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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Alex Haley

Haley as a young man in the U.S. Coast Guard 

Alex Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was an African-American writer. He is best known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Early life

Haley was born in Ithaca, New York on August 11, 1921, and was the oldest of three brothers and a sister. Haley lived with his family in Henning, Tennessee before he returned to Ithaca with his family when he was five years old. Haley's father was a professor of agriculture at Cornell University, and a decorated World War I veteran. The younger Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the incredible obstacles of racism he had overcome. Alex Haley was enrolled at Alcorn State University at age 15. Two years later he returned to his parents to inform them of his withdrawal from college. 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 twenty-year enlistment with the Coast Guard.

He enlisted as a mess attendant and then became a Petty Officer Third Class in the rate of Steward, one of the few rates open to African Americans at that time. His Coast Guard service number was 212-548. 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.

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 rating of Journalist. He later advanced to Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959. He was the first Chief Journalist in the Coast Guard, the rating having been expressly created for him in recognition of his literary ability.

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.

Writing career

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

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

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 and it was that interview that set the tone for what became a significant feature of the magazine. 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 remained calm and professional during the interview, even though Rockwell kept a handgun on the table throughout it. Haley also interviewed Muhammad Ali, who spoke about changing his name from Cassius Clay. 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 just weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965, was Haley's first book. It describes the trajectory of Malcolm X's life from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam to his conversion to Sunni Islam. It also outlines Malcolm X's philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Haley wrote an epilogue to the book summarizing the end of Malcolm X's life, including his assassination in New York's Audubon Ballroom.

Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X based on more than 50 in-depth interviews he conducted with Malcolm X between 1963 and the activist's February 1965 assassination. The two men first met in 1960 when Haley wrote an article about the Nation of Islam for Reader's Digest. They met again when Haley interviewed Malcolm X for Playboy.

The first interviews for the autobiography frustrated Haley. Rather than talk about his own life, Malcolm X spoke about Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Haley's reminders that the book was supposed to be about Malcolm X, not Muhammed or the Nation of Islam, angered the activist. After several meetings, Haley asked Malcolm X to tell him something about his mother. That question began the process of Malcolm X describing his life story.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been a consistent best-seller since its 1965 publication. The New York Times reported that six million copies of the book had been sold by 1977. In 1998, Time named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Super Fly T.N.T.

In 1973, Haley co-wrote his only screenplay, Super Fly T.N.T.. The film starred and was directed by Ron O'Neal.


In 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based on his family's history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in The 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. Haley also traced the records of the ship, The Lord Ligonier, which he said carried his ancestor to America.

Haley has stated that the most emotional moment of his life occurred on September 29, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland where his ancestor had arrived from Africa in chains exactly 200 years before.

Roots was eventually published in 37 languages, and Haley won a Special Award for the work in 1977 from the Pulitzer Board. Roots was also adapted into a popular television miniseries that year. The serial reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is necessarily lost, as many believed. Its popularity sparked an increased public interest in genealogy, as well.

In 1979, ABC aired the sequel miniseries Roots: The Next Generations, which continued the story of Kunta Kinte's descendants, concluding with Haley's arrival in Juffure. 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.

Haley was briefly a "writer in residence" at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he began work on Roots. Many of the locals remember Haley fondly. He enjoyed spending time at a local bistro called "The Savoy" in Rome, New York, where he would sometimes pass the time listening 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.

Genealogists have since disputed Haley's research and conclusions, and Haley made an out-of-court settlement with Harold Courlander, who had sued him for plagiarism.

A village elder of Juffure is said to have commented to a visiting engineer in 1983 that Haley had taken what the Juffure people had provided, made himself a lot of money with it, but had never returned to Juffure or helped the village in any way.

Later years

USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39)

In the late 1970s, 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 with the story unfinished and was buried beside his childhood home in Henning, Tennessee. At his request, it was finished by David Stevens and was published as Alex Haley's Queen; it was subsequently made into a movie in 1993.

Late in his life, Haley had 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.

Alex Haley's grave beside his boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee (2010)

The main galley at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma at Petaluma, CA is named "Haley Hall" in his honor.

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 medal, created in 1951, was not authorized for wear by U.S Armed Forces personnel until 1999.

Other criticism

Alex Haley spent ten years researching his heritage for his historical novel, Roots, which in 1977 was adapted as a TV miniseries, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize and the Spingarn Medal for the book. A year later his reputation was marred by an accusation of plagiarism. In 1978, author Harold Courlander charged in federal court that Haley, the author of Roots, had used a 100-word segment from his novel. After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case, with Haley making a financial settlement of $650,000,. Haley denied plagiarism but conceded that three brief passages in his book had apparently come from Courlander's and said somebody had probably given the passages to him without attributing them to The African. He issued a statement that "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots."

In addition, the accuracy of those aspects of Roots which Haley claimed to be true has also been challenged. Although Haley acknowledged the novel was primarily a work of fiction, he did claim that he had identified his actual ancestor in the person of 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.

However, genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and historian Gary B. Mills revisited Haley's research and concluded that those claims of Haley's were false. 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.

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

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."


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