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Alex Haley

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Title: Alex Haley  
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Subject: Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Mama Flora's Family, Kunta Kinte, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X (1992 film)
Collection: 1921 Births, 1992 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Historians, 20Th-Century American Novelists, 20Th-Century Biographers, African-American Military Personnel, African-American Novelists, African-American Writers, Alcorn State University Alumni, American Biographers, American Genealogists, American Historians, American Journalists, American Male Journalists, American Male Novelists, American Military Personnel of World War II, American People of Cherokee Descent, American People of Gambian Descent, American People of Mandinka Descent, American People of Scotch-Irish Descent, American People of Scottish Descent, Bancarella Prize Winners, Burials in Tennessee, Deaths from Myocardial Infarction, Elizabeth City State University Alumni, Malcolm X, Male Biographers, People from Ithaca, New York, People from Knoxville, Tennessee, People from Lauderdale County, Tennessee, Plagiarism Controversies, Pulitzer Prize Winners, Spingarn Medal Winners, United States Coast Guard Personnel, Writers from Tennessee
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Alex Haley

Alex Haley
Haley during his tenure in the U.S. Coast Guard
Born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley
(1921-08-11)August 11, 1921
Ithaca, New York, U.S.[1]
Died February 10, 1992(1992-02-10) (aged 70)
Seattle, Washington, U.S.
Occupation Writer
Alma mater Alcorn State University
Elizabeth City State College
Spouse Nannie Branch (1941-1964)
Juliette Collins (1964-1972)
Myra Lewis (1977-1992)[2] (his death)
Military career
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Coast Guard
Years of service 1939–1959
Rank Chief Petty Officer
Battles/wars World War II

Alexander Murray Palmer "Alex" Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992)[1] was an American writer known as the author of the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book was adapted by ABC as a TV mini-series of the same name and aired in 1977 to a record-breaking 130 million viewers. It had great influence on awareness in the United States of African-American history and inspired a broad interest in genealogy and family history.

Haley's first book was 1965's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration through numerous lengthy interviews with the subject, a major African-American leader.[3][4][5]

He was working on a second family history novel at his death. Haley had requested that David Stevens, a screenwriter, complete it; the book was published as Alex Haley's Queen. It was adapted as a film of the same name released in 1993.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Coast Guard career 2
  • Literary career 3
    • Playboy magazine 3.1
    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X 3.2
    • Super Fly T.N.T. 3.3
    • Roots 3.4
    • Plagiarism dispute and other criticism 3.5
  • Later life and death 4
  • Awards and recognition 5
  • Recordings 6
  • Legacy 7
    • Collection of Alex Haley's personal works 7.1
  • See also 8
  • References 9
    • Citations 9.1
    • References cited 9.2
  • External links 10

Early life and education

Haley's boyhood home at Henning, Tennessee, in 2007.

Alex Haley was born in African American, Cherokee, Scottish, and Scots-Irish roots.[6][7][8][9] The younger Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the obstacles of racism he had overcome.

Like his father, Alex Haley was enrolled at age 15 in Alcorn State University, a historically black college, and, a year later, enrolled at Elizabeth City State College, also historically black, in North Carolina. The following year he returned to his father and stepmother to tell them he had withdrawn from college. His father felt that Alex needed discipline and growth, and convinced him to enlist in the military when he turned 18. On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began what became a 20-year career with the United States Coast Guard.[10]

Coast Guard career

Haley enlisted as a mess attendant. Later he was promoted to the rate of petty officer third-class in the rating of steward, one of the few ratings 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. During his enlistment he was often paid by other sailors to write love letters to their girlfriends. He said that the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long voyages was not the Japanese forces but rather boredom.[10]

After World War II, Haley petitioned the U.S. Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism. 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.[10]

Haley's awards and decorations from the Coast Guard include the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (with 1 silver and 1 bronze service star), 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, Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal.[10] Additionally, he was awarded the War Service Medal by the Republic of Korea ten years after his death.

Literary career

After retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard, Haley began another phase of his journalism career. He eventually became a senior editor for Reader's Digest magazine.

Playboy magazine

Haley conducted the first interview for Playboy magazine. His interview with jazz musician Miles Davis appeared in the September 1962 issue. Haley elicited candid comments from Davis about his thoughts and feelings on racism. That interview set the tone for what became a significant feature of the magazine. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Playboy Interview with Haley was the longest he ever granted to any publication.[11]

Throughout the 1960s, Haley was responsible for some of the magazine's most notable interviews, including one with American Nazi Party. He agreed to meet with Haley only after gaining assurance from the writer that he was not Jewish. Haley remained professional during the interview, although Rockwell kept a handgun on the table throughout it. (The interview was recreated in Roots: The Next Generations, with James Earl Jones as Haley and Marlon Brando as Rockwell.) Haley also interviewed Muhammad Ali, who spoke about changing his name from Cassius Clay. Other interviews include Jack Ruby's defense attorney Melvin Belli, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., football player Jim Brown, TV host Johnny Carson, and music producer Quincy Jones.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965, was Haley's first book.[12] 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 ghostwrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X based on more than 50 in-depth interviews he conducted with Malcolm X between 1963 and Malcolm X's February 1965 assassination.[13] The two men had 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.[13]

The first interviews for the autobiography frustrated Haley. Rather than discussing his own life, Malcolm X spoke about Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam; he became angry about Haley's reminders that the book was supposed to be about Malcolm X. After several meetings, Haley asked Malcolm X to tell him something about his mother. That question drew Malcolm X into recounting his life story.[13][14]

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been a consistent best-seller since its 1965 publication.[15] The New York Times reported that six million copies of the book had sold by 1977.[4] In 1998, TIME magazine ranked The Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.[16]

In 1966, Haley received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Super Fly T.N.T.

In 1973, Haley 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, going back to slavery days. It started with the story of Kunta Kinte, who was 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 his 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 had continued, and listened to a tribal historian (griot) tell the story of Kinte's capture.[1] Haley also traced the records of the ship, The Lord Ligonier, which he said carried his ancestor to the Americas.

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. A memorial depicting Haley reading a story to young children gathered at his feet has since been erected in the center of Annapolis.

Roots was eventually published in 37 languages. Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for the work in 1977.[17] The same year, Roots was adapted as a popular television miniseries of the same name by ABC. 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 also sparked a greatly increased public interest in genealogy.

In 1979, ABC aired the sequel miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, which continued the story of Kunta Kinte's descendants. It concluded with Haley's travel to Juffure. Haley was portrayed at different ages by 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. He enjoyed spending time at a local bistro called "The Savoy" in nearby Rome, 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 Haley writing Roots on a yellow legal tablet.

Plagiarism dispute and other criticism

Genealogists have since disputed Haley's research and conclusions. Additionally, in 1978, Harold Courlander, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, charging that Alex Haley had copied 81 passages from his novel, The African.[18] 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."[19]

In his expert witness report submitted to the federal court in support of Courlander's claim, Michael Wood, professor of English at 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 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.[20]

After a five-week trial in the federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case with 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."[21] During the trial, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Ward stated: "Copying there is, period."[22] In a later interview with BBC Television, Judge Ward said that Haley had "perpetrated a hoax on the public".[23]

Throughout the trial, Haley maintained that he had not read The African before writing Roots. Shortly after the trial, however, a minority studies teacher at Skidmore College, Joseph Bruchac III, came forward and swore in an affidavit that he had discussed The African with Haley in 1970 or 1971 and had given his own personal copy of the novel to Haley. This event took place several years before Roots was published.[24]

In addition to the charges of plagiarism, the accuracy of those aspects of Roots which Haley claimed to be true has also been challenged.[25] Although Haley acknowledged that the novel was primarily a work of fiction, he claimed to have identified his 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. While in the service of a slavemaster named John Waller, Kinte fathered a daughter named Kizzy, Haley's 3xgreat-grandmother. Haley also claimed to have identified the specific slave ship and the specific voyage on which Kunta Kinte was transported from Africa to North America in 1767.

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

Genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and historian Gary B. Mills, both specialists in African-American research, revisited Haley's research and concluded Haley's claims were false.[26][27] According to the Millses, the slave named Toby owned by John Waller could be definitively documented as having been in North America as early as 1762. They also reported, among other findings, that Toby died years prior to the supposed birth date of his daughter Kizzy.

Other commentators have suggested that Kebba Kanji Fofana, the amateur griot in Jufureh, who, during Haley's visit, confirmed the tale of Kunta Kinte's being taken captive, had been coached to relate such a story.[28][29][30]

Haley and his work have been excluded from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, despite his status as the United States' 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. In 1998 Dr. Gates 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."[31]

Later life and death

Haley's grave beside his boyhood home at Henning, Tennessee in 2010.
USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39)

In the early 1980s, Haley worked with the Walt Disney Company to develop an Equatorial Africa pavilion for its Epcot Center theme park. Haley appeared on a CBS broadcast of Epcot Center's opening day celebration, discussing the plans and exhibiting concept art with host Danny Kaye. Ultimately, the pavilion was not built due to political and financial issues.[32]

In the late 1970s, Haley had begun working on a second historical novel based on another branch of his family, traced through his grandmother Queen; she was the daughter of a black slave woman and her white master. He did not finish the novel before dying in Seattle, Washington of a heart attack. He was buried beside his childhood home in Henning, Tennessee. At his request, the novel was finished by David Stevens and was published as Alex Haley's Queen. It was subsequently adapted as a movie of the same name in 1993.

Late in his life, Haley had acquired a small farm in Norris, Tennessee, adjacent to the Museum of Appalachia, intending to live there. After his death, the property was sold to the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), which calls it the "Alex Haley Farm." The non-profit uses the farm 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 the CDF.[33]

Awards and recognition

  • In 1977 Haley received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, for his exhaustive research and literary skill combined in Roots.[34]
  • The food-service building at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, Petaluma, California, was named Haley Hall in honor of the author.
  • In 1999 the Coast Guard honored Haley by naming the cutter USCGC Alex Haley after him.[35]
  • The U.S. Coast Guard annually awards the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award, which is named in honor of the writer as the Coast Guard’s first chief journalist (the first Coast Guardsman in the rating of journalist to be advanced to the rate of chief petty officer). It rewards individual authors and photographers who have had articles or photographs communicating the Coast Guard story published in internal newsletters or external publications.[36]
  • In 2002, Haley posthumously was awarded the Korean War Service Medal from the government of South Korea. (That medal, created in 1951, was not authorized to be worn by military members of the US until 1999.)



Collection of Alex Haley's personal works

The University of Tennessee Libraries, in Knoxville, Tennessee, maintains a collection of Alex Haley's personal works in its Special Collections Department. The works contain notes, outlines, bibliographies, research, and legal papers documenting Haley's Roots through 1977. Of particular interest are the items showing Harold Courlander's lawsuit against Haley, Doubleday & Company, and various affiliated groups.[37]

See also



  1. ^ a b c Wynn, Linda T. "Alex Haley, (1921-1992)". Tennessee State University Library. Archived from the original on 2004-08-03. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  2. ^ "The anguish of Alex Haley's widow with her husband's literary legacy dispersed, she's locked in a bitter probate battle".  
  3. ^ Stringer, Jenny (ed), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English (1986), Oxford University Press, p 275
  4. ^ a b Pace, Eric (February 2, 1992). "Alex Haley, 70, Author of 'Roots,' Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved June 2, 2010. 
  5. ^ Perks, Robert; Thomson, Alistair, eds. (2003) [1998]. The Oral History Reader. Routledge. p. 9.  
  6. ^ "Roots author had Scottish blood". March 1, 2009. Retrieved April 13, 2015. 
  7. ^ David Lowenthal. The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. p. 218. 
  8. ^ Marc R. Matrana. Lost Plantations of the South. p. 117. 
  9. ^ "DNA testing: 'Roots' author Haley rooted in Scotland, too". April 7, 2009. Retrieved April 13, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b c d African Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard, US Coast Guard Historians Office
  11. ^ "Martin Luther King Jr.: A Candid Conversation With the Nobel Prize-Winning Civil Rights Leader". Playboy. Retrieved May 1, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Text Malcolm X Edited Found in Writer's Estate". The New York Times. September 11, 1992. Retrieved June 1, 2010. 
  13. ^ a b c Haley, "Alex Haley Remembers", pp 243–244.
  14. ^ "The Time Has Come (1964–1966)".  
  15. ^ Seymour, Gene (November 15, 1992). "What Took So Long?". Newsday. Retrieved June 2, 2010. 
  16. ^ Gray, Paul (June 8, 1998). "Required Reading: Nonfiction Books". Time. Retrieved April 25, 2010. 
  17. ^ "Special Awards and Citations". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  18. ^ Lescaze, Lee; Saperstein, Sandra (December 15, 1978). "Bethesda Author Settles Roots Suit". The Washington Post. p. A1. 
  19. ^ Kaplan, Robert; Buckman, Harry; and Kilsheimer, Richard (October 17, 1978), "Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law", United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al: 1, Vol. I 
  20. ^ Kaplan, Robert; Buckman, Harry; and Kilsheimer, Richard (October 17, 1978), "Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law", United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al.: Woods 13, Vol. III 
  21. ^ Stanford, Phil (April 8, 1979). "Roots and Grafts on the Haley Story". The Washington Star. p. F.1. 
  22. ^ Trial Transcript, United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al, 1978, p. 1327 
  23. ^ "The Roots of Alex Haley". BBC Television Documentary. 1997. 
  24. ^ Stanford, Phil (April 8, 1979). "Roots and Grafts on the Haley Story". The Washington Star. p. F.4. 
  25. ^ Nobile, Philip (February 23, 1993). "Uncovering Roots". The Village Voice: 31–38. 
  26. ^ Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. "Roots and the New 'Faction': A Legitimate Tool for CLIO?", Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89 (January, 1981): 3-26.
  27. ^ Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. "The Genealogist's Assessment of Alex Haley's Roots", National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35-49.
  28. ^ MacDonald, Edgar (July–August 1991). "A Twig Atop Running Water -- Griot History". Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter. 
  29. ^ The Roots of Alex Haley. Documentary. Directed by James Kent. BBC Bookmark, 1996.
  30. ^ Wright, Donald R. (1981). "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants". History of Africa 8: 205–217.  
  31. ^ Beam, Alex (October 30, 1998). "The Prize Fight Over Alex Haley's Tangled 'Roots'". The Boston Globe. 
  32. ^ Hill, Jim (June 12, 2006). "Equatorial Africa: The World Showcase Pavilion that We Almost Got". Jim Hill Media. Retrieved June 9, 2015. 
  33. ^ "Museum staff members visit Alex Haley Farm", Museum of Appalachia Newsletter, June 2006.
  34. ^ NAACP Spingarn Medal
  35. ^ USCG cutterAlex Haley, US Coast Guard
  36. ^ Medals and Awards Manual, COMDTINST M1650.25D (May 2008), US Coast Guard
  37. ^ Haley, Alex. "Alex Haley Papers". Alex Haley Papers. Retrieved October 6, 2011. 

References cited

  • "African Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard". US Coast Guard Historians Office. Retrieved 2010-10-07. 
  • "Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award" (pdf). Medals and Awards Manual, COMDTINST M1650.25D (May 2008). US Coast Guard. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  • "Text Malcolm X Edited Found in Writer's Estate". The New York Times. September 11, 1992. Retrieved June 1, 2010. 
  • "The Time Has Come (1964–1966)".  
  • Haley, Alex (1992). "Alex Haley Remembers". In Gallen, David. Malcolm X: As They Knew Him. New York: Carroll & Graf. , November 1983. Essence Originally published in  
  • Perks, Robert; Thomson, Alistair, eds. (2003) [1998]. The Oral History Reader. Routledge.  
  • Stringer, Jenny, ed. (1986). The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English. Oxford University Press.  
  • Wynn, Linda T. "Alex Haley, (1921-1992)". Tennessee State University Library. Archived from the original on August 3, 2004. Retrieved October 7, 2013. 

External links

  • Alex Haley Roots Foundation
  • Alex Haley Tribute Site
  • Alex Haley (Open Library)
  • Alex Haley at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Kunta Kinte–Alex Haley Foundation
  • websiteRoots: 30th Anniversary EditionOfficial
  • Alex Haley at Library of Congress Authorities, with 41 catalog records
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