Today is the birthday (1921) of Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, an African-American writer who came to prominence for his 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family which ABC adapted as a television miniseries of the same name, aired in 1977 to a record-breaking audience of 130 million viewers. I knew him better for his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965, a collaboration through numerous lengthy interviews with Malcolm and published after his murder. Prior to the release of the book, Malcolm was grossly mischaracterized in the media, and I, like most of my contemporaries, had no idea about his life story. I’d say that Haley was a complex mixture of astute writer, huckster, and innocent.
Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, the oldest of three brothers and a half-sister. Haley’s father was Simon Haley, a professor of agriculture at Alabama A&M University, and his mother was Bertha George Haley (née Palmer). Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the obstacles of racism he had overcome. Haley was enrolled at age 15 in Alcorn State University, a historically black college in Mississippi and, a year later, enrolled at Elizabeth City State College, also historically black, in North Carolina. The following year he returned to his father and stepmother to tell them he had withdrawn from college. His father felt that Alex needed discipline and growth, and convinced him to enlist in the military when he turned 18. On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began what became a 20-year career in the United States Coast Guard.
Haley enlisted as a mess attendant. Later he was promoted 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 how to write stories. During his enlistment other sailors often paid him 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 boredom. After World War II, Haley petitioned the U.S. Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism. 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 rank 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.
After retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard, Haley began another phase of his journalism career. He eventually became a senior editor for Reader’s Digest magazine. It was his interviews for Playboy magazine that earned him notoriety. His first elicited candid comments from jazz musician Miles Davis about his thoughts and feelings on racism that appeared in Playboy’s September 1962 issue. That interview set the tone for what became a significant feature of the magazine. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Playboy interview with Haley was the longest he ever granted to any publication.
Throughout the 1960s Haley was responsible for some of the magazine’s most notable interviews, including one with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party. He agreed to meet with Haley only after gaining assurance from the writer that he was not Jewish. Haley remained professional during the interview, although Rockwell kept a handgun on the table throughout it. (The interview was recreated in Roots: The Next Generations, with James Earl Jones as Haley and Marlon Brando as Rockwell.) Haley also interviewed Muhammad Ali, who spoke about changing his name from Cassius Clay. Other interviews include Jack Ruby’s defense attorney Melvin Belli, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., football player Jim Brown, TV host Johnny Carson, and music producer Quincy Jones.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) was Haley’s first book (although at the time he was not credited). It describes the trajectory of Malcolm’s life from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam to his conversion to Sunni Islam. It also outlines Malcolm’s philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Haley wrote an epilogue to the book summarizing the end of Malcolm’s life, including his assassination in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. The book was based on more than 50 in-depth interviews he conducted with Malcolm between 1963 and his murder in February 1965 https://www.bookofdaystales.com/malcolm-x/ . The two men had 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 for Playboy.
In 1976 Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based on his family’s history, going back to slavery days. It started 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 his work on the novel involved twelve years of research, intercontinental travel, and writing. He went to the village of Juffure, where Kunta Kinte grew up and listened to a tribal historian (griot) 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 the Americas. Unfortunately, large sections of Roots were plagiarized, and the research is sketchy – at best.
Roots faced two lawsuits that charged plagiarism and copyright infringement. The lawsuit brought by Margaret Walker was dismissed, but Harold Courlander’s suit was successful. Courlander’s novel The African describes an African boy who is captured by slave traders, follows him across the Atlantic on a slave ship, and describes his attempts to hold on to his African traditions on a plantation in America. Haley admitted that some passages from The African had made it into Roots, settling the case out of court in 1978 and paying Courlander $650,000.
Genealogists have also disputed Haley’s research and conclusions in Roots. The Gambian griot turned out not to be a real griot, and the story of Kunta Kinte appears to have been a case of circular reporting, in which Haley’s own words were repeated back to him. None of the written records in Virginia and North Carolina line up with the Roots story until after the Civil War. Some elements of Haley’s family story can be found in the written records, but the genealogy going back to Africa is entirely unverified.
Although Roots has only a passing resemblance to actual history, it did trigger an interest in genealogical research in the African-American community, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X turned the spotlight on the many ways in which the African-American community hurt itself – especially when it came to diet. The Nation of Islam owned restaurants that followed some of the tenets of Halal cooking – including a prohibition against eating pork – and advocated a healthier diet than the proverbial soul food. Bean pie was a much loved favorite. This recipe makes two pies.
Bean Pie Recipe
2 cups cooked navy beans (cooked)
1 stick butter
1 14-oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp flour
2 cups sugar
2 tbsp vanilla
2 pie shells
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place the beans, butter, milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon, and flour in a food processor and process on medium speed for 2 minutes. Mix in the sugar and vanilla and stir well.
Pour the mix into pie shells and bake for around an hour until golden brown. Check the filling periodically with a toothpick inserted into the center.