Alexander Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was an American writer. He is best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he ghostwrote, and his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Born in Ithaca, New York, Haley grew up in the South in an African American family also mixed with Irish and Cherokee ancestry. Haley's father Simon was a professor of agriculture who had also served in World War I. Haley always spoke proudly of his father and the incredible obstacles of racism he had overcome. On May 24, 1939 Haley began his 20-year service with the Coast Guard.
Read Alex Haley's interview with Malcolm X, originally published in Playboy magazine in 1963, free from the Universität Kaiserslautern.
Celebrate Black History Month with The Courier. He enlisted as a Seaman and then became a third class Petty Officer in the rate of Mess Attendant, one of the few enlisted designators open to African Americans at that time. It was during his service in the Pacific theater of operations that Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. He talked of how the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long sea voyages wasn't the Japanese but boredom. He collected many rejection slips over an eight-year period before his first story was bought.
After World War II, Haley was able to petition the Coast Guard to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism, and by 1949 he had become a First Class Petty Officer in the rate of Journalist. He later advanced to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and held this grade until his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959.
Alex Haley's awards and decorations from the Coast Guard include the American Defense Service Medal (w/ "Sea" clasp), American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (w/ 1 silver and 1 bronze service star), Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal.
After his retirement from the Coast Guard, Haley began his writing career and eventually became a senior editor for Reader's Digest.
Haley conducted the first Playboy Interview for Playboy magazine. The interview, with jazz legend Miles Davis, appeared in the September 1962 issue. In the interview, Davis candidly spoke about his thoughts and feelings on racism and it was that interview that set the tone for what would become a significant part of the magazine. Dr. 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 an interview with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who agreed to meet with Haley only after Haley, in a phone conversation, assured him that he was not Jewish. Haley exhibited remarkable calm and professionalism, despite the handgun Rockwell kept on the table throughout the interview. Haley also interviewed Cassius Clay, who spoke about changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Other interviews include Jack Ruby's defense attorney Melvin Belli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown, Johnny Carson, and Quincy Jones. He completed a memoir of Malcolm X for Playboy six months before his death in February 1992. The memoir was published in the July 1992 issue of the magazine.
One of Haley's most famous interviews was a 1963 interview with Malcolm X for Playboy, which led to collaboration on the activist's autobiography. Haley later ghostwrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm's death (and with an epilogue). The book was published in 1965 and was a huge success, being later named by Time magazine one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
In 1976 Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based loosely on his family's history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in Gambia in 1767 to be sold as a slave in the United States. This work involved ten years of research, intercontinental travel and writing. Haley went to the village of Jufureh where Kunta Kinte grew up, which was still in existence, and listened to a tribal historian 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 America. Genealogists have since disputed Haley's research and conclusions.
Haley said the most emotional moment of his life was on September 29, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland where his ancestor had arrived 200 years before. Roots was eventually published in 37 languages, won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become a popular television miniseries in 1977. The book and film were both successful, reaching a record-breaking 130 million viewers when it was serialized on television. Roots emphasized that African Americans have a long history and that not all of that history is lost, as many believed. Its popularity sparked an increased public interest in genealogy, as well.
In the late 1980s, Haley began working on a second historical novel based on another branch of his family, traced through his grandmother Queen — the daughter of a black slave woman and her white master. Haley died in Seattle, Washington of a heart attack before he could complete the story; at his request, it was finished by David Stevens and was published as Alex Haley's Queen. It was subsequently made into a movie in 1993.
In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard honored Haley by naming the cutter Alex Haley after him. Also, a barracks at the Coast Guard Recruit Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey is named Haley Hall.
Haley was also posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal from the government of South Korea ten years after his death. This award, created in 1999, did not exist during Haley's lifetime.
Alex Haley Playboy Interview Scholarship
The Playboy Foundation established a scholarship in Alex Haley's name at the University of Tennessee, where he served as an adjunct professor in the College of Communications. The scholarship provides an annual stipend of $5,000 and includes a paid summer internship at the editorial offices of Playboy in New York City where the intern will work with the top editors of the magazine and gain experience in all areas of the editorial process, including the opportunity to have some of their work published. Each year the scholarship/internship is awarded to one full-time undergraduate upperclassman or master's degree student in the journalism program who has demonstrated academic achievement, professional promise, and financial need. The internship offers students a major first step towards breaking into the magazine industry.
Plagiarism and other controversy
Alex Haley researched Roots for ten years; the Roots TV series adaptation aired in 1977. The same year, Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for the book and the Spingarn Medal as well. However, Haley's fame was marred by plagiarism charges in 1978; after a trial, Haley settled out-of-court for $650,000, having admitted that large passages of Roots were copied from The African by Harold Courlander. Haley claimed that the appropriation of Courlander's passages had been unintentional. In 1988 Margaret Walker also sued him, claiming Roots violated the copyright for her novel Jubilee. Her case was dismissed by the court.
Haley's work is controversial for other reasons. He has been accused of fictionalizing true stories in both his book Roots and The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. Malcolm X's family and members of The Nation of Islam accused Haley of changing selected parts of his story.
In addition, the veracity of those aspects of Roots which Haley claimed to be true has also been challenged. Although Haley acknowledged the novel was primarily a work of fiction, he did claim that his actual ancestor was Kunta Kinte, an African taken from the village of Jufureh in what is now The Gambia. According to Haley, Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery where he was given the name Toby and, while in the service of a slavemaster named John Waller, went on to have a daughter named Kizzy, Haley's great-great-great grandmother. Haley also claimed to have identified the specific slave ship and its specific voyage that transported Kunta Kinte from Africa to North America in 1767.
However, noted genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and the African-Americanist historian Gary B. Mills revisited Haley's research and concluded that those claims of Haley's were not true. According to the Millses, the slave named Toby who was owned by John Waller could be definitively shown to have been in North America as early as 1762. They further said that Toby died years prior to the supposed date of birth of Kizzy. There have also been suggestions that the griot in Jufureh, who, during Haley's visit there, confirmed the tale of the disappearance of Kunta Kinte, had been coached to relate such a story.
To date, Haley's work remains a notable exclusion from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, despite Haley's status as history's best-selling African-American author. Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the anthology's general editors, has denied that the controversies surrounding Haley's works are the reason for this exclusion. Nonetheless, Dr. Gates has acknowledged the doubts about Haley's claims with regard to Roots, saying, "Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship."