Posted on 02/07/2010

Photo taken on February  7, 2010

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African American
U.S. Coast Guard
Alex P Haley

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His Roots Were Well Grounded (1939)

His Roots Were Well Grounded (1939)
Alex Haley began his writing while in the U.S. Coast Guard.

[b.1921 - d.1992]
Born on August 11,1921 in Ithaca, New York, Alexander Murray Palmer Haley grew up in Henning, Tennessee, the first of three sons to Simon Henry Haley, a professor of agriculture, and Bertha George Palmer, a school-teacher. In 1937, he attended Hawthorne College in Mississippi, and then transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina, which he attended for two years. He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 and completed a twenty-year tour of duty, first as a messboy, and then, in 1950, as Chief Journalist. During the 1940s, Haley began writing short anecdotal sketches about the coast guard, some of which he published in Coronet magazine. In the 1950s, he continued to publish short, mostly biographical pieces in Coronet, as well as in Readers Digest, Atlantic, and Harper's. He retired from the coast guard in 1959 to become a freelance writer.

In the early 1960s, he continued to publish short articles, among them an exposé of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam for the Saturday Evening Post. At the same time, he began a series of interviews for Playboy magazine, including ones with Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown, and Quincy Jones. His interview with Malcolm X led to their collaboration on The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Haley's probing questions of Malcolm X and editorial skills helped shape what has undoubtedly become the most influential twentieth-century African American autobiography.

Almost immediately after his work on the Autobiography, Haley initiated research into his own family's genealogy, eventually discovering his maternal great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who, he claims, was captured in West Africa in 1767 and transported to and enslaved in Virginia. Haley incorporated this narrative in Roots (1976), a Pulitzer Prize-winning, seven-generation family chronicle that ends with Haley's own life and research. The publication of Roots, along with two enormously popular televised versions of it—Roots in 1977 and Roots: The Next Generations in 1979—made Haley an international celebrity and lecturer. An estimated 80 to 130 million viewers watched the last episode of Roots, generating greater interest in the novel and prompting thousands of Americans to investigate their own family genealogies. The novel and the television series also provoked a national discussion about the history and legacy of racism and slavery.

In the 1980s, Haley continued to publish short pieces, although most of his creative energy was directed into television productions. He also wrote A Different Kind of Christmas (1988), a historical novella about the political transformation of a slaveowner's son into an abolitonist. When Haley died on February 10,1992 he left several unfinished manuscripts, one of which, Alex Haley's Queen (1993), was completed by David Stevens.

Haley's ultimate historical impact has been perhaps more cultural than literary. Roots was criticized for its historical inaccuracy and lack of originality. Nonetheless, it undeniably sparked a popular interest and pride in African American history and in the African ancestry of African Americans.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard