Today is the birthday of Alex Haley (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1921). He grew up in Tennessee, and often listened to his mother’s family tell stories of their slave forebears. Although Haley was a bright child who graduated from high school at the age of 15, he wasn’t a great college student — much to the dismay of his father, who had overcome discrimination to earn a graduate degree in agriculture after World War I. Haley dropped out of college to join the Coast Guard in 1939. He worked as a mess hall attendant, which was not an especially exciting occupation, so he bought himself a typewriter to alleviate his boredom. His fellow sailors paid him to compose love letters to their sweethearts, and Haley also published a handful of short stories and articles in American magazines. After World War II, he transferred to the journalism division, and was eventually named Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard, a position he held until he retired in 1959.
After he retired from the Coast Guard, he went to work doing interviews for Playboy magazine. He interviewed Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The interview with Malcolm X would turn into Haley’s first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which chronicled Malcolm’s rise from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. It is one of the most-read books in the world and is a classic of African-American literature.
Inspired by the oral histories of his relatives, Haley began researching his genealogy in the late 1960s. He traced his family back to Gambia, where he interviewed tribal historians. But he still felt removed from the experience of the people who had been captured and sold into slavery. “I asked myself, what right had I to be sitting in a carpeted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” he said. So, in an effort to better understand, he booked passage on a Liberian ship bound for America, and slept on a board in the hold wearing nothing but his underwear. While he wrote his book, which he called Before This Anger, he traveled all over the United States to give talks at colleges, libraries, and historical societies. He supported himself and his research by way of the speaking fees he was paid.
It took him more than 10 years of international travel, interviews with tribal members in Gambia, and endless writing on long yellow legal tablets, but in 1976, his book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, was published. A mixture of fact and fiction, Roots covered seven generations of Haley’s family, from an 18th-century slave named Kunta Kinte down to the author himself. Although Haley was twice accused of plagiarism, the book was an instant sensation and best-seller, and was awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize (1977). Roots was adapted into a 12-hour television miniseries, and more than 130 million people tuned in to watch it. It replaced Gone With the Wind as the most watched program up to that time, and it remains one of the most popular television events in American history. A Washington Post reviewer wrote: “We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.”