A Tribute to Alex Haley

Feb 15, 2017

On this edition of In Black America, we listen back to a 1988 conversation with Pulitzer-prize winning author Alex Haley.

Haley was best known for his historical work, including the widely acclaimed Roots. Born in Ithaca, New York on August 11, 1921. He soon moved with his mother to Henning, Tennessee while his father finished his degree at Cornell University. While in Tennessee, Haley’s future work would be greatly influence by his grandmother, who often recited the family history at gatherings. After graduating from high school and spending two years in Alcorn State College, he joined the U. S. Coast Guard in 1939. During the World War II, he worked as a cook stationed in the Pacific. There, he began to write to alleviate the monotony of life on the ship.

After rising to the position of the Coast Guard’s chief journalist, Haley retired from the military in 1959 to pursue a full-time writing career. His first published work, an interview with Miles Davis, was featured in Playboy in 1962. Playboy subsequently published a number of Haley’s interviews including several with Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X. These interviews would form the basis of Haley’s first major work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).

After The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley’s attention turned to researching the family stories his grandmother had told him. After over a decade of exhaustive genealogical research, he published Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). In the narrative, Haley tells the story of his mother’s ancestors from their passage on a slave ship up to Haley’s own search for his past. While it was soon exposed that the book was partially fictitious, it was nevertheless a literary sensation. Roots sold six million copies in over 37 languages and won Haley a Pulitzer Prize for literature. Haley’s star rose further when Roots was adapted into a television miniseries that drew over 130 million viewers, a record at the time.

Both the book and the miniseries have been cited for their lasting impact on American culture. Though Roots revolved around an African American family, it was read or watched by people of all racial backgrounds who empathized with the main characters. As a result, Roots was credited with dramatically expanding interest in family genealogy.

Haley died on February 10, 1992, in Seattle, WA. He was 70.