Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1921. At the time of his birth, his parents, Bertha George Palmer and Simon Alexander Haley, were graduate students at Cornell University. When Haley was still young, the family moved back to their home in Henning, Tennessee, where Haley spent most of his childhood in the presence of an extended family, including his grandmother and several aunts. Haley and his younger brothers, George and Julius, listened to these women tell stories about their family’s history, including tales of a slave ancestor named Kunta Kinte, whom they also referred to as “the African.”
Haley attended teacher’s college in North Carolina for two years before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. In 1941, Haley married Nannie Branch, with whom he had two children, Lydia and William. During his first years in the Coast Guard, Haley served as a mess boy and later as a cook, and he began writing as a hobby. His romance stories were not successful, but he wrote several history articles that were published in magazines. In 1949, he began working as a journalist for the Coast Guard, a position that lasted until he retired from the Coast Guard in 1958.
His next writing work consisted of magazine articles about prominent African Americans, including jazz musician Miles Davis, boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), and Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, among others. His interviews with Malcolm X led Haley to take on a larger project, which became his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. This book received both critical and popular acclaim and helped Haley obtain a contract with the publisher Doubleday to write Roots.
In 1964, Haley and his first wife divorced, and he married Juliette Collins, with whom he had one child, Cynthia. Haley and Juliette divorced in 1972. Between the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965 and Roots in 1976, Haley spent most of his time doing the historical and genealogical research for Roots. Eventually his research led him to Gambia, West Africa, where he met the griot, or ancestral storyteller, who told Haley the African side of his family’s stories about Kunta Kinte. In Roots, Haley describes this encounter as the “peak experience” of his life.
Roots was published in 1976 and immediately became a best seller. Almost overnight, the book started a genealogy craze among Americans of all ethnicities but particularly among African Americans. Read by millions, the story of Roots became even more well known in 1977 when it was adapted for television as a miniseries that was viewed by more than 130 million people.
Soon after the publication of Roots and the airing of the miniseries, several writers brought lawsuits against Haley, claiming that he plagiarized their work. Two suits were dismissed, but Haley paid $650,000 in an out-of-court settlement to Harold Courlander, who claimed that Haley had copied passages in Roots from Courlander’s 1967 novel The African. Some people believe that Haley’s settlement payment is an admission that he did, in fact, deliberately copy words and ideas from Courlander’s book. Others believe that Haley agreed to the payment simply so that he would not have to go through a lengthy trial. In the 1980’s, several historians questioned whether Roots was historically accurate and whether Haley’s genealogical research was reliable. However, despite questions about its authenticity, Roots continued to be important for its influence on popular culture and for its realistic portrayal of slavery.
Haley died of heart failure in Seattle, Washington, in 1992, at the age of seventy.
Alex Haley is best known for Roots, a book that blends history, genealogy, and fiction into a powerful tale of seven generations in one African American family. Starting with Kunta Kinte, the “African” in Haley’s family stories, Haley realistically depicts the horrors of the slave trade, the middle passage, and the practice of slavery in the southern...
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