Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, also known as Alex Haley, was a famous American writer who not only won the Pulitzer Prize for literature but also the special 1976 Spingarn Medal. But it was his second most notable work Roots that marks his legacy. Alex was notable for portraying the struggle of African Americans in his writings.
HIS LIFE & WORK
As an African American writer, Haley was celebrated for the brutally honest writings about slavery and made the world see it through his eyes. Roots is perhaps one of the most notable works in American literature.
Haley started his professional career in the United States Coast Guard as a mess attendant during World War II. He later rose through the ranks and in 1952 became a petty officer. He received many awards for his writing skills during his stint in the U.S Coast Guard including four honorary doctorate degrees from colleges across America.
HIS FAMILY & EARLY LIFE
Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York on August 11, 1921.
He spent his early years in Tennessee and began working as a journalist at an early age. Alex Haley was the eldest of three sons born to Simon Haley and Bertha George Haley. He had two siblings, George and Julius.
His father, Simon Haley was a college dean and his mother was a teacher. Haley was very proud of his father’s struggle against racism in America.
Haley attended the Elizabeth Howell High School in Henning, Tennessee. The school is still in operation and was renamed Alex Haley High school in 1976.
After high school, he joined the Coast Guard and served during World War II (1939-45). His ship set sail for the Pacific Ocean to rescue hundreds of soldiers during World War II. When he was not in action, he said he endured boredom, but it was that boredom that motivated him to write. Inspired by his father’s stories about their family’s lineage, he began to write stories while serving in the military.
After twenty long years of service, he left the military in 1959 to pursue writing full time.
After retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley returned home to live with his family in Tennessee.
ALEX HALEY COLLEGE + WRITING CAREER
He went back to college at Alcorn State University and earned a degree in agriculture. Haley worked as a journalist for a local newspaper before becoming a writer for Reader’s Digest magazine, and eventually became its first chief journalist.
Haley worked as a journalist after leaving the service in 1959; he interviewed many celebrities and political leaders during this time including Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) and Miles Davis (1926-91). He also wrote freelance articles for magazines such as Reader’s Digest and Playboy, until he became a full-time writer.
Haley worked as a freelance writer from 1960 to 1965 before becoming an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. His work there took him to Ghana and Nigeria, where he interviewed George Padmore, one of the great Pan-Africanists of the 20th century.
ALEX HALEY FICTION & NOVELS
He wrote imaginative and nonfiction works about African-American chronology and culture. In addition to Roots, his most famous book is ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)’. He also wrote a screenplay, some essays, and columns.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
In 1964, Haley came across Malcolm X and persuaded the activist to let him write his life story. He did an extensive audiotaped interview series with him to collect the facts for the autobiography.
After Malcolm X’s death, Haley completed The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which ultimately became a national best seller and a classic of modern African American literature.
It has also been made into a movie starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. The novel portrays the stages of Malcolm’s life from his early childhood to his conversion to orthodox Islam and eventually his final assassination in 1965.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X received an Audie Award for Autobiography/Memoir in 2021.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, is based on Haley’s lineage history.
Seeing its popularity, Roots was adapted into a successful television miniseries in 1977.
This novel is based on a family saga that traces its lineage back to the author’s own African ancestors, who were brought to the United States from Africa as slaves.
The novel was published in 1976 and procured critical recognition from all quarters. It became one of the best-selling books of all time and made Alex Haley a household name.
Haley had requested David Stevens, a screenwriter who later became a creative consultant for Roots, to complete it before he died. Simon & Schuster hired Stevens to do so; he wrote a further two novels and some children’s books as Alex Haley.
A Different Kind of Christmas
This is a short but intense novel about the spiritual awakening of a prominent slave owner’s son, Fletcher Randall. This is the story of powerful emotions, memorable struggles, and moral courage. The story successfully depicts the struggle of a young man between what has been done traditionally and what must be done on a human basis.
One thing to note is that the book is more about slavery than Christmas. Haley related the main theme of the novel to the central idea of brotherhood.
Haley used an old and traditional language style of the early 1800s in this novel which gives it a classic look.
Queen by Alex Haley
The Story Of An American Family
The central story of this book revolves around Haley’s paternal grandmother, Queen Jackson Haley. Haley died while writing this novel. So, David Stevens completed this after his death. This was adapted for a miniseries in 1993. Stevens wrote the screenplay for these miniseries too.
The novel was themed on the narrowing life of Queen Jackson Haley who was a child of an African slave and a master. The novel successfully depicts the problems faced by biracial and former slaves during that era in the USA. It was about a woman who was trying to fit in the cultures of her heritage, throughout her life.
The miniseries won a number of awards and medals. Halle Berry, Christopher Allport, Dan Biggers were part of that miniseries.
ALEX HALEY MARRIED LIFE + CHILDREN
Alex Haley was married three times. His first marriage was to Nannie Branch on April 19, 1941. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964. He had two children with her.
George W. Haley (July 18, 1940 – March 10, 2001), who became a lawyer and writer; he worked on the PBS series Eyes on the Prize with his father, and authored the book The Rebel: John Singleton Mosby and The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley.
Julius T. Haley was Haley’s second child. He was(born January 11, 1942), a professor in California at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles.
His second marriage was to Juliette Collins on January 9, 1964. They divorced in 1972. This second marriage to JulietteCollins lasted 6 years.
The name of Haley’s third wife was Myran Lewis. They were married on October 28, 1977. Haley and Myran were together until Haley’s death on February 10, 1992. They had one child together named Cynthia Palmer Haley (born August 5, 1978).
Alex has 12 grandchildren.
ALEX HALEY AWARDS + ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Alex Haley won multiple awards throughout his life span including a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy award, and several others.
He collected countless medals and honors from Americans including the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy.
Alex Haley received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his biography of Malcolm X.
He also earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Malcolm X.
Haley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Roots in 1977, which he shared with author William Styron.
He also received two other awards for Roots, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His novel Roots became one of the most viewed programs in television history and won nine Emmy Awards as well as a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. The novel was adapted into a second miniseries in 2016.
In 1976, Haley met with President Gerald Ford. Ford gave Haley his papers from World War II that were used in his book A President’s Life: John F. Kennedy (1978).
ALEX HALEY DEATH
Alex took his last breath on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70 due to a heart attack at Swedish Medical Center. And was buried at the house of his grandparents in Memphis. Even after his death, his evergreen words reverberate in our minds as he said, ‘We all suffer, if a man’s wise, he learns from it.’
FUN FACTS ABOUT ALEX HALEY
Being born to African American parents, Alex had an amazing life and had quite fun facts to share with our readers.
- Alex learned about his family history from his maternal grandmother and claimed himself as the seventh descendant of Kunta Kinte.
- He traced back his lineage.
- For years he worked with U.S Coast Guards.
- He was a dropout of Elizabeth City State College.
- He started his career at US Coast Guard as a mess attendant.
- He spent most of his pre-adolescence with his grandmother, Cynthia Palmar. It was Cynthia who uncovered their family history.
- He wrote many books including A Different Kind of Christmas Tree.
- Most of his famous books are based on racism and historically African American culture
- During his research for Roots, Haley swore to recognize the specific slave ship on which Kunta Kinte was carried to America in 1767.
- Harold Courlander, the author of The African, took Haley to Federal District Court for copying over 81 passages from his book.
HIS FAMOUS LAWSUIT V. Harold Courlander 1978
Haley’s research about Roots was always disputed by genealogists. Another author ,Harold Courlander, filed a lawsuit against Haley in Federal District Court. Where he accused him of copying phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style, and plot from his novel, The African.
After so many headlines and a trial of five weeks, Courlander and Haley settled the litigation with a financial settlement.
Haley paid Courlander around $650,000 and an official statement wording
“Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots.”
Haley defended during the lawsuit hearings at the court that he had not read The African before composing his own novel Roots. But later one of Haley’s colleagues came forward and testified that he had talked over The African with Haley around 1970-71. He also signed an affidavit stating the above fact.
ALEX HALEY GENEALOGY
There is an authentic record of Haley’s paternal and maternal grandparents. Cynthia Babica Murray Palmer and William Edward Palmer were his maternal grandparents.
While Queen Jackson Haley and Alec Haley were his paternal grandparents.
After his research for his historical novel Roots, Haley claimed that he has traced his real ancestors. He claimed that he was a real seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte. Though the accuracy of his claims was challenged by multiple genealogists.
Two specialists in African American research later revisited Haley’s research and surmised that the insistence of Haley about his ancestors was untrue.
Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates has also acknowledged the doubts about Haley’s claims about roots.
And many historians accept Roots only as a work of imagination.
ALEX HALEY QUOTES
On Family Life and Kids
“The most important thing I have learned over the last few years isn’t that marriage is hard. It’s that when you’re married, you’re happy when your spouse is happy, and if you’ve done something to make your spouse unhappy, then even if it was the right thing for you to do, you have to live with the fact that you’ve made them unhappy.” – Alex Haley
“Marriage isn’t about finding someone you can live with — it’s about finding someone you can’t live without.” – Alex Haley
“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best, to be honest, and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures, and have courage when things go wrong.” – Alex Haley
“In every conceivable manner, the family is linked to our past, a bridge to our future.” – Alex Haley
“The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle.” – Alex Haley
Once he was asked if you could rank the best among his writings and he replied.
“I look at my books the way parents look at their children. The fact that one becomes more successful than the other doesn’t make me love the unsuccessful one any less.” – Alex Haley
“Every death is like the burning of a library.” – Alex Haley
“In my writing as much as I could, I tried to find the good and praise it.” – Alex Haley
On Feelings & Reality
“It’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling like a victim, but nobody wins when you go there.” – Alex Haley
“Either you deal with what is reality, or you can be sure that reality is going to deal with you.” – Alex Haley
“You don’t spend twenty years of your life in the service and not have a warm, nostalgic feeling left in you. It’s a small service, and there’s a lot of esprit de corps.” – Alex Haley
“I think most people when you say slavery tend to see a group of anonymous people pulling cotton sacks in great plantation fields and that is largely true.” – Alex Haley
“It always intrigued me that amidst the group called slaves there were extremely able individuals, who were extremely colorful, who were powerful personalities, who by no means fit the usual image of slaves. They were people who, through their personalities and abilities, were very respected in the community where they lived by both black and white.” – Alex Haley.
Was Alex Haley related to Kunta Kinte?
Alex Haley claimed himself as the seventh descendant of Kunta Kinte. He researched for almost 13 years to write a complete novel around the history of his ancestors. But many genealogists disagree with his claim.
Did Alex Haley go to college?
Alex went to Alcorn State University and earned a degree in agriculture. He also attended Elizabeth City State Teachers College, in North Carolina for more than a year.
What happened to Alex Haley?
The African American writer who was widely known for ” The autobiography of Malcolm X” and his famous novel Roots died of a heart attack in February 1992.
When did Alex Haley die?
On February 10, 1992, Alex Haley died at the age of 70 in Seattle, Washington, the US due to a heart attack.
How did Alex Haley start writing?
He started writing to pass his time during his service days at US Coast Guard. Soon he became a full-time writer and got overnight fame through his novels Roots and Malcolm X.