Alex Haley never suffered from writer’s block. Indeed, he would often write two books at a time, switching between them as his inspiration, or frenetic energy dictated. It was isolation he sought as he boarded cargo ships years after his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959 as the first Chief Petty Officer Journalist- a rating created in recognition of his literary skill. The Coast Guard now awards the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award annually. Though Haley did not enter the Coast Guard as a journalist.
Haley began following in his father’s (a professor of Agriculture at Alabama A&M) footsteps, enrolling in Alcorn State University at age 15. But a year later he transferred to Elizabeth City State and at 17 he withdrew from college. At 18 Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 20 years, developing his writing career between cooking leftovers. A career that began with drafting love letters for his fellow guardsmen, whom he referred to as his clients. Portentous of his later work with Malcolm X, Haley would take notes while talking with his “clients” and the next day draw inspiration from the sea as he wrote what he described as “successful” letters for the guardsmen.
When he wasn’t writing, Haley was reading. He luxuriated in the writing of the great men of his time. James Baldwin “could take a comma and make it crack like a black snake whip,” he said during his 1991 University of Washington’s Upon Reflections Interview, “Digging up the Root of ‘Roots.'” He went on to talk about Hemingway; “you felt the fish bite.” Haley would come face to face with one of these great men.
Upon leaving the Coast Guard, Haley was determined to become a writer. He wrote letters to the writers whom he was most influenced by, asking them for help, advice, some direction to set him down the right path. James Baldwin lived 8 blocks from Haley at the time, and he walked down to Haley’s modest home, which became more so to Haley as he sat across from this great man. Baldwin settled in and spoke with Haley as if they were old friends, which, years later they would indeed become. Up to his death, Haley was diligent in replying to young writers’ requests for advice, passing along the invaluable favor he once hungrily received from Baldwin.
Haley is best known for “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” His novel about his family’s history which became a ground-breaking mini-series with 130 million viewers, in 1977. “You don’t try to top it,” he said, “you become a spectator” after you send off the manuscript. He was sincerely humbled by his own work- by the value his fellow citizens found in it. Of course, that doesn’t preclude him from his own opinion; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, ” he said, “was much better written, from a professional point of view.” Haley wrote X’s Autobiography from notes from 50 interviews, a couple to several hours a piece.
He also interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for Playboy; the longest interview Dr. King granted any publication or media outlet. Haley had previously made history with Playboy, writing the first interview for the publication; on Miles Davis, in 1962. Haley made a career of interviews and compiling histories. His earnest approach to personal histories encouraged those around him to grant him access. He became friends with his hero, James Baldwin, and he also became intimate with both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Haley said of the two men, “They were two dear friends in that time, him, Malcolm X, and Dr. King. …The two were so similar, had you given either the other’s background, they would have become the other.”
It was this earnest interest in telling the stories of our people that propelled Haley toward greatness with “Roots.” “‘Roots’ really was about a family. And that was- it seems to me- the common denominator that made it universal.” When a book could trace a black family that far back, he said, it challenged others to trace theirs. Haley described “Roots” as providing “understanding” of the Black experience, rather than “empathy.” “The timing was absolutely a major part,” he said. By 1976 the country had been exposed to what was happening, to the effects of racism, people were ready conceptually, he explained. “People were subdued, both black and white, by what ‘Roots’ portrayed,” Haley explained, they became more interested in finding common ground. In 1991, he observed that the people had “been deluded- in historical terms.”
17 years after 1991, perhaps, in remembering Alex Haley, we should do our part in undoing our delusion, and seek out our own histories and find our way to understanding each other again.