Today marks the birthday of writer Alex Haley. Although he is overwhelmingly known for his 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning family saga, “Roots,” Haley completed a 20-year career in the Coast Guard before embarking on a career as a journalist, and achieved such milestones as becoming a senior editor with Readers Digest, launched the Playboy Interviews, and wrote the “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” before publishing the tome with which he will forever be associated.
Alexander Murphy Palmer Haley was born Aug. 11, 1921, into a family that revered of educational achievement. A bright child, he graduated high school and began college at 15 but proved to be an indifferent student and withdrew during the middle of his academic career to join the Coast Guard, ostensibly to gain the discipline he lacked as a student but wound up as a military careerist.
Initially a mess attendant, he turned an off-duty pastime of writing love letters for his shipmates into a serious vocation and transitioned into journalism, eventually becoming the first chief journalist of the Coast Guard.
Upon his retirement in 1959, Haley began his writing career in earnest, eventually attaining a position with Readers Digest as a senior editor. His dialogue with Jazz legend Miles Davis marked the start of the Playboy Interviews, and Haley’s follow-up interviews with subjects like American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell (who notoriously kept a loaded pistol within reach throughout the interview), Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali made the series a cultural touchstone and helped elevate that publication’s status above a “skin” mag.
The piece on Malcolm X segued into the eponymous best-seller and provided Haley a measure of financial security. Nurtured by the stories his maternal grandmother told during his childhood, he had long held an interest in genealogy, the study of family history and lineage, and began to trace his genetic heritage in earnest. In particular, he held to his grandmother’s contention that their first relative in the New World was an African brought from his native land in the 18th century.
After more than a decade of research, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” was released to universal acclaim and won the National Book Award of 1977. The book launched a media blitz, claimed best-seller status and culminated in the miniseries that attracted an estimated 130 million viewers. A true cultural phenomenon, it generated a dialogue about race unlike any telecast before or since. Its impact might best be summed up in the following statement from the entry at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website (http://www.museum.tv/):
“The show defied industry conventions about Black-oriented programming: executives simply had not expected that a show with Black heroes and White villains could attract such huge audiences. In the process, “Roots” almost single-handedly spawned a new television format–the consecutive-night miniseries.”
All this success was blemished by allegations of plagiarism. Folklorist Harold Courlander filed suit in 1978, claiming that Haley had appropriated large segments of Courlander’s 1967 novel “The African.” The suit was settled out of court.
This controversy aside, “Roots” remains a significant milestone of American literature. In addition to sparking curiosity within the African American community about its forgotten past, the movie generated interest in genealogy among all ethnic groups.
Alex Haley continued to have a prolific literary career well after the saga that defined his professional life, until his death in 1992.
A Coast Guard cutter, the U.S.C.G.C. Alex Haley, was named in his honor posthumously.