African-American History Month: Alex Haley

“In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future.”

You can almost sum up notorious author, Alex Haley, in one word: Roots.  And what a word.  There’s not a black American on this earth (save small children) who hasn’t seen the series.  The book and subsequent miniseries, starring Levar Burton, succeeds at being both infuriating and inspiring simultaneously.  Having met and interviewed nearly every significant civil rights activist in his time, Alex Haley forged his reputation as a writer through his gritty interactions with these individuals in a series in Playboy, referred to as “The Playboy Interviews”.  Following his expose on Malcolm X, Haley requested the opportunity to write the prominent Muslim’s biography, which became The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.  The notoriety that followed the book’s release gave Haley the insight and courage to write his own memoir, starting at the very beginning, in a village in Gambia, where a tribal historian relayed the story of Haley’s African ancestor, Kunta Kinte.

Alex Haley was born August 11, 1921 to Simon and Bertha Haley, both becoming educators while still in their prime.  Alex, highly intelligent and amazingly gifted himself, followed quickly in their footsteps, graduating high school at the age of 15.  From there, he entered college, eventually dropping out to join the Coast Guard at 17.  He excelled quickly there, too, first as a seaman and later as an officer when he transferred to the field of journalism.  He was highly decorated in his 20 years of military service, earning American Defense Service and World War II Victory medals.  However, Alex had always wanted to write, but writing barely made ends meet.  In the first few years, Alex reported having only made about $2000 a year working 16-hour days and eating only canned sardines for weeks at a time.  His big break in his writing career came when Playboy approached him to interview trumpeter Miles Davis, to which Alex eagerly agreed.  The article was such a success that Playboy hired Haley full time to interview more prominent African-Americans, to include Martin Luther King Jr, Sammy Davis Jr, and Quincy Jones.

Following his success with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex had achieved the success he craved; the writing opportunities were thrown at him left and right.  But he would instead embark upon a more personal project: a 12-year investigation tracing his family’s history back to Africa.  Alex wanted to be sure he accurately portrayed the historical accounts of his enslaved ancestors; booking a passage back to the States on a cargo ship, he spent the duration of the journey in its bowels wearing nothing but his underwear.  His research spanned three continents and became the masterpiece Roots.  Several years later, a sequel of sorts tracing the history of another branch of his family became the novel Queen, also developed into a miniseries starring Halle Berry.

Alex’s historical novels caused a new interest in genealogy in African-American culture.  Soon, black Americans across the country, inspired by Alex’s works, began the hunt for their own ancestors, tracing their histories as far as public records would carry them.  Alex Haley’s body of work has entreated black Americans to embrace and explore their backgrounds and discover their own personal African-American history.

Roots: Breaking Kunta Kinte

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