Alex Haley, perhaps the most successful man to employ television as a tool in teach¬ ing Americans about African-American history, turned his book Roots into a tele¬ vised miniseries that attracted a rapt national audience.
Alex Haley was bom in Ithica, New York, the first of three brothers. He grew up with not only a respectful love of storytelling, but a respectful sense of history through listen¬ ing to his grandmother’s stories while sitting on the porch in the evenings in Henning, Tennessee.
There, she would remind the boys that their African and American histo¬ ry was longer than they or their parents could remember, and richer in experience than they themselves could imagine.
Alex graduated from high school at age 15, and joined the Coast Guard in 1939. He practiced writing constantly, following the formulas of other successful writers and writing on any subject.
When he returned from the Coast Guard, he took up writing full-time, just as the 1960s civil rights movement was building like a storm.From 1954 to 1956, he was a freelance writer for Atlantic Monthly and Playboy. One of his interviews for Playboy was with the controversial Malcolm X (see no. 87).
Together, Haley and Malcolm pro¬ duced The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965, which gained massive popularity.Working on the history of one man was what inspired Haley to begin his landmark work, Roots.
Roots, which took 12 years to research, is the story of Haley’s ancestral history, from before his ancestor Kunta Kinte was captured in Africa and brought on a slave ship to America all the way through the generations to Haley himself.
Published in 1977, Roots won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a television miniseries that immortalized not just his own family’s experience, but that of millions of African- Americans.
By familiarizing 130 million viewers with the fascinating heritage of only one of the countless families who’d been brought to the US, Haley led Americans of all races to begin exploring their own family histories.
Having produced what, at the time, was the most watched program ever, Haley retired to complete only one other book before his death. The novella A Different Kind ofChristmas was published in 1988, and his biography of Madame C.J. Walker (see no. 31) was never finished.