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Alex Haley: One Of The Best-Selling African American Authors Of All Time

The Early Years Of Alex Haley

 He was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, NY, while his father was attending Cornell University to earn a master’s degree in agriculture. His father went on to become a professor at Alabama A&M, and hold other positions at several southern universities.

He was the grandson of slaves — both his grandparents on his father’s side had been slaves who had been fathered by white slave owners.

He attended Alcorn State University, a black college in Mississippi, where his father had gone to school. After one year he transferred to Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. And a year after that he withdrew from college altogether. His father decided he needed some discipline and persuaded the boy to enlist in the military. So in May 1939 be began a 20-year career with the Coast Guard.

Enlisting In The Coast Guard

He started as a mess attendant and advanced to petty officer third class. He worked in the kitchen, washing dishes, stocking food, serving meals.

He was sent to the Pacific during World War II and, with the long hours of boredom aboard ship, he began writing stories. He had a natural talent, and pretty soon other sailors began paying him to write their love letters home to their girlfriends.

After World War II he stayed in the Coast Guard and advanced to petty officer first class and then chief petty officer. He won several awards and decorations including a Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal and an Expert Marksmanship Medal.

He retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 to try to make his living as a journalist. In 1962 he conducted the first interview for a fledgling new magazine called Playboy. His subject was jazz great Miles Davis, and he got the musician to reveal his thoughts and feelings about racism. He went on to do other Playboy interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Quincy Jones, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. He also interviewed the head of the American Nazi Party, who agreed to meet with him only after he assured the Nazi leader that he was not Jewish.

Malcolm X

For his first book, he collaborated with Malcolm X to recount the black leader’s journey from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The book, The Autobiography of Malcom X, was published soon after Malcolm X’s February 1965 assassination. It became a bestseller — and later was named by Time magazine as one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

During the 1960s and ’70s he worked for various publications, including Reader’s Digest which helped to bankroll his next project. He had become interested in his ancestry, and spent ten years researching his past and traveling around the world to track down his ancestors. He went to the village of Juffure, Gambia, where his seventh-generation forebearer named Kunta Kinte grew up, before he was captured and brought to America aboard The Lord Ligonier

Alex Haley, Jr., said the most emotional moment of his life occurred on Sept. 27, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Md., where his ancestor Kunta Kinte arrived from Africa in chains, exactly 200 years before. Today there is a Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial in downtown Annapolis, which depicts Haley reading a story to young children.

A Pulitzer Prize

Haley’s novel Roots, published in August 1976, became a runaway bestseller, and the subsequent TV mini-series, which ran early in 1977, reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Haley’s book earned a Pulitzer prize, and the show won nine Emmy awards. 

An Accusation Of Plagiarism

Genealogists have since questioned some of Haley’s research. In addition, writer Harold Courlander charged that Haley had plagiarized some of his work from his novel The African. Haley and Courlander eventually settled the suit with a financial payment 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.”

In the late 1970s Haley began working on another book that traced the story of his grandmother. But Haley died in 1992 with the work still in progress. It was finished by author David Stevens and published as Alex Haley’s Queen in 1993.

Today, most historians believe that Roots is more a work of imagination than strict historical scholarship. Haley himself never denied that his book was a work of fiction, although he maintained to the end that he had found his real ancestor, Kunta Kinte, and had traced the boy to his fate in America.

Regardless, Alex Haley remains the bestselling African American writer of all time. He sparked a new interest in genealogy among Americans, and he changed the way his fellow countrymen viewed the world, and the history, of African Americans.

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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