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Definition: Haley, Alex Palmer from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


US novelist and biographer

Born in Ithaca, New York State, and brought up in North Carolina, he worked as a coastguard for 20 years from 1939. He turned to writing with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which he co-wrote after the assassination of the black activist. Roots (1976) was a phenomenal success, being adapted for television and winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Beginning with the life of Kunta Kinte, an African who was enslaved and taken to the USA, this novel documented the history of black Americans, and its essentially optimistic approach rendered it accessible to a large white audience.

Summary Article: Haley, Alex (1921–1992), Pulitzer Prize–Winning African American Author and Retired U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer
from Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia

Alex Murray Palmer Haley was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. When he was only six weeks old, his mother took him to live at her parents’ home in Henning, Tennessee, while his father, a decorated veteran of World War I, finished his master's degree in agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca. Haley grew up in Henning, and his father joined them there when he finished his degree and eventually took over his grandfather's lumber company. His mother taught at the local grammar school. The boy learned all about his complex heritage at family reunions, where it was the tradition to recite all seven generations of the family genealogy.

In 1929, the Haleys sold the lumber company, and Haley's father started teaching agriculture at various Southern colleges. The family went with him during the year but spent the summers in Henning. Haley's mother died in 1931, and two years later, his father remarried. Haley was only 15 when he graduated from high school in Normal, Alabama, where his father had his longest teaching job. Haley attended Elizabeth City Teachers College in North Carolina for two years, but in 1939, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard as a ship's steward. His military service continued into World War II, when he served on several ships in the southwest Pacific.

Haley began writing as a way to fend off boredom. At sea for up to three months at a time, he used his portable typewriter to write letters to everyone he knew. Haley read every book in the ship's library before deciding that he should try writing some stories himself. When he got bold enough to try getting his stories published, however, he got hundreds of rejection letters back over an eight-year period.

After World War II, Haley convinced the Coast Guard to transfer him from his job as a ship's steward to work as a journalist. In the 1950s, he became the first chief petty officer journalist in the U.S. Coast Guard—the new rating was created specifically for Haley. He retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 after 20 years of service and began a new career as a full-time writer.

Some of his stories got picked up by men's adventure magazines, and then Reader's Digest started to give him writing assignments. In 1962, he recorded a conversation with Miles Davis, the famous jazz trumpeter, and Playboy magazine asked Haley to write it up. That became the first of Haley's successful series of interviews for the popular magazine. In 1963, he interviewed Malcolm X, and when a publisher saw Haley's work, he asked the writer to do a book on the African American leader's life. That endeavor took Haley the next two years to complete, but when the book, Autobiography of Malcolm X, came out in 1965, it became an immediate hit.

In 1964, Doubleday and Company contracted Haley to write a book about the South before the Supreme Court had declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. As he began working on the project, Haley got distracted by several minor incidents that combined to pique his interest in his family's history. It was at that point that the book project began turning into a search for the whole story of where his mother's family had come from. Using tenuous hints gathered from old relatives, records from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., census records since the Civil War, the Library of Congress, an African language expert, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library, Haley began chipping away at the gargantuan task of tracing his family line. Fortunately, Doubleday liked his revised idea for the book and supported Haley with a total of $80,000 over the years it took him to complete his research. The writer traveled more than half a million miles on his quest, eventually ending up on a safari in Gambia.

Haley journeyed through Gambia to a rural village called Juffure, where his research led him to believe the Haley family had originated. There, a griot (tribal oral historian) chanted for Haley the story of the Kinte family, whose origins were in Old Mali and whose scion was Kunta Kinte. Kinte was a familiar name to Haley, as it had been mentioned at every family reunion and described as the “furthest-back person,” and now he saw how important a clue it had been. When he and the villagers realized that Kunta Kinte linked them all as family, the residents of Juffure chanted and prayed over the author and welcomed him back as their long-lost son. It was that experience that convinced Haley to write not just the history of one family, but the entire “black saga,” in which “any individual's past is the essence of the millions.”

With his research finally complete, Haley set about the daunting job of organizing the massive amounts of information he had compiled over seven years and putting it into a readable narrative. To evoke fully the terror and hardship of his ancestor's voyage across the Atlantic as a newly captured slave, Haley booked passage on a freighter sailing from West Africa to the United States. He spent every night of the 10-day trip in his underwear in the ship's crude second-level hold, memorizing the rough boards and shifting cargo and imagining being in chains and lying in his own waste as people screamed, died, and prayed all around him.

Haley's intense experiences and extensive research finally yielded the book Roots in 1976. It was an immediate hit, and within months, colleges were building courses around it. Although some critics said Haley had done a poor job of drawing a line between fact and fiction, in general, Roots won accolades from all quarters. In 1977, the book was made into a popular 12-hour, eight-segment movie for television; its 130 million viewers set a new record. Haley received a special Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1977.

Roots was not without controversy. Some genealogists argue that Haley either misinterpreted or misrepresented some of his research. A year after the book debuted, Haley was sued by Harold Courlander for plagiarizing three passages out of Courlander's book The African. Haley settled out of court with Courlander and acknowledged that the passages had been used without proper citation.

Haley died of cardiac arrest in Seattle, Washington, on February 10, 1992. In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the USCGC Alex Haley. The Haley was originally commissioned in the U.S. Navy as the USS Edenton, a salvage and rescue ship, in 1971. The Haley is based in Kodiak, Alaska, and its primary missions are enforcing fishing laws and performing search-and-rescue missions.

See also African Americans—World War II; Healy, Michael A.

Further Reading
  • Rediger, Pat. Great African Americans in Literature. Crabtree Publishing New York, 1995.
  • Rennert, Richard. Male Writers: Profiles of Great Black Americans. Chelsea House Publishers New York, 1993.
  • Vollmer, Jurgen. Black Genesis: African Roots. St. Martin's Press New York, 1980.
  • Justin Harmon
    Copyright 2013 Alexander M. Bielakowski

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