Alex Haley (1921-1992) is the celebrated author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). By April 1977 almost two million hardcover copies of the book had been sold and 130 million people had seen all or part of the eight-episode television series. Roots is thus considered by many critics a classic in African-American literature and culture.
Haley, who was born in Ithaca, New York, and raised in the small town of Henning, Tennessee, became interested in his ancestry while listening to colorful stories told by his family. One story in particular, about an African ancestor who refused to be called by his slave name "Toby" and declared instead that his name was "Kintay, " impressed Haley deeply. Young Haley was so fascinated by this account that he later spent twelve years researching and documenting the life of "Kunta Kinte, " the character in his famous Roots. School records indicate that Haley was not an exceptional student. At the age of eighteen he joined the U.S. Coast Guard and began a twenty-year career in the service. He practiced his writing, at first only to alleviate boredom on the ship, and soon found himself composing love letters for his shipmates to send home to their wives and girlfriends. He wrote serious pieces as well and submitted them to various magazines.
Upon retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley decided to become a full-time writer and journalist. His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which he cowrote with Malcolm X, was widely acclaimed upon its publication. The work sold over five million copies and launched Haley's writing career. Malcolm X was at first reluctant to work with Haley. He later told the writer:"I don't completely trust anyone … you I trust about twenty-five percent." Critics praised Haley for sensitively handling Malcolm X's volatile life, and the book quickly became required reading in many schools. Two weeks after The Autobiography of Malcolm X was completed, Haley began work on his next project, Roots. The tale chronicles the life of Kunta Kinte, a proud African who is kidnapped from his village in West Africa, forced to endure the middle passage—the brutal shipment of Africans to be sold in the Americas—on the slave ship Lord Ligonier, and made a slave on the Waller plantation in the United States. To authenticate Kunta's life and that of Kunta's grandson, Chicken George, Haley visited archives, libraries, and research repositories on three continents. He even reenacted Kunta's experience on the Lord Ligonier. "[Haley] somehow scourged up some money and flew to Liberia where he booked passage on the first U. S. bound ship, " an Ebony interviewer related. "Once at sea, he spent the night lying on a board in the hold of the ship, stripped to his underwear to get a rough idea of what his African ancestor might have experienced."
Although critics generally lauded Roots, they seemed unsure whether to treat the work as a novel or as a historical account. While the narrative is based on factual events, the dialogue, thoughts, and emotions of the characters are fictionalized. Haley himself described the book as "faction, " a mixture of fact and fiction. Most critics concurred and evaluated Roots as a blend of history and entertainment. Despite the fictional characterizations, Willie Lee Rose suggested in the New York Review of Books that Kunta Kinte's parents Omoro and Binte "could possibly become the African proto-parents of millions of Americans who are going to admire their dignity and grace." Newsweek applauded Haley's decision to fictionalize:"Instead of writing a scholarly monograph of little social impact, Haley has written a blockbuster in the best sense—a book that is bold in concept and ardent in execution, one that will reach millions of people and alter the way we see ourselves."
Some voiced concern, however—especially at the time of the television series—that racial tension in America would be aggravated by Roots. While Time did report several incidents of racial violence following the telecast, it commented that "most observers thought that in the long term, Roots would improve race relations, particularly because of the televised version's profound impact on whites. … A broad consensus seemed to be emerging that Roots would spur black identity, and hence black pride, and eventually pay important dividends." Some black leaders viewed Roots "as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma, " according to Time. Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, called it "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Speaking of the appeal of Roots among blacks, Haley added:"The blacks who are buying books are not buying them to go out and fight someone, but because they want to know who they are. … [The] book has touched a strong, subliminal chord."
For months after the publication of Roots in October 1976, Haley signed at least five hundred copies of the book daily, spoke to an average of six thousand people a day, and traveled round trip coast-to-coast at least once a week. Scarcely two years later, Roots had already won 271 awards, and its television adaptation had been nominated for a recordbreaking thirty-seven Emmys. Over eight million copies of the book were in print, and the text was translated into twenty-six languages. In addition to fame and fortune, Roots also brought Haley controversy. In 1977 two published authors, Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander, alleged separately that Haley plagiarized their work in Roots. Charges brought by Walker were later dropped, but Haley admitted that he unknowingly lifted three paragraphs from Courlander's The African (1968). A settlement was reached whereby Haley paid Courlander $500, 000. The same year other accusations also arose. Mark Ottaway in The Sunday Times questioned Haley's research methods and the credibility of his informants, accusing Haley of "bending" data to fit his objectives. Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills also challenged some of Haley's assertions. Writing in 1981 in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, they cited evidence that there was indeed a slave named Toby living on the Waller plantation. He was there, however, at least five years before the arrival of the Lord Ligonier, supposedly with Kunta on board.
Haley's supporters maintain that Haley never claimed Roots as fact or history. And even in the presence of controversy, the public image of Roots appears not to have suffered. It is still widely read in schools, and many college and university history and literature programs consider it an essential part of their curriculum. According to Haley himself, Roots is important not for its names and dates but as a reflection of human nature:"Roots is all of our stories. … It's just a matter of filling in the blanks …; when you start talking about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth." Indeed, Haley's admirers contend, Roots remains a great book because it is the universal story of humankind's own search for its identity.
Further Reading on Alex Haley
The Black Press U.S.A., Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 12, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955:Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Black Collegian, September/October, 1985.
Christianity Today, May 6, 1977.
Ebony, April, 1977.
Forbes, February 15, 1977.