Alex Haley Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 United States. Haley tells the story of Kunta’s descendants as they are shuffled from one plantation to another, until the end of the Civil War brings freedom and the opportunity to settle in one place and build a family, a business, and a community.

Roots satisfied an unmet need of many African Americans to learn the history of their own people—to find their roots. It also helped to shatter some of the popular myths about slavery—for instance, the myth that slaves were simple people who were essentially happy with their lot in life. Beyond that, however, it found a wide audience among Americans of all ethnicities because of its appeal to the universal human longing for family, for history, for roots.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alex Palmer Haley’s two major works are milestones in the history of American literature. Both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots helped African Americans understand themselves and their place in American history and society. By presenting an objective look at the darker side of that history and society, Haley’s works also helped white Americans understand the racial tragedy that had been long hidden. Both books had enormous international sales, and Roots has been translated into dozens of languages. The television dramatization of Roots in 1977 drew the highest viewing audience until that time; a popular miniseries sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, aired in 1979.

Haley’s personal odyssey was just as interesting as that of the African Americans whom he described in his books. Haley joined the Coast Guard in 1939 to see the world. At his father’s insistence, he had learned to type while in high school, and as a result he wrote letters for his shipmates to their girlfriends. He interviewed the sailors, writing the information he received on three-by-five cards and fashioning a letter specifically for each correspondent, thus unwittingly developing the research skills that later served him so well. He wrote every day for eight years, sending off hundreds of manuscripts, which were all rejected, before finally receiving his first letter of acceptance.

By 1959, when Haley retired from the Coast Guard, he had seen his work published in women’s romance magazines and men’s adventure magazines; he had also published pieces in The Atlantic Monthly and Reader’s Digest. Haley began a regular series of interviews for Playboy magazine, one of which was with black militant leader Malcolm X; this interview led to a new phase in Haley’s career.

When the Playboy interview appeared in 1963, most Americans knew Malcolm X as a spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (a religious group also known as the Black Muslims) and thought of him as a hatemonger. When a publisher asked...

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(Novels for Students)

Alex Haley Published by Gale Cengage

In 1921 Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and even after his family moved, he spent his summers there....

(The entire section is 295 words.)