This Day In Writing History
On August 11th, 1921, the legendary African-American novelist and journalist Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. He was the oldest of four children. His father was a professor of agriculture who taught at Cornell University - a position he had to overcome formidable obstacles of racism to obtain.
When he was fifteen, Alex Haley enrolled at Alcorn State University, a college for black students in Mississippi. Two years later, he dropped out and returned home. His father, concerned by his lack of discipline and progress in life, encouraged him to join the military when he turned eighteen. So, in 1939, a few months before his 18th birthday, Alex joined the Coast Guard. It would prove to be a 20-year enlistment.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941 brought the U.S. into the second world war, Alex Haley saw action in the Pacific. Actually, for sailors during the war, life consisted of sporadic bursts of action amidst long periods of downtime. Haley once quipped that the greatest enemy he and his shipmates battled was boredom, not the Japanese.
To alleviate his boredom, Haley taught himself to write short fiction. His writing skills caught the attention of his fellow sailors, who often paid him to write love letters to their girlfriends back home. After the war ended, Haley petitioned the Coast Guard to transfer him to its journalism division. By the time he retired from active duty in 1959, he had become both a Chief Petty Officer and the first Chief Journalist in the Coast Guard - a position created exclusively for him.
After returning to civilian life, Alex Haley began his writing career, first as a journalist. In that capacity, he conducted the very first interview for Playboy magazine, which appeared in the September 1962 issue. His subject was jazz legend Miles Davis. Throughout the 1960s, Haley conducted some of Playboy's most memorable interviews; among his subjects were Martin Luther King, Jr., Melvin Belli, (Jack Ruby's defense attorney) Jim Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Carson, and Muhammad Ali.
Haley's two most famous interviews were of controversial, radical figures on both sides of the civil rights issue: black militant civil rights activist Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party. When Rockwell spoke to Haley on the phone, he refused the interview until Haley assured him that he wasn't Jewish. When the two men met in person, Rockwell was shocked to find that Haley was black. Nevertheless, he agreed to do the interview. While Haley remained calm and professional during the interview, a nervous Rockwell kept a gun on the table within reach.
In February of 1965, six months after he'd been interviewed by Alex Haley, Malcolm X was assassinated. The two men had first met in 1960, when Haley had written an article on the Nation of Islam for Reader's Digest. Over a period of nearly two years, Haley had conducted some 50 interviews with Malcolm X. Some of the material was published as a memoir in the July 1965 issue of Playboy. Later that year, Haley reworked all of the material and published it in book form as The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Alex Haley continued his career as a journalist and became a senior editor for Reader's Digest. Later, he began work on his first novel - a 700+ page historical epic based on the lives of his own ancestors. Published in 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family became a classic work of literature. The novel opens in 1767, with a young African man named Kunta Kinte being kidnapped from his home in Gambia by slave traders. Kinte is brought to America and sold to a plantation owner, Master Lord Calvert, who renames him Toby. The novel provides a heartbreaking and gut wrenching expose of the horrors of slavery and shows how it shaped the lives of generations of African-Americans - and continues to do so.
Roots won Alex Haley a Pulitzer Prize. It would be adapted as a highly acclaimed TV miniseries in 1977 that would prove controversial, as it was the first network TV program to show uncensored nudity and graphic violence. The network censors allowed these elements because they were included in the name of historical accuracy - not for exploitation or titillation. The novel would cause controversy as well.
In 1978, novelist and folklorist Harold Courlander sued Alex Haley for plagiarism. He claimed that a 100-word segment that appeared three times in Roots had been lifted verbatim from his novel, The African (1967). As the case went to trial, Haley denied plagiarizing Courlander's novel, but he soon settled out-of-court with Courlander for $650,000 and issued an apology, stating that the plagiarism was not intentional. He claimed that someone had given him the text without crediting it as an excerpt from Courlander's novel. The plagiarism case would be used as ammunition by conservative critics who had claimed that the novel was historically inaccurate.
Undeterred by controversy, Haley later began work on his second novel, Queen: The Story of an American Family. Queen was based on the life of Haley's grandmother - the illegitimate daughter of a plantation owner and one of his slaves. The novel chronicled the plight of such children, who, rejected by their fathers who refused to recognize them, were doomed to lives of slavery and suffering. Before he could finish his novel, Alex Haley died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 70. His novel was completed by writer David Stevens, based on Haley's 700-page outline and boxes of research notes. It was published in 1993.
That same year, the novel would be adapted as a TV minseries called Alex Haley's Queen, featuring Halle Berry in the title role.
Quote Of The Day
"I look at my books the way parents look at their children. The fact that one becomes more successful than the others doesn't make me love the less successful ones any less." - Alex Haley
Today's video features a 1983 interview with Alex Haley. Enjoy!