Alex Haley in 1974 (AP Photo)
The best-selling African-American author of all time, Alex Haley had an accomplished career that included stints at Reader's Digest and Playboy, where he profiled Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Johnny Carson, and more. He also worked as a ghost writer, collaborating with Malcolm X on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
But the real reason for Haley's top-selling status is the power of one epic work – Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Haley, who died on this day 21 years ago, grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories of life as the daughter of an emancipated slave, woven through with family history. As an adult, his memories of these tales inspired him to challenge the notion that African-Americans couldn’t trace their ancestries beyond a few generations. The complexities of slavery certainly made it difficult: forcible name changes, separation of families, bad or non-existent recordkeeping. But Haley believed he could learn more from the powerful medium of oral history.
He embarked on a research journey that started with his grandmother’s stories and eventually took him to Africa, to a village he believed to be the home of his ancestor Kunta Kinte before he was sold into slavery and transported to America. After speaking with oral historians and researching African traditions and the history of African Americans in slavery and beyond, Haley crafted a tale of generations that captured the imagination of Americans of all races.
Roots spent 22 weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Its status there was fueled by the wildly popular TV miniseries that aired just a few months after the book’s publication. An astonishing 85% of U.S. households watched at least part of the production, which earned a Golden Globe and nine Emmys. The novel and miniseries promoted so successfully the idea that family histories were accessible, even to descendants of slaves, that they sparked an explosion in genealogical research.
In the years after the novel’s first success, the veracity of Haley’s research was challenged. He was successfully sued by Harold Courlander, who asserted that Haley had copied ideas and passages from his earlier novel, The African. And researchers found holes in Haley’s story of Kunta Kinte’s life. But fans agree that, even if Roots isn’t a historical account from beginning to end, it is still worth reading. Whether the story is all true, partly true, or a magnificent fiction that sprang from Haley’s imagination, it’s still a beloved and important work, one that helped legitimize the oral histories passed down through generations of people denied access to books, reading and writing. Roots gave voices to those who had their voices taken away.
Written by Linnea Crowther