Born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, Alex Haley served in the U.S. Coast Guard for two decades before pursuing a career as a writer. He eventually helmed a series of interviews for Playboy magazine and later co-authored The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The following decade, Haley made history with his book Roots, chronicling his family line from Gambia to the slave-holding South. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was turned into a 1977 miniseries that became one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Major controversy ensued however when Haley was accused of plagiarism, resulting in a big out-of-court settlement, as well as historical and genealogical inaccuracies. Nonetheless, Roots has remained a groundbreaking work in the public imagination. Haley died in Seattle, Washington, on February 10, 1992.
Background and Early Life
Alex Haley was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. At the time of his birth, Haley’s father, Simon, a World War I veteran, was a graduate student in agriculture at Cornell University, and his mother, Bertha, was a musician and teacher.
For the first years of his life, Haley, who was called Palmer during childhood, lived with his grandparents Cynthia and Will in Henning, Tennessee, while his father finished his studies. Upon Will’s death, Haley’s parents returned to Tennessee where Simon procured work at Lane College. Alex was proud of his father, whom he said had overcome the immense obstacles of racism to achieve high levels of success and provide better opportunities for his children.
Haley graduated from high school at the age of 15 and enrolled at Alcorn A&M College (Alcorn State University) in Mississippi. After one year at Alcorn, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina. Haley had a difficult time at school, much to the harsh consternation of his father.
Joins Coast Guard
In 1939, Haley quit school to join the Coast Guard. Although he enlisted as a seaman, he was made to toil in the inglorious role of mess attendant. To relieve his boredom while on ship, Haley bought a portable typewriter and typed out love letters for his less articulate friends. He also wrote short stories and articles and sent them to magazines and publishers back in the United States. Although he received mostly rejection letters in return, a handful of his stories were published, encouraging Haley to keep writing.
At the conclusion of World War II, the Coast Guard permitted Haley to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had achieved the rank of first class petty officer in the rate of journalist. Haley was soon promoted to chief journalist of the Coast Guard, a rank he held until his retirement in 1959, after 20 years of service. Haley ultimately received a number of military honors, including the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard cutter was also named in the journalist’s honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.
‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard in 1959, Haley set out to make it as a freelance writer. Although he published many articles during these years, the pay was barely enough to make ends meet.
Then, in 1962, Haley got his big break when an interview he conducted with the famous trumpeter Miles Davi was published in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. The story was such a success that Haley embarked on a series of write-ups for the publication that would eventually be known as “The Playboy Interviews,” where Haley talked to such prominent African-American figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Leontyne Price, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones and Malcolm X. After concluding his 1963 interview with Malcolm X, Haley asked the civil rights leader if he could write a book on his life. The result, two years later, was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A seminal book of the Civil Rights Movement as well as an international bestseller, the project memorialized for eternity the life of Malcolm X while transforming Haley, his collaborator, into a celebrated writer.
Book and Miniseries: ‘Roots’
In the aftermath of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, writing and lecturing offers for Haley began pouring in, and he could have easily lived out his lifelong dream of being a successful independent scribe. Instead, Haley embarked on a hugely ambitious new project to trace and retell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. During a decade of research on three continents, Haley examined slave ship records at archives in the United States and England and traveled to Gambia, the believed home of his ancestors in West Africa.
In his ancestral village of Juffure, Haley listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery. Still, despite his meticulous research, Haley often despaired that he could never recapture the true spirit of his ancestors. He recalled in a 1977 Ebony Magazine interview, “I asked myself, what right had I to be sitting in a carpeted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he booked passage on a ship from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear. When Haley finally published Roots in 1976—in what would later be seen as part fictionalized story, part richly detailed historical account—the book caused a national sensation and went on to sell millions of copies.
A write-up in The New York Times Book Review stated, “No other novelist or historian has provided such a shattering, human view of slavery,” and Roots won a 1977 Special Citation Pulitzer Prize. That same year, ABC adapted Roots into a television miniseries that attracted a record-shattering 130 million viewers, with estimates that 85 percent of American homes with televisions saw the program. Roots, which spawned the enduring trend of consecutive night miniseries, starred an array of luminaries that included LeVar Burton and John Amos as Kinte, Maya Angelou, Ed Asner, Sandy Duncan, Louis Gossett Jr., George Hamilton, Carolyn Jones, Robert Reed, Madge Sinclair, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen and many more. A plethora of U.S. cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.”
Major Plagiarism Controversy
In 1978, novelist and anthropologist Harold Courlander filed a lawsuit against Haley, claiming he had plagiarized 81 passages from Courlander’s book The African. Ultimately the two settled out of court, with Haley reportedly paying a large sum to the novelist and his publisher and acknowledging that he did indeed use parts of Courlander’s work. Writer Margaret Walker also unsuccessfully sued Haley for allegedly plagiarizing her 1966 novel Jubilee.
However, the fallout did not end there. Genealogists claimed that Haley’s story about his alleged ancestor Kinte was false, citing many chronological and historical inconsistencies. Haley would come to admit that the book was indeed a fusion of fiction and fact.
Sequel and Remake
Nonetheless, the work continued to enjoy popularity on the screen in the form of a 1979 sequel Roots: The Next Generation, which followed the writer’s family to contemporary times. The miniseries also performed well in the ratings and featured the likes of Dorian Harewood, Marlon Brando, Irene Cara, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Henry Fonda, Debbi Morgan and James Earl Jones as Haley.
Decades later, in 2016, the History Channel is slated to air a remake of the original 1977 miniseries, with a cast that includes Malachi Kirby as Kinte, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Regé-Jean Page, Anna Paquin, Anika Noni Rose, T.I., Forest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne as Haley. The new miniseries is executive produced by Burton.
Final Years and Legacy
Haley’s later works include A Different Kind of Christmas (1988) and Queen, another historical novel based on a different branch of his family, published posthumously in 1993. (Queen also became a TV miniseries that aired the same year, starring Halle Berry and Danny Glover.)
Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992 in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 70.
Despite the shadow cast by his plagiarism controversies, Haley is credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing a larger awareness to the horrors of racism and slavery and their place in American history. While some critics have condemned Haley for his fiction masquerading as historical facts, others perceive him as a good storyteller who, despite his wrongdoings, have revealed broader truths. Haley maintained that the goal of his writing and life was to uphold the experiences of black communities. He said to Ebony, “The money I have made and will be making means nothing to me compared to the fact that about half of the black people I meet—ranging from the most sophisticated to the least sophisticated—say to me, ‘I’m proud of you.’ I feel strongly about always earning that and never letting black people down.”
Alex Haley wed Nannie Branche in 1941; they remained married for 13 years before divorcing in 1964. That same year, he married Juliette Collins; they split in 1972. He later wed Myra Lewis, to whom he remained married for the duration of his life though the two were separated at the time of his passing. Haley had three children, a son and two daughters.