Alex Haley- Part 5 of 15 Black Authors
Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921-February 10, 1992)
When I was a child, there were three books that intimidated me. The Bible, Roots, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These books sat on a cabinet in a room in our home, and although I couldn’t reach them, I looked at them all the time. I knew that one day, I would reach them, but I questioned if I would reach for them.
Attending Catholic school, I learned a great deal about how Catholics interpreted the Bible. We all know that there was no talk of Roots and certainly no mention of Malcolm X. I was curious. Always wanting to know more than I probably should and always wanting to believe that I was ready to process information that sometimes I wasn’t.
I remember going home one day after school and standing on a chair, reaching for Roots. I don’t know if you have ever seen the paperback copy of Roots, but it is a thick book, and the words are so small. I remember fanning the pages in awe of all of the words, wondering what I would find in there. I was nowhere near ready to take on such knowledge. I put the book back, but I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t wait to find out what was on those pages. I wouldn’t have to.
About a year later, I was introduced to Kuna Kinte. I was excited and afraid all at the same time. I was mesmerized by so many black people on television, and the energy that filled our living room as the first episode of the mini-series came on. I had no idea how important what I was watching would become.
Alex Haley became a household name and, more than that, a phenom for black people in America. We all wanted to trace our roots, and we were all amazed that there was a possibility that this could be done with lots of effort and research. I think that we all were willing to do the work to see where the path of the unknown would take us. I know that I was. The thrill of genealogical research stayed with me for decades until I was able to start on my journey of familial realization.
A member of the Coast Guard for twenty years, Haley was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. Haley’s journey of self-awareness would find him enrolling and withdrawing from two historically black universities. Haley would later become a journalist in the Coast Guard and their first Chief Journalist.
Haley would go on to interview some of the world’s most profound people, both black and white, and many of these interviews were with none other than Playboy magazine and included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, and Johnny Carson among others.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others, found it hard to believe that Haley was able to trace his roots back so far. Skepticism turned into plagiarism accusations, and lawsuits ensued. Haley soon admitted to having used passages of another work in his story. The downfall of what was once one of Black America’s most astounding accomplishments became one of its greatest disappointments.
Believing that Haley had traced his roots back to the same village of his African ancestors was prideful and joyous. Still, for me, it would have been just as great an accomplishment if the story had been recorded as fiction instead of fact. To have an imagination that would carry your mind to a place that you have never been or seen is amazing and creditworthy in its own right. Haley’s name and legacy were shamed and remain so to this day. The mass sales of Roots will forever be marred with plagiarism, and what a shame for a man of such greatness to be remembered in such an unflattering way.
For me, it is simple. It is about forgiveness. Though I know that it is not that simple for many people and especially for other writers, I understand that forgiveness is for me and not for him. I forgive him so that I can see the masterpiece of his work outside of all of its transgressions. Alex Haley was a great journalist and writer aside from whatever else he may have been.
Thank you for your service and for planting the idea of possibility.