Alex Haley’s Message to Dig into the Past

On this day, August 11, in 1921, one of the most renowned African American writers, Alex Haley, was born in Ithaca, New York. Although born on the East Coast, Haley spent the majority of his childhood in Henning, Tennessee. He is majorly known for two books now marked as classics in the American canon: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976), which later was adapted into two television series in 1977 and 2016. The 1977 show became the most watched broadcast at that time.

As a child, Haley idolized his father Simon Haley because of his success in spite of the obstacles he faced. After serving in World War I, Simon graduated from Cornell University with a graduate degree in agriculture. Haley’s mother Bertha Palmer met Simon as a teacher at the university. While Haley’s father finished up his graduate studies, Haley lived with his mother and grandmother in Tennessee. After five years, Simon moved back in with his family and taught agriculture at Alabama A&M University in 1926.

At the age of fifteen, Haley enrolled in Alcorn State University and a year later switched to Elizabeth City State College, both historically black colleges. His focus on writing did not begin until after Haley dropped out of college and enlisted in the Coast Guard at eighteen years of age in 1939. While serving, Haley wrote in his spare time and petitioned to be given the rank of first class petty officer in journalism, which was granted to him in 1949. For the rest of his time in the Coast Guard–a total of twenty years–Haley worked as chief journalist.

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Haley in Coast Guard uniform. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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Cover of the 30th Edition of Roots.

Haley retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 and began working as a freelance writer. Haley would submit articles to various publications, receiving few responses. After years of working hard hours for little pay, Haley was assigned his big break when Playboy Magazine asked him to conduct interviews on prominent figures during the Civil Rights Movement. One of the figures Haley interviewed during this time was Malcolm X, with whom he conducted over fifty interviews. Inspired by Malcolm X’s story, Haley asked if he could write his autobiography, which was later published as The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley in 1965. The book received wide acclaim as well as disapproval throughout the U.S. for its humanizing tale of how Malcolm X went from being a criminal to a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and Black Power. Haley won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for the book and TIME Magazine ranked it as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

​After Haley’s big break, he began research for his 1976 publication, Roots, which consisted of digging deep into the ancestry of his family lineage. The novel tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who Haley believed to be his first ancestor brought on to American soil. Haley traces Kinte’s history starting from Gambia, through the Middle Passage and slavery, following his descendants through the decades, ending with himself. He tells the story of his ancestors, while also adding other accounts about slaves, making the novel a work of both fact and fiction, a genre he called “faction.” As the first novel tracing an African American’s history, the novel received critical acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and is currently published in over thirty seven languages. At the time of its publication, it remained number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for twenty two weeks. Its adaptation into a television series by ABC that same year revolutionized what the American population thought about African American history and humanized the history of enslaved people. It quickly garnered attention and became the most watched televised series of that era. 

Today, the Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center, built in 2009, recounts and highlights Haley’s progression from childhood into adulthood through his passing on February 10, 1992. The museum hosts various events, including a genealogy series that encourages visitors to trace their own family tree. There is also a collection of Haley’s personal works is held at The University of Tennessee. Haley inspired countless of African Americans to pursue knowledge of the history which was erased. His writings were intended to help blacks in the U.S. take hold of their history and use it for a more just future. In his own words, “My fondest hope is that ‘Roots’ may start black, white, brown, red, yellow people digging back for their own roots. Man, that would make me feel 90 feet tall.”

1 reply
  1. stephani lewis
    stephani lewis says:

    It will never cease to amaze me when I read and absorb all of the achievements of the great Black men and women who came before us. As a mother of four, from college freshman to first grade, my priority has always been to teach our Black history forward, with the non-negotiable understanding that the privilege they have been given must be repaid to our communities. While most of us will never achieve the recognition of Arthur Ashe, we can achieve what he embodied in courage and grace. ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ Well done.

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