Alex Haley Haley, Alex (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alex Haley 1921–

Black American journalist, essayist, and historical novelist. Haley is best known for Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a "literary-television" sociological phenomenon which vaulted him into celebrity status during the late 1970s. It is a fictionalized account of seven generations of his own family based on twelve years of research in Africa, Europe, and America. The story of slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants has become almost legendary, and has spawned an intense interest in genealogy and a pride in black ancestry. By personalizing the Afro-American experience, Haley has universalized it. He first became known for his thoughtful collaboration on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a powerful portrait of this controversial leader and his espousal of and final disenchantment with the Black Muslim movement. Haley has been given the credit for gaining the confidence of Malcolm X and for giving the book its final shape. He first decided to research his own story after retiring from the Coast Guard as chief journalist and spending several years as interviewer and magazine writer. The book Roots was well-received by critics and was awarded special citations from the National Book Awards Committee and the Pulitzer Prize Committee, but it was not until its adaptation was televised that its full influence was realized. Haley did not have the final approval of the script for Roots and he feels that it did not accurately represent his viewpoint. However, he served as consultant for the second television series, Roots: The Next Generations. This is a continuation of the saga of his family as they became caught up in the black struggle for equality following the Civil War and deals particularly with his own efforts to retrace his lineage. Haley has been criticized for his idealization of history, for his stilted and artificial dialogue, for reverse racism, and for factual errors. He was recently charged with plagiarism but settled out of court. Haley calls his story "faction," neither fact nor fiction, and it is this dual nature which saves it from being a romantic melodrama or a scholarly treatise and seems to give it its power. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Malcolm X was a latter-day example of] the man who "makes it," the man who, from humble origins and with meager education, converts, by will, intelligence, and sterling character, his liabilities into assets. (p. 161)

Malcolm X fulfills, it would seem, all the requirements—success against odds, the role of prophet, and martyrdom—for inclusion in the American pantheon. (p. 162)

[The Autobiography of Malcolm X] is "told" to Alex Haley…. From 1963 up to the assassination, Haley saw Malcolm for almost daily sessions when Malcolm was in New York, and sometimes accompanied him on his trips. Haley's account of this period, of how he slowly gained Malcolm's confidence and how Malcolm himself discovered the need to tell his story, is extremely interesting and, though presented as an Epilogue, is an integral part of the book; but the main narrative has the advantage of Malcolm's tone, his characteristic movement of mind, and his wit for Haley has succeeded admirably in capturing these qualities…. (pp. 163-64)

[The story of Malcolm X] shows the reader the world in which that truth can operate; that is, it shows the kind of alienation to which this truth is applicable. It shows, also, the human quality of the operation, a man in the process of trying to understand his plight, and to find salvation, by that truth. (p. 167)

[Malcolm X] was the black man who looked the white man in the eye and forgave nothing…. To put it another way, Malcolm X let the white man see what, from a certain perspective, he, his history, and his culture looked like. It was possible to say that that perspective was not the only one, that it did not give the whole truth about the white man, his history, and his culture, but it was not possible to say that the perspective did not carry a truth, a truth that was not less, but more, true for being seen from [his] angle…. (p. 169)

As one reads the Autobiography, one feels that, whatever the historical importance of Malcolm Little, his story has permanence, that it has something of tragic intensity and meaning. One feels that it is an American story bound to be remembered, to lurk in the background of popular consciousness…. (p. 171)

Robert Penn Warren, "Malcolm X: Mission and Meaning," in The Yale Review (© 1965 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1966, pp. 161-71.

Nat Hentoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clearly [Malcolm X] had charisma, but powering that charisma was his capacity to understand and articulate his own American experience and so link it with that of other blacks that he was indeed a spokesman…. The nature of his own experience and its series of "conversions" … is distilled with candor and cutting clarity in [The Autobiography of Malcom X] (with writer Alex Haley serving as an admirably unobtrusive and astute organizer of the material)….

The autobiography is revelatory not only of Malcolm but also of diverse black members of this "pluralistic" society whom hardly any whites have yet begun to know—their values, their affirmations, their evasions, their ways of wit, rage and sorrow. Malcolm himself, as was clear to those who knew him, emerges as a man of warmth as well as fury, of wry perception, and most importantly, as a man with the ability to change and grow. He was, as the book demonstrates, at the beginning of a new stage of understanding himself and the society when he was killed. (p. 511)

Nat Hentoff, "The Odyssey of a Black Man," in Commonweal (copyright © 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 28, 1966, pp. 511-12.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The modest hero of [The Autobiography of Malcom X] is really Alex Haley, who provides, in his introduction, a frank and just appreciation of Malcolm X, and whose task it was, at snatched moments over two hectic years, first to win Malcolm's confidence and then persuade him to tell his story fully. The result is beyond praise, for one must instantly feel that though this is, technically, a 'ghosted' book, it is Malcolm's thought and voice we are hearing all the time….

Malcolm foresaw his martyrdom and he knew his heroic mould. And it is impossible to read this book without becoming convinced that Malcolm was a hero….

The cause of the break with the Muslims isn't satisfactorily explained even in this frank book, and one suspects that Malcolm, in talking to Haley, still had reticences….

I suspect many English readers will dismiss Malcolm as a fanatic who preached the sword and perished by it. But any such reader can have no comprehension whatever of the virulent despair and aggression of the American Negro….

What Malcolm achieved was to give coherence to the feelings of millions. Until and unless absolute economic and social equality are won by Negroes, these feelings will remain and grow. Internationally, they are allied to all those of non-white peoples throughout the world. If anyone doubts this, and doubts the anger of it, Malcolm's biography will be a corrective. (p. 668)

Colin MacInnes, in The Spectator (© 1966 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 27, 1966.

Carol Ohmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X testifies to the black experience in America. More precisely, it testifies to the personal cost of the black experience in America. The first chapter records the death of Malcolm's father, the victim apparently of whites who resented his propagandizing for Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement; in the "Epilogue," Alex Haley describes the assassination of Malcolm X…. The lives of father and son alike were fundamentally shaped to their violent ends by the fact that they were born black in America and tried to combat the inferiority to which their color condemned them.

And yet, at the same time that the Autobiography unforgettably tells those of us who do not know it about the black experience, and helps to explain it to those who know it and have yet to understand it—at the same time, the Autobiography is in many ways a traditionally American work. The evidence of the book itself insists on both its differences from and its similarities to the general American experience. At a time when one hears so often simply that Black is Different …, it seems to me useful to note some of the ways in which Malcolm X's story … reflects American culture. Despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin could not have bought a bottle of Red Devil lye, and would have had no need or wish to, his Autobiography and The Autobiography of Malcolm X resemble each other in the conceptions of the self they convey, in the categories by which they apprehend men and events, in the standards by which they judge them, and in the ways, looking backward as autobiographers do, they pattern or structure the raw materials of their own lives. Roughly, what Benjamin Franklin wanted and got for himself and his fellow citizens, Malcolm X also wanted for himself and his people—until in the last year of his life he changed his mind. To put this in a practical academic way, The...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Warner Berthoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[No one can listen to the voice transcribed in The Autobiography of Malcolm X] or the printed versions of his public speeches, without forming the sense of an extraordinary human being: fiercely intelligent, shrewdly and humanely responsive to the life around him despite every reason in the world to have gone blind with suspicion and hate, a rarely gifted leader and inspirer of other men. The form of autobiographical narration adds something further; he comes through to us as the forceful agent of a life-history that was heroic in the event and has the shape of the heroic in the telling, a protagonist who (in Francis R. Hart's fine description) has himself created and now recreates "human value and vitality in...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

Michael G. Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] distinctive feature of the Autobiography is its naturalistic use of time, the willingness to let the past stand as it was, in its own season, even when later developments, of intellect or intuition or event, give it a different quality…. The atmosphere in which the Autobiography operates is remarkably practical and quick-moving; its genius springs from being so and at the same time remarkably responsive to crystallizations of meaning…. (pp. 274-75)

Michael G. Cooke, in Romanticism: Vistas, Instances, Continuities, edited by David Thorburn and Geoffrey Hartman (copyright © 1973 by Cornell University; used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1973.

David Herbert Donald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As the reconstruction of a genealogy, Haley's [Roots] is a tour de force…. [It] reminds us how even in appallingly adverse circumstances blacks often maintained, through oral traditions, a full account of their lineage and a proper sense of their individual identities. Skillfully, Haley checked his oral history against surviving written documents, and the family tree that he has outlined seems not just plausible but authentic. It is easy to accept Haley's statement: "To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Arnold Rampersad

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A narrative history of the family from the birth of Kunta Kinte to the maturity of Haley himself, Roots is a hybrid work. It links the detective skills of a superior investigative reporter to the powers of a would-be fiction writer, and the product is a work of extremely uneven texture but unquestionable final success. (p. 23)

Haley's search for his ancestors is not conducted to discover unvarnished truth but rather, from one perspective, to justify the history of blacks in America—as if that history needed justification. There is a dominant angle of vision in Roots; almost the entire story is seen from the vantage point of a belief in the necessity of social and political justice,...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

Russell Warren Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After a decade of research in Africa, Europe and the United States [Alex Haley] was able to piece together his family tree. [Roots], although represented as nonfiction, is a monumental novel, a Forsyte Saga of a part-African, part-Irish, part-Cherokee family….

Written mostly in slave dialect, it is crammed with raw violence and makes valid demands on the tearducts of the dourest reader. (p. 23)

The American passages—by far the best and most convincing—are on a par with Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, fully worthy of the praise lavished by reviewers. Yet for all Haley's undeniable achievement and painstaking research, implying a claim to authenticity, the key...

(The entire section is 886 words.)

Dale Norton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Roots] symbolizes the connection of black Americans—and, by association, all Americans—to Africa itself. Roots is part of the growing body of literature helping to rediscover the heritage of black Americans which has been outlawed, ignored, or forgotten over the generations. (p. xliii)

As literature the work has faults, but none which over-shadow the rightness of its general conception or the triumph of Haley's imagination.

The first half of the book focuses on the life of the African Kunta Kinte and is clearly its most successful part. The dignity of Kunta's family and the soundness of the village culture are thoroughly convincing…. Statistics and drawings of...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Adam David Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For long we have been fighting the fiction that we maintained nothing of what we brought over from Africa, that we created nothing of cultural value in the South; fighting the belief that because we were not accorded life by the image-makers, that we, in fact, did not exist. We have been fighting to establish that the lives of our fore-parents stood for something other than what was portrayed in the U.S. media.

Roots, because it is based on the result of painstaking scholarship and is therefore accurate in most of its details, will give Afro-Americans, especially the young, a second starting point from which to look at their past. (p. 50)

Haley wants the story of the Kinte...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Ali A. Mazrui

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In terms of political impact, the three most important literary milestones may well turn out to be, first, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852; second, the collective Black creative eruption of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; and now, thirdly, Alex Haley's work of "fact-ion," Roots….

[Whether] this particular work itself continues to be read or not, its impact at the point of its birth has been sufficiently extensive to make it a major sociological event in modern American history. (p. 6)

Part of the impact of Roots is due to the fact that very few Black Americans can trace their origins back to Africa in any...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Carole Meritt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In presenting [the story of Roots] as a novel, Haley has maximized its popular appeal and captured the spirit of its oral tradition. In fact Roots may be regarded as the first serious challenge to existing popular mythology on the black man's past—that blacks are without a past, without a culture of their own and therefore, an inferior and unworthy people. If Haley had chosen to provide a factual report of his family's history, it might have had no greater impact than as a quaint and incidental reference in the historiography of American slavery. Instead, with characters drawn from real people, woven into a drama of major events and day-to-day activities, conversations and interrelationships,...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Nancy L. Arnez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roots, meaning the beginning, captures the essence of an African people. It is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinter-pretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity. It sutures the wounds that European and American historical scalpers presented to Blacks as the truth about their heritage in an effort to enslave their minds as well as their bodies…. [This] psychological warfare was the most grevious of all crimes wrought upon a people. Haley, with his seminal work, Roots, has helped mightily to destroy the chilling terror of ignorance of who we are as a people. He has given our proud heritage back to us. He has given us back our...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Howard F. Stein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For all its moving, tender, and grisly historic vividness, Roots remains what psychologists call an "ambiguous stimulus," one which is selectively restructured by the observer who is participant. This is not to despair in solipsism, but to emphasize the omnipresence of subjectivity in the never-detached observer; and to stress equally that that subjectivity can be a tool either for un-self-conscious indulgence, or for disciplined engagement. (p. 12)

For me, what is refreshing about Haley's Roots is that reality is not … cavalierly held in contempt. While there is much absolutistic either-or in the tale, Haley's world of human bondage does more than outrageously simplify...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Michael G. Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps it is time … to take a close, steady look at the phenomenon that is Roots: what lies at the bottom of its pandemic appeal, what magic does it proffer, and to whom? Three sorts of magic, subtly blended to serve as all things to most people, can be directly identified.

To begin with, the magic of the placebo. Roots purports to deal with diseases in the American body politic and the harsh medicine necessary for a cure. But it proves unspeakably mild and conciliatory in fact…. Haley has the accent of an adolescent catechist, and the imagination of an adolescent materialist. The vividness of physical slavery virtually exhausts his powers of response…. One thinks of André...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Dillibe Onyeama

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This saga of one man's twelve-year search for his ancestral origin [Roots] owes its success chiefly to white American guilt and Afro-American consciousness…. The Newsweek critique that Roots 'will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves' is one certainly not to be applied to black Africans, who will question the sanity of any man who feels that his ancestral origins are of such significance as to warrant a twelve-year and half-a-million mile search. The inevitable reaction of any such African (I am one) to the resulting book would be … so what?

This book is sad in a way—from the view that it meant so much to Mr. Haley to embark on this search...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Arthur Unger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Roots," which, on television at least, started out as an entertainment and evolved into a sociological phenomenon, has finally turned into a self-contained environment…. "Roots" emerged from the TV screen like a massive tapestry, every square inch imprinted with artifacts of slavery and the period which it ominously dominated. The show's impact on whites as well as blacks is still being studied, but there is almost total agreement that, despite its obvious flaws, "Roots" was proof of the positive impact which a TV series can have on our society….

While ["Roots: The Next Generations"] may lack some of the emotional impact of discovery and recognition of the original mini-series, [it] is superior...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Will Alex Haley's ancestors reconquer American television? After seeing three of [the 14 hours of Roots: The Next Generations], I'd have to give a provisional no. With all its whippings and thrashings and swoony palpitations, [Roots I] had a pulpy-moralistic excitement reminiscent of that other world-shaking race melodrama, Uncle Tom's Cabin…. [Roots II is] an expensive show-and-tell lecture about Black History and Black Pride, forlornly parading forth good intentions….

[As] drama, it's pulverisingly dull. Unlike the first series, the white characters here aren't all foaming-at-the-mouth racists, but you find yourself wishing that somebody would work up a frothy...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Janet Maslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In its seventh and final installment, "Roots: The Next Generations" changes shape. Set in the 1960's, it presents an Alex Haley who is a more complex and sharp-edged character than many of his now-famous forebears. And it places him in highly charged situations in which the battle lines aren't clearly drawn. If the earlier episodes, however sweeping, had a tendency to be black and white in outlook as well as subject matter, the conclusion of the series is something else again. This last part of "Roots" is easily strong enough to be watched without reference to the rest of the series….

[The confrontation between American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell and Haley] shows each man masking...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Michael J. Arlen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ever since Alex Haley's best-selling documentary novel (or "faction," as he described it) "Roots" first appeared, in 1974, and then reappeared, on television, in 1977, still as "Roots" (or "Roots I"),… and then reappeared again a few weeks ago, as "Roots: The Next Generations" (or "Roots II") … the story of Mr. Haley's efforts to retrace his lineage to its African beginnings has been talked about in terms of power. To "Roots" in its various forms, though perhaps especially to its television dramatizations, have been attributed the power to uplift the pride of American blacks, the power to raise the racial consciousness of American whites, the power to affect the emotions of all races through its powerful...

(The entire section is 2108 words.)