On August 11, 1921, Alex Haley, American biographer,
scriptwriter, and author who became famous for his novel, Roots, was
born. Through Roots, Haley traced his ancestry back to Africa
and explored seven generations, starting from his ancestor, Kunta
Kinte. The resulting book was adapted to a television series that awakened in
Americans and in African-Americans particularly a new interest in genealogy
and family history.
"What Roots gets at in whatever form," Haley said, "is that
it touches the pulse of how alike we human beings are when you get down to
the bottom, beneath these man-imposed differences."
Haley found that three groups of people lived in every African village. The
first group consisted of the living. The
second group were the ancestors, whom Haley's grandmother, Yaisa, had
"And the third people, who are they?" asked Kunta.
"The third people," said Omoro, "are those waiting to be
born." - from Roots
Alex was born to Simon and Bertha Haley in Ithaca,
New York, and moved shortly after to Henning, Tennessee. Haley's
father taught agriculture at several Southern colleges. His
grandfather owned the local lumber company. When he died, Haley's
father took over the business. Alex's mother taught in the local
elementary school. She died when Haley was 10. His father remarried
two years later.
In Henning, young Alex heard stories from his maternal
grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, who traced the family genealogy to Haley's
great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was an African named "Kin-tay."
He was brought to America on a slave ship and renamed Toby.
Haley grew up in Henning and was graduated from high school at age 15.
He studied at State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for
two years, and joined the Coast Guard in 1939, two years before he met and
married Nannie Branch. He started out in the Coast Guard as a mess
attendant, Third Class, and in 1952 became the first to hold the title of
Coast Guard Journalist.
He began writing short adventure stories, along with love letters composed
for his fellow sailors to send to their girlfriends, to stave off boredom.
He submitted some of his stories to magazines, garnering countless
rejection slips. During those frustrating years of
turn-downs, Haley learned the basics of his craft.
the Coast Guard in 1959 to become a full-time writer. Over the next
several years, he wrote biographical features for Reader's Digest,
interviewed Miles Davis for Playboy, and produced The
Autobiography of Malcolm X, his first major work. It appeared in
1965 and had an immense effect on the black power movement in the United
States. Haley worked with the spokesman for the Nation of Islam (Black
Muslim) movement, Malcolm X (Malcolm Little, 1925-1965), for nearly two
years. From their conversations, he created the story of Malcolm X, told in
his own words. The book sold more than six million copies around the world
Haley: What motives do you impute to Playboy for providing
you with this opportunity for the free discussion of your views?
Malcolm X: I think you want to sell magazines. I've never seen a
sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people.
Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves.
The white man's primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black
people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white
man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man
is of use to him. The white man's interest is to make money, to
exploit. - from interview with Malcom X's, Playboy, May
The autobiography depicts Malcolm X's experiences of racism
in small towns, racial violence, criminal life, and his imprisonment.
"When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded
Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.
Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted
for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened
it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told
them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father
was away, preaching in Milwaukee." Malcolm's belief that he would not
live to see the book proved correct: he was shot to death shortly before it
went to press.
In 1965, Haley came across the names of his maternal great-grandparents
while reviewing post-Civil War records in the National Archives in
Washington, D.C. On the basis of family tradition and research, Haley
traveled by safari to the village of Juffure to trace his own ancestor and
to meet with a native griot, or oral historian, who could reveal the name of
Haley's ancestor, Kunta Kinte.
When Roots appeared in 1976, it gained critical and popular success,
although the truthfulness and originality of the book faced criticism.
The story starts from Juffure, a small peaceful village in West Africa in
1750. It ends in Gambia, in the same village, after several
generations. The book took more than 11 years to reach fruition.
In 1977, Roots won the National Book Award and a special Pulitzer
Prize. The book sold more than a million copies in one year and became
the basis of courses in 500 American colleges and universities. It
challenged the view of black history as explored in such works as Stanley M.
Elkin's Slavery (1959). Slaves did not give up all their ties
to African culture, but humor, songs, words, and folk beliefs survived.
The book showed that the oppressed never became docile: Kunta Kinte suffered
amputation of a foot for his repeated attempts to run away. He valued
his heritage so much that he never accepted the ways of his slave masters
and insisted on being called by his real name Kinte, instead of by his slave
As a television miniseries, Roots drew 130
million viewers, the largest audience in the history of the small screen
to that point in time. The show was aired on eight consecutive nights, an hour or
two each night. A second series, Roots: The Next Generation,
was shown in 1979. It spanned the period from 1882 to the 1970s.
The show ran in six 96-minute episodes.
Among Haley's later
literary projects were the history of the town of Henning and a biography of
Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in,
leading to the eventual resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
Queen (1993), a strong epic novel, examined the roots of Haley's father's
side of the family. The book was completed by David Stevens. In
1987, Haley left his home in Beverly Hills, California, and moved back to
Tennessee with his third wife, Myra. He died of a heart attack on
February 10, 1992, at Swedish Hospital Medical Center in Seattle.
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