wider audience than the novel itself.

The novel Roots and its television offspring created an mini-industry that gave birth to such television projects as Roots: The Next Generation (1979), which also aired on ABC, and Palmerstown, U.S.A. (1980-1981), a CBS series coproduced by Haley that told the story of another family and community not greatly different from Haley’s own family and the community of Henning, Tennessee. This proliferation made Alex Haley a household name and a much-demanded speaker.

Although he is best known for Roots, Haley’s writing career was not limited to that novel. Haley spent his years in the Coast Guard as a journalist and, after leaving the military, built a career around writing. Haley’s interview with jazz great Miles Davis for Playboy magazine became the prototype of the formal interviews presented in each issue. In 1965, shortly before the assassination of Malcolm X, Haley completed an extensive interview with the African American leader that covered all of his life. This interview was later published intact as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).

By the time of his death, Haley had completed extensive sections of two proposed works: the story of his hometown of Henning, Tennessee, and the story of his paternal grandmother, Queen Haley. The unfinished Queen was made into a miniseries in 1993 and published posthumously in book form that same year. Haley’s other writings can be found in various journals and magazines. The one theme that tied together all of his works, from Roots to his unfinished manuscripts, was Haley’s deep interest in and his desire to tell about the history of his family and his race.