Alex Haley: his life leading up to Roots (part 1)

August 21, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Alex Haley had a simple idea. The stories that he had heard his family tell when he was growing up might be more than just stories. They might be history—or at least a version of history that had never made it to the history books.

Haley knew that history was written by the winners, and his family, though individuals in it had accomplished much, were not considered winners. They were Black, they were from the South, and they were the descendants of slaves. Even after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Black people were not thought to have a history. Not one worth telling anyway.

Alex Haley thought otherwise.

Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, but his mother had come from Henning, Tennessee, and Haley spent significant time there as a boy. Henning is a small community near the Mississippi River, an insignificant place where nothing had ever happened. But the stories that his family told of their ancestor who had been brought to America in the 1700s and of his descendants were a different version of the American story. They stuck with the young Alex. This was a story of America that Americans needed to hear.

In the late 1930s, Haley tried college for a couple of years, but it didn’t take, so, at the urging of his father, he joined the Coast Guard as a mess boy (cook’s helper). He was on board a ship in the Pacific during World War II, but the major enemy, he said later, was boredom rather than the Japanese. It was during this time he discovered he had something most other people did not possess: the ability and the inclination to write. He put it to good use immediately by composing love letters for his shipmates to their back-home girlfriends.

As the war progressed, Haley was promoted to signalman. As such, he was stationed where he could look down on the ship’s mail call—an experience he turned into his first story titled “Mail Call Scene.” The story was first printed in the ship’s newsletter, and several of his shipmates sent it home, where some newspapers picked it up. The story eventually became widely distributed throughout the United States.

Haley stayed in the Coast Guard after the war and in 1950 found himself in New York as part of the service’s public relations team. His writing so impressed one admiral that he petitioned the Coast Guard to create a new rating (in military terms that’s a job position) for a “journalist.” Haley was the first person to receive that rating. Later he was promoted to Chief Journalist.

Haley began sending freelance articles to popular magazines and achieved some success in getting them published in publications such as Yachting, Flying, and Reader’s Digest. An article about his Aunt Liz in the Atlantic Monthly mentioned that his grandmother had “a paper tracing her family back to a freed slave.”

In 1959, Haley retired from the Coast Guard and took up writing full time. He joined Reader’s Digest as a senior writer and editor and later moved to Playboy Magazine where he developed a feature that printed in-depth interviews of famous people. It quickly became one of the publication’s most popular items (but not, of course, THE most popular one). Haley interviewed people such as Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., attorney Melvin Belli, and Cassius Clay, who mentioned that he might change his name to Muhammed Ali.

In one instance, he sought an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell, in a phone call with Haley, agreed to the interview as long as Haley could assure him that he wasn’t Jewish. During the in-person interview, Rockwell placed a handgun on the table beside them as Haley asked his questions.

The most significant interview for Haley personally was with Malcolm X in 1963. That interview led to their collaboration on a book about Malcolm X’s life, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. It was Haley’s first book-length publication, and it was a powerfully written account of the activist’s life. The book was a phenomenal success, eventually selling more than eight million copies, and Time magazine later named it as one of the most significant books of the 20th century.

Had Haley stopped there, he could have counted his writing career as a great success. But he had another idea that he wanted to pursue. He wanted to write about his family.

Next week: The Roots phenomenon

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