On January 30, 1979, 130 million people tuned in to watch the conclusion of the ABC miniseries Roots. For eight consecutive nights, viewers had been enthralled by the story of a slave, Kunte Kinte, from his abduction in West Africa, up through his death on an American plantation.
The real-life story of Roots eventually led to Henning, Tennessee, where Kinte’s great-great great-great grandson Alex Haley lived before famously novelizing the slave trade. Haley departed Henning at age fifteen to attend Elizabeth City Teachers College, in hopes of following in his college professor father’s footsteps.
However, school did little to further Haley’s writing career, and in 1939, he dropped out, eventually joining the Coast Guard. There, he earned extra cash by writing love letters for his crew-mates, and learned to stave off boredom by writing adventure stories. The writing practice also led to a promotion, labeling him as the Coast Guard’s first Chief Journalist.
After twenty years of service, Haley left the Guard, and started a career as a full-time writer. He freelanced biographical articles for several years, most notably with Playboy magazine. His interviews with Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Muhammad Ali were successful enough to be eventually compiled into an anthology, published after his death.
Haley’s interview with Malcolm X proved to be especially valuable, as his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, evolved over a series of intense interviews with the legendary Black Muslim leader. By 1977, the book sold over six million copies, even though members of Malcolm X’s family and the Nation of Islam accused Haley of fictionalizing several aspects of Malcolm’s life.
After the success of Malcolm X, Haley stumbled across the names of his maternal great-grandparents while going through the National Archives’ post-Civil War records. He then embarked on an eleven-year journey, tracking slave and ship records, eventually traveling to West Africa, where he met a griot, oral historian, who told him Kunte Kinte’s story. Haley relayed the legend into novel version of Roots, which sold more than a million copies in its first year, and won a special Pulitzer Prize, as well as the 1977 National Book Award.
However, the griot who supposedly recounted Haley’s family history quickly came under intense scrutiny. Critics claimed that the old man was a well-known trickster, who conned Haley by telling him the story he wanted to hear. Genealogists and historians revisited Haley’s research, and after tracing slave records, concluded that none of Haley’s claims were true. Nevertheless, Haley stood by the story, and even donated enough money to fund the village’s new mosque. Additionally, he and his brothers established the Kinte Foundation, which collects and preserves African-American genealogy records.
Further deepening the Roots controversy, additional reports surfaced that claimed the novel plagiarized The African by Harold Courlander, published years before Roots. Despite Haley’s claim that any appropriation of passages had been unintentional, presiding U.S. District Judge Robert J. Ward said that Haley “perpetrated a hoax on the public,” and Haley settled the claim for $650,000.
After the controversies, Haley issued a post-trial statement, acknowledging and regretting that “various materials” from Courlander’s novel had “found their way into” Roots. He also acknowledged that Roots was primarily a work of fiction, rather than a true genealogical study.
Amidst the hullabaloo, Haley’s work inspired a new found public interest in genealogy, and in 1979, ABC produced the Roots: The Next Generation. The sequel, less acclaimed and lower-rated than the original, continued the family’s history and culminated with Haley’s visit to West Africa.
Roots also cemented Haley as a successful television producer. In 1980, he used that experience to parlay his boyhood memories into the television series “Palmerstown, USA.” However, the series was cancelled after one season.
Despite claiming that the fame was “nice,” Haley eventually tired of the constant scrutiny, and even walked away from a million-dollar Malcolm X project in order to escape sparring producers. He then completely abandoned the Hollywood lifestyle to return to Tennessee, where he purchased a small farm neighboring the Museum of Appalachia.
In addition to his television work, Haley completed a book on Henning’s town history, as well as a biography of Frank Willis, the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in. His only other work of fiction was the novella A Different Kind of Christmas, which echoed Roots’ indictment of slavery but failed to reach the same cultural apex.
In his later years, Haley became a noted public speaker, traveling across the United States to tell his family’s stories. Even those who decried Roots commended Haley’s speaking style, and after his death, Jacqueline Trescott of The Washington Post hailed his “deep, velvety voice” and ease at a lectern. He continued his public appearances for twelve years, until he succumbed to a heart attack shortly before delivering a speech in Seattle.
Posthumously, writer David Stevens used Haley’s writings to complete the novel Queen in 1993, about Haley’s paternal grandmother, as well as Mama Flora’s Family, which told the fictionalized story of a girl born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi.
After Haley’s death, his farm in Norris was sold to the Children’s Defense Fund, which calls it the Alex Haley Farm and uses it as a training and retreat center. His body returned to Henning, where, after seven generations, the story of Roots finally ended.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976)
A Different Kind of Christmas (1988)
Queen (1993, with David Stevens)
Mama Flora’s Family (1998, with David Stevens)
Alex Haley featured at The Museum of Broadcast Communications:
Alex Haley’s biography at Tennessee State University’s Library online:
Alex Haley’s profile at UTK’s Tennessee Authors page:
Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation:
Amy Coffin’s review of Roots for TheBookHaven.net:
Reading group guide for Root: