Alex Haley told friends he was just a writer trying to make a living. But his death is a poignant reminder that the former Coast Guard cook tapped the hearts of Americans with two monumental books that transcended literature to become cultural icons.
“Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” inspired millions to trace their family origins, take pride in racial identity and broaden their grasp of history. And the success that “Roots” bestowed on Haley, who died of a heart attack Monday at age 70, was the kind of fame usually reserved for world leaders, saints and rock stars.
Fellow writers and others familiar with Haley’s work agree that his legacy is enduring and diverse.
“A friend once told me that (the impact of) ‘Roots’ was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon,” says novelist Charles Johnson, author of “Middle Passage,” a National Book Award-winning account of a 19th-Century voyage into slavery.
Although Haley was not the first to cover the territory, his success in print and television with the story of his family’s African origin and enslavement breathed “dramatic life” into the American slave experience and made it “broadly acceptable” as a historical topic, Johnson says, adding: “In ‘Roots,’ he found a way to present history in a very popular, commercial format--not just to black people, but to everyone.”
Published in 1976, “Roots: the Saga of an American Family” established a genre, “the novel of memory,” about black life in the United States, Johnson notes.
By sparking pride in black American roots, Johnson believes, Haley played a role in the growing preference for the term African-American . “Clearly, Haley is in some sense responsible for that, because ‘Roots’ puts the hyphen there,” he explains.
In person, Haley was impressive, he says, recalling a vivid memory of Haley lecturing to one of his college classes in the late 1960s: “It was one of the best classes I ever attended.”
Beyond literature, Haley’s impact is both sociological and historical, others say.
Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, says Haley’s contributions to interracial understanding “are almost immeasurable,” adding that anyone reading his books “would be forever influenced in their thinking and their level of consciousness.”
“I think that what Haley did was put the black family in the center of the history of this country,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University in Washington.
And, Miller adds, “a considerable amount of credit” should go to Haley for raising the profile of Black History Month, observed in February. Indeed, Miller and others were struck by the fact that Haley died in the month that is part of his legacy.
Miller’s comments on Haley and history are echoed by Eric Foner, a visiting professor at UCLA who has written extensively on slavery, the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, including the widely acclaimed “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”
In general, Foner says, historians tend to regard “Roots” as a work of fiction and doubt that Haley located his particular ancestor.
“Having said that,” Foner stresses, “Haley is very well respected (among historians) for having stimulated interest (in academia) in black genealogy and history and the heritage of African-Americans.
“The whole idea of blacks having this family history was a very important cultural contribution,” he adds. “Whatever the accuracy of the actual research, American historians owe a debt of gratitude to him for galvanizing interest in the academic world--and in the broader public, which we academics seldom manage to speak to effectively.”
For Mazisi Kunene, who has been in exile from his native South Africa for 32 years, Haley made the grim historic connections between Africa and America palpable.
“He made the perspective of originating in that world very real,” says Kunene, a UCLA professor of African literature and a member of the African National Congress.
“He recaptured the journey from (African freedom to American slavery). The journey became physical. . . . He re-established the link in a very real way.”
In fact, Haley’s broadest impact may have been to impart a curiosity about the past to black and white Americans alike. Haley’s delving into his family’s history inspired many to explore their own family trees.
“We’ve lost a trailblazer,” says Myra Vanderpool Gormley, who writes a syndicated genealogical column. “He probably did more to popularize (genealogy) than anybody in the 20th Century. I think of Alex Haley as the one who took the snobbery out of genealogy.
“He made us all aware we have families, and we can find the evidence of them in the historical record. They don’t have to have been rich and famous. Genealogy had been a bit snobby up until then. Most (who pursued their roots) were wealthy or looking for an illustrious ancestor.”
Shortly after the broadcast of “Roots” in 1977, requests for information from the Mormon Church’s vast genealogical archives in Salt Lake City doubled to about 1,600 inquiries a day, says Tom Daniels, spokesman for the church’s Family History Library.
“We don’t know that we can lay it all at Alex’s feet . . . but certainly a great deal of it,” Daniels says. “He was the most prominent (influence) in turning people to their ancestry, their heritage. We can’t think of anyone else who has had an impact as great.”
Haley’s success with “Roots” was not all smooth sailing, however. He was sued three times for plagiarism over the book, a labor of 12 years. Two of the suits were dismissed; the other was settled out of court.
As for Haley’s other towering work, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” much of its impact still lies in the future. A movie of Malcolm X’s life by celebrated and controversial director Spike Lee is due out later this year. The film seems certain to multiply the audience for Haley’s book, based on lengthy interviews with the ex-convict, Black Muslim leader and political activist, who was assassinated in 1965.
If it had not been overshadowed by the enormous popularity of “Roots,” the Malcolm X book alone would have given Haley a solid reputation. First published in 1965, it has sold 6 million copies and is said to be a staple in prisons, where it is cited as an example of “the transformation of the spirit.” The book also is a centerpiece in the resurgence of interest in Malcolm X that began in the late 1980s.
The autobiography sprang from an interview with Malcolm X for Playboy; Haley was among the pioneers of extensive interviews in the men’s magazine.
While Haley’s works are likely to march on, his death brought an immediate sense of personal loss to many. Howard University’s Miller recounts that his mother called him at 6:30 a.m. to give him the news, as if Haley were a family member.
And Myrlie Evers was moved when told of Haley’s death: “It comes as a shock, a very painful shock.”
Staff writer Kathleen Hendrix contributed to this story.
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