Alex Haley

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Alex Haley
Alex haley US coast guard.png
Haley as a young man in the U.S. Coast Guard
Born August 11 1921(1921-08-11)
Ithaca, New York[1]
Died February 10 1992 (aged 70)
Seattle, Washington
Occupation Writer, Novelist, Scriptwriter
Genres African American literature
Notable work(s) Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was an American writer. He is best known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the latter of which he wrote in collaboration with Malcolm X.

Roots was eventually published in 37 languages and Haley won a Special Award from the Pulitzer Board in 1977. Roots went on to become a popular television miniseries in 1977. The book and film were both successful, reaching a record-breaking 130 million viewers when it was serialized on television. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is lost, as many believed. Its popularity sparked an increased public interest in genealogy as well.

The television series was a major phenomenon when it aired. Coming after the Civil Rights movement, it continued to draw attention to the struggle of the early African slaves.

Early life

Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1921, Haley was the son of Simon Haley and Bertha Palmer. He spent his first five years in Henning, Tennessee. He was raised with two younger brothers in an African American family mixed with Irish and Cherokee ancestry. Many of his books refer to his childhood friend, Charlie Taylor. Haley's father, Simon Alexander Haley, was a professor of agriculture who had served in World War I after graduating from college. The younger Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the incredible obstacles of racism he had overcome. Alex Haley was first sent off to college at the age of 15. At the age of seventeen, he returned home to inform his father of his withdrawal from Alcorn State University. Simon Haley felt that Alex needed discipline and growth and convinced his son to enlist in the military when he turned 18. On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began his 20-year service with the Coast Guard.

He enlisted as a mess-boy and then became a Petty Officer Third Class in the rate of Mess Attendant, one of the few enlisted designators open to African Americans at that time. It was during his service in the Pacific theater of operations that Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. It is said that during his enlistment he was often paid by other sailors to write love letters to their girlfriends. He talked of how the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long sea voyages wasn't the Japanese, but boredom. He collected many rejection slips over an eight-year period before his first story was bought.

Alex Haley's boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee (2007).

After World War II, Haley was able to petition the Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949, he had become a Petty Officer First Class in the rate of Journalist. He later advanced to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959.

Writing career

After his retirement from the Coast Guard, Haley began his writing career and eventually became a senior editor for Reader's Digest.

Playboy magazine

Haley conducted the first interview for Playboy magazine. The interview, with jazz legend Miles Davis, appeared in the September 1962 issue. In the interview, Davis candidly spoke about his thoughts and feelings on racism; it was that interview that set the tone for what would become a significant part of the magazine. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Playboy Interview with Haley was the longest he ever granted to any publication. Throughout the 1960s, Haley was responsible for some of the magazine's most notable interviews, including an interview with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who agreed to meet with Haley only after Haley, in a phone conversation, assured him that he was not Jewish. Haley exhibited remarkable calm and professionalism despite the handgun Rockwell kept on the table throughout the interview. Haley also interviewed Cassius Clay, who spoke about changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Other interviews include Jack Ruby's defense attorney Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson, and Quincy Jones. He completed a memoir of Malcolm X for Playboy six months before Malcolm X died in February 1965. The memoir was published in the July 1965 issue of the magazine.

Malcolm X

One of Haley's most famous interviews was a 1963 interview with Malcolm X for Playboy, which led to their collaboration on the activist's autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm's death (and with an epilogue). Published in 1965, the book became a huge success and was later named by Time magazine as one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century.


In 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based loosely on his family's history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in Gambia in 1767, and transported to the Province of Maryland to be sold as a slave. Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, and Haley's work on the novel involved ten years of research, intercontinental travel and writing. He went to the village of Juffure, where Kunta Kinte grew up and which is still in existence, and listened to a tribal historian tell the story of Kinte's capture.[2] Haley also traced the records of the ship, The Lord Ligonier, which he said carried his ancestor to America. Genealogists have since disputed Haley's research and conclusions and Haley had to reach an out-of-court settlement with Harold Courlander to end a plagiarism lawsuit.

Haley was briefly a "writer in residence" at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He began to write Roots there. Many local people remember Haley fondly. He enjoyed spending time at a local bistro "The Savoy" in Rome, New York where he listened to the piano player. Today, there is a special table in honor of Haley with a painting of Alex writing Roots on a yellow legal tablet.

Haley said the most emotional moment of his life was on September 29, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland, where his ancestor had arrived 200 years before. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is lost, as many believed. Its popularity sparked an increased public interest in genealogy as well.

In 1979, ABC aired a sequel miniseries entitled Roots: The Next Generations. The series continued the story of Kunta Kinte's descendants, concluding with Haley's arrival in Jufureh. Haley was portrayed (at various ages) by future soap opera actor Kristoff St. John, The Jeffersons actor Damon Evans, and Tony Award winner James Earl Jones.

Later years

Alex Haley's grave beside his boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee (2007).

In the late 1980s, Haley began working on a second historical novel based on another branch of his family, traced through his grandmother Queen—the daughter of a black slave woman and her white master. Haley died in Seattle, Washington, of a heart attack before he could complete the story and was buried beside his childhood home in Henning, Tennessee. At his request, the sequel was finished by David Stevens and published as Alex Haley's Queen; it was subsequently made into a movie in 1993.

Late in his life, Haley acquired a small farm in Norris, Tennessee, adjacent to the Museum of Appalachia, with the intent of making it his home. After his death, the property was sold to the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), which calls it the "Alex Haley Farm" and uses it as a national training center and retreat site. An abandoned barn on the farm property was rebuilt as a traditional cantilevered barn, using a design by architect Maya Lin. The building now serves as a library for CDF.

Plagiarism and other criticism

Alex Haley researched Roots for ten years; the Roots TV series adaptation aired in 1977. The same year, Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for the book as well as the Spingarn Medal. However, Haley's fame was marred by plagiarism charges in 1978. After a trial, Haley settled out-of-court for $650,000, having been accused of plagiarizing more than 80 passages from The African by Harold Courlander.[3] Haley claimed that the appropriation of Courlander's passages had been unintentional.[4] In 1978, Courlander went to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, charging Haley with plagiarism of The African. Courlander's pre-trial memorandum in the copyright infringement lawsuit stated: "Defendant Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African. Without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African …Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character."

In his report submitted to the court in this lawsuit, Professor of English and expert witness on plagiarism, Michael Wood of Columbia University, stated:

The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable. The copying is significant and extensive…. Roots…plainly uses The African as a model: As something to be copied at some times, and at other times to be modified; but always, it seems, to be consulted…. Roots takes from The African phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and of plot. …Roots finds in The African essential elements for its depiction of such things as a slave's thoughts of escape, the psychology of an old slave, the habits of mind of the hero, and the whole sense of life on an infamous slave ship. Such things are the life of a novel; and when they appear in Roots, they are the life of someone else's novel.

After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case, with Haley making a financial settlement and a statement that "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots."

During the trial, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Ward stated, "Copying there is, period." In a later interview with BBC Television, Judge Ward stated, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public."

During the trial, Alex Haley had maintained that he had not read The African before writing Roots. Shortly after the trial, however, Joseph Bruchac, an instructor of black literature at Skidmore College, came forward to swear in an affidavit that in 1970 or 1971 (five or six years before the publication of Roots), he had discussed The African with Haley and had, in fact, given his "own personal copy of The African to Mr. Haley."

Haley has been accused of fictionalizing true stories in both his book Roots and The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. Malcolm X's family and members of The Nation of Islam accused Haley of changing selected parts of his story.

In addition, the veracity of those aspects of Roots which Haley claimed to be true has also been challenged.[5] Although Haley acknowledged the novel was primarily a work of fiction, he did claim that his actual ancestor was Kunta Kinte, an African taken from the village of Jufureh in what is now The Gambia. According to Haley, Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery where he was given the name "Toby" and, while in the service of a slavemaster named John Waller, went on to have a daughter named Kizzy, Haley's great-great-great grandmother. Haley also claimed to have identified the specific slave ship and the actual voyage on which Kunta Kinte was transported from Africa to North America in 1767.

Historical marker in front of Alex Haley's boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee (2007).

However, noted genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and the African-Americanist historian Gary B. Mills revisited Haley's research and concluded that those claims of Haley's were not true.[6] According to the Millses, the slave named Toby who was owned by John Waller could be definitively shown to have been in North America as early as 1762. They further said that Toby died years prior to the supposed date of birth of Kizzy. There have also been suggestions that Kebba Kanji Fofana, the amateur griot in Jufureh, who, during Haley's visit there, confirmed the tale of the disappearance of Kunta Kinte, had been coached to relate such a story.[7]

To date, Haley's work remains a notable exclusion from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, despite Haley's status as history's best-selling African-American author. Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the anthology's general editors, has denied that the controversies surrounding Haley's works are the reason for this exclusion. Nonetheless, Dr. Gates has acknowledged the doubts surrounding Haley's claims about Roots, saying, "Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship."[8]


Alex Haley's awards and decorations from the Coast Guard include the American Defense Service Medal (with "Sea" clasp), American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (with 1 silver and 1 bronze service star), Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal.

In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard honored Haley by naming the cutter Alex Haley after him.

Haley was also posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal from the government of South Korea ten years after his death. This award, created in 1999, did not exist during Haley's lifetime.


  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
  • Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976)
  • A Different Kind of Christmas (1988)
  • Queen: The Story of an American Family (1993) (completed by David Stevens after Haley's death)
  • Mama Flora's Family (1998) (completed by David Stevens after Haley's death)


  • Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots (1977)—2-LP recording of a two-hour lecture Haley gave at the University of Pennsylvania. Released by Warner Bros. Records (2BS 3036).


  • Author Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, recorded a public service announcement for Deejay Ra's 'Hip-Hop Literacy' campaign encouraging reading of Alex Haley's books


  1. ALEX HALEY (1921-1992)
  2. Tennessee State University, Alex Haley (1921-1992). Retrieved August 1, 2008.
  3. Esther B. Fein, Book Notes, The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2008.
  4. Anne S. Crowley, Research Help Supplies Backbone for Haley's Book (Chicago Tribune).
  5. Philip Nobile, "Uncovering Roots," The Village Voice February 23, 1993: 31-38.
  6. Gary B. Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Roots and the New 'Faction': A Legitimate Tool for CLIO?," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1981.
  7. Edgar MacDonald, "A Twig Atop Running Water—Griot History," Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter, July/August 1991.
  8. Alex Beam, "The Prize Fight Over Alex Haley's Tangled 'Roots'," Boston Globe, October 30, 1998.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, Thadious M., and Trudier Harris. Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Gale Research Co., 1985. ISBN 9780810317161.
  • Smith, Jessie Carney. Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide. Greenwood Press, 1983. ISBN 9780313225932.
  • Wright, Donald R. "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants." History in Africa. 1981.

External links

All links retrieved June 17, 2023.


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