Alex Haley: Documenting History

Alex Haley, author of "Roots," 1977
Alex Haley, author of "Roots," 1977.

Fotos International / Getty Images

Alex Haley’s work as a writer documented the experiences of Black Americans from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through the modern Civil Rights Movement. Assisting socio-political leader Malcolm X write The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley’s prominence as a writer rose. However, it was Haley’s ability to incorporate family legacy with historical fiction with the publication of Roots that brought him international fame.

Early Life and Education

Haley was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, NY. His father, Simon, was a World War I veteran and professor of agriculture. His mother, Bertha, was an educator.

At the time of Haley’s birth, his father was a graduate student at Cornell University. As a result, Haley lived in Tennessee with his mother and maternal grandparents. Upon graduation, Haley’s father taught at various colleges and universities throughout the South. 

Haley graduated from high school at 15 and attended Alcorn State University. Within a year, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teacher’s College in North Carolina.

Military Man

At the age of 17, Haley made the decision to stop attending college and enlisted in the Coast Guard. Haley bought his first portable typewriter and began his career as a freelance writer—publishing short stories and articles.

Ten years later, Haley transferred within the Coast Guard to the field of journalism. He received the rank of first class petty officer as a journalist. Soon Haley was promoted to chief journalist of the Coast Guard. He held this position until his retirement in 1959. After 20 years of military service, Haley received several honors including the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy.

Life as a Writer

Following Haley’s retirement from the Coast Guard, he became a full-time freelance writer.

His first big break came in 1962 when he interviewed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for Playboy. Following the success of this interview, the publication asked Haley to interview several other Black celebrities including Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., and Quincy Jones.

After interviewing Malcolm X in 1963, Haley asked the leader if he could write his biography. Two years later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley was published. Considered one of the most important texts written during the civil rights movement, the book was an international bestseller that catapulted Haley to fame as a writer.

The following year, Haley was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

According to The New York Times, the book sold an estimated six million copies by 1977. In 1998, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was named one of the most important nonfiction books of the 20th Century by Time.

In 1973, Haley wrote the screenplay Super Fly T.N.T.  

However, it was Haley’s next project, researching and documenting his family’s history that would not only cement Haley’s place as a writer in American culture but also become an eye opener for Americans to visualize the Black American experience through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade through the Jim Crow Era.

In 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The novel was based on Haley’s family history, which began with Kunta Kinte, an African man kidnapped in 1767 and forced into American enslavement. The novel tells the story of seven generations of Kunta Kinte’s descendants.

Following the novel’s initial publication, it was republished in 37 languages. Haley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and the novel was adapted into a television miniseries.

Controversy Surrounding Roots

Despite the commercial success of Roots, the book, and its author were met with much controversy. In 1978, Harold Courlander filed a lawsuit against Haley arguing that he had plagiarized more than 50 passages from Courlander’s novel The African. Courlander received a financial settlement as a result of the lawsuit.

Genealogists and historians have questioned the validity of Haley’s research as well. Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates has stated “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.”

Other Writing

Despite the controversy surrounding Roots, Haley continued to research, write, and publish his family history through his paternal grandmother, Queen. The novel Queen was finished by David Stevens and published posthumously in 1992. The following year, it was made into a television miniseries. 

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Alex Haley: Documenting History." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, October 9). Alex Haley: Documenting History. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Alex Haley: Documenting History." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).