Alexander Murray Palmer Haley
Alexander Murray Palmer Haley
Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was an American writer. He is best known as the author of the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921, and was the oldest of three brothers and a sister. Haley lived with his family in Henning, Tennessee, before returning to Ithaca with his family when he was five years old. Haley’s father was Simon Haley, a professor of agriculture at Alabama A&M University, and his mother was Bertha George Haley (née Palmer) who was from Henning. The younger Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the obstacles of racism he had overcome. Like his father, Alex Haley was enrolled at Alcorn State University at age 15, and a year later, enrolled at Elizabeth City State College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The following year he returned to his father and stepmother to inform them of his withdrawal from college. His father felt that Alex needed discipline and growth and convinced his son to enlist in the military when he turned 18. On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began his twenty-year career with the Coast Guard.
He enlisted as a mess attendant and later became advanced to the rate of petty officer third-class in the rating of steward, one of the few ratings open to African Americans at that time. It was during his service in the Pacific theater of operations that Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. It is said that during his enlistment he was often paid by other sailors to write love letters to their girlfriends. He said that the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long voyages was not the Japanese forces but rather boredom.
Haley’s boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee (2007)
After World War II, Haley was able to petition the Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had become a Petty Officer First Class in the rating of Journalist. He later advanced to Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959. He was the first Chief Journalist in the Coast Guard, the rating having been expressly created for him in recognition of his literary ability.
Haley’s awards and decorations from the Coast Guard include the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (with 1 silver and 1 bronze service star), American Defense Service Medal (with “Sea” clasp), American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal. Additionally, he was awarded the War Service Medal by the Republic of Korea ten years after his death
Most famous works
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965, was Haley’s first book. It describes the trajectory of Malcolm X’s life from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam to his conversion to Sunni Islam. It also outlines Malcolm X’s philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Haley wrote an epilogue to the book summarizing the end of Malcolm X’s life, including his assassination in New York’s Audubon Ballroom.
Haley ghostwrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X based on more than 50 in-depth interviews he conducted with Malcolm X between 1963 and the activist’s February 1965 assassination. The two men first met in 1960 when Haley wrote an article about the Nation of Islam for Reader’s Digest. They met again when Haley interviewed Malcolm X for Playboy.
The first interviews for the autobiography frustrated Haley. Rather than talking about his own life, Malcolm X spoke about Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Haley’s reminders that the book was supposed to be about Malcolm X, not Muhammad or the Nation of Islam, angered the activist. After several meetings, Haley asked Malcolm X to tell him something about his mother. That question began the process of Malcolm X describing his life story.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been a consistent best-seller since its 1965 publication. The New York Times reported that six million copies of the book had been sold by 1977. In 1998, TIME named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
In 1966, Haley received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Super Fly T.N.T.
In 1973, Haley wrote his only screenplay, Super Fly T.N.T.. The film starred and was directed by Ron O’Neal.
In 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based on his family’s history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in the Gambia in 1767 and transported to the Province of Maryland to be sold as a slave. Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, and Haley’s work on the novel involved ten years of research, intercontinental travel and writing. He went to the village of Juffure, where Kunta Kinte grew up and which is still in existence, and listened to a tribal historian tell the story of Kinte’s capture. Haley also traced the records of the ship, The Lord Ligonier, which he said carried his ancestor to America.
Haley has stated that the most emotional moment of his life occurred on September 29, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland, where his ancestor had arrived from Africa in chains exactly 200 years before. A memorial depicting Haley reading a story to young children gathered at his feet has since been erected in the center of Annapolis.
Roots was eventually published in 37 languages, and Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for the work in 1977. The same year, Roots was adapted into a popular television miniseries by ABC. The serial reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is necessarily lost, as many believed. Its popularity also sparked an increased public interest in genealogy. In 1979, ABC aired the sequel miniseries Roots: The Next Generations, which continued the story of Kunta Kinte’s descendants, concluding with Haley’s arrival in Juffure. Haley was portrayed at different ages by future soap-opera actor Kristoff St. John, The Jeffersons actor Damon Evans, and Tony Award winner James Earl Jones.
Haley was briefly a “writer in residence” at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he began work on Roots. He enjoyed spending time at a local bistro called “The Savoy” in Rome, New York, where he would sometimes pass the time listening to the piano player. Today, there is a special table in honor of Haley with a painting of Haley writing “Roots” on a yellow legal tablet.