With his epic tale “Roots,” author Alex Haley gave voices to those who had their own taken away.
Author Alex Haley (1921 – 1992) had an accomplished career. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, became a senior editor at Reader’s Digest, and wrote articles for Playboy magazine including profiles of Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, and Johnny Carson. He also worked as a ghost writer, collaborating with Malcolm X on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
But Haley is known best for one epic work – “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
Haley grew up listening to the stories of his grandmother, the daughter of an emancipated slave, whose tales were woven with family history. As an adult, his memories of her stories 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 imaginations 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 percent of U.S. households watched at least part of the production, which earned a Golden Globe and nine Emmy Awards. 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. Researchers found holes in Haley’s story of Kunta Kinte’s life. And he was successfully sued by Harold Courlander, who asserted that Haley had copied ideas and passages from his earlier novel, “The African.” 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 own taken away.