Last reviewed: June 2017
African American novelist and creative nonfiction writer
August 11, 1921
Ithaca, New York
February 10, 1992
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. Born in New York and raised in Tennessee, 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. Alex Haley boyhood home historical marker in Henning, Tennessee
Alex Haley boyhood home historical marker in Henning, Tennessee
Alex Haley, when he was in the Coast Guard
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 spokesperson 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 Malcolm X for his autobiography, Malcolm decided instead to tell his story to Haley, who shaped the material into a book. Living under constant threat of death from various quarters, Malcolm told Haley that he did not think he would live to read the published autobiography. He did, however, read and approve the book in manuscript form before being assassinated in February, 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X received the 1966 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, given for works that address racism and embrace diversity.
Even before Haley completed his account of Malcolm’s life, he was putting his talents as a researcher to work on another project. As a child in Henning, Tennessee, Haley had listened to his grandmother and other relatives tell stories about “the African,” the earliest known member of their family. The African had told his daughter Kizzy that he had been taken from his home across the sea and that his name was Kunta Kinte. He had also taught his daughter the African words for things they encountered in their life as slaves on a plantation in Virginia, and Kizzy had passed the story on to her son, Chicken George, whose father was the white plantation master, Tom Lea. Chicken George passed the story to his descendants, among them Tom Murray, a North Carolina blacksmith whose daughter was Haley’s grandmother. This family saga was published in 1976 as Roots. The following year, Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for Roots and National Book Award special citation of merit.
Some critics faulted Haley for historical inaccuracies and outright fabrications in Roots and for a popular style, and a year after its publication, Haley ended up settling a plagiarism lawsuit. Yet even his severest critics admit that his writing has intense emotional power. For example, when Kizzy is sold to another family, never to be seen again, Kinte himself, who had endured so much, also disappears from Haley’s narrative. It is a masterful dramatic stroke, as the reader’s attention has been riveted on his character until that moment.
After the immense success of both the novel and television versions of Roots—many have said that the only work of art in American history that had comparable impact was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)—a critical reaction began. Some maintained that Roots had not really changed the condition of African Americans but had merely provided an easy way for whites to assuage their guilt about slavery. Yet Haley’s real theme, and the one that unites his two main works, is the importance not of race but of family. Malcolm X, who had early been robbed of his father and mother, spent his life searching for an identity, and he finally found that identity with his Muslim brothers. In Roots, it is Kunta Kinte’s history—and the history of the family he sired—that his descendant Haley proudly presented to the world.
Haley’s later projects included the television series Palmerstown, U.S.A., which was coproduced with Norman Lear, and A Different Kind of Christmas, a novella about an antebellum white southerner who becomes part of the Underground Railroad. After Haley’s death, Queen, a novel based on an outline and research left by Haley and finished by David Stevens, was made into a miniseries in 1993 and published in book form that year; it told the story of his paternal grandmother, Queen Haley. Mama Flora’s Family, a novel written by Stevens and based on Haley’s writings, followed in 1998.
Haley was married three times. He had two daughters, Lydia and Cynthia, and a son, William "Fella." Haley died suddenly of an apparent heart attack in Seattle in February 1992. The first book-length adult biography of Haley, Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, appeared in 2015.
In 2016, the History channel aired a fairly well-received remake of Roots, which was rebroadcast on BBC4 the following year. Although some initially questioned the rationale for making another miniseries when the first was considered so exceptional, reviewers noted that the new screen adaptation provided opportunities to correct inaccuracies and modernize the story.