HALEY, ALEX

U.S. Writer

Alex Haley, an African American writer, is best known for as the author of the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, from which two television miniseries, Roots and Roots II, were adapted. The novels, loosely based on Haley's own family, presented an interpretation of the journey of African Americans from their homeland to the United States and their subsequent search for freedom and dignity. The novel was published in 1976, when the United States was celebrating it's bicentennial.

During the last week of January 1977 the first Roots miniseries was aired by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Its phenomenal success surprised everyone, including Haley and the network executives who had "dumped" the program into one week, fearing the subject matter would not attract an audience. Instead Roots garnered one of the largest audiences for dramatic television in the U.S. history of the medium, averaging a 44.9 rating and a 66 share.

The success of Roots went far beyond attracting a large audience, however. The miniseries and Alex Haley, became a cause célèbre. In a cover story, Time magazine reported that restaurant and shop owners saw profits decline when the series was on the air. The report noted that bartenders were able to keep customers only by turning the channel selector away from basketball and hockey and tuning instead to those stations carrying Roots. Parents named their newborn after characters in the series, especially the lead charater, Kunta Kinte.

The airing of Roots raised issues about the effects of television. There were debates about whether the television series would ease race relations or exacerbate them. A Time magazine article explained that "Many observers feel that the TV series left whites with a more sympathetic view of blacks by giving them a greater appreciation of black history." The same article reported that white junior high school students were harrassing African Americans and that black youths assualted four white youths in Detroit while chanting, "Roots, roots, roots."

Haley began his writing career through assignments from Reader's Digest and Playboy magazine, where he conducted interviews. During this time he met Malcolm X, then one of the followers of Elija Mohamad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Later Haley was asked by Malcom X to write his life's story. The result of that collaboration, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published in 1965 and sold six million copies.

Roots, Haley's next bestseller, was a fictionalized version of his own search for his ancestral past, which led him to the African village of Juffure, in Gambia. Haley described Roots as "faction," a combination of fact and fiction. Although criticized by some for taking too many liberties in the telling of his journey into his ancestral past, Haley maintained that "Roots is intended to convey a symbolic history of a people."

In the 1980s Leslie Fishbein reviewed previous studies concerned with the innaccuracies found in both the book and television series and noted that Haley glossed over the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. Fishbein also analyzed an inherent contradiction in Haley's work--it centers on the family as an independent unit that isolates itself from the rest of the community and is thus unable effectively to fight the forces of slavery and racism.

Debates about Roots continued into the 1990s. Researchers Tucker and Shah have argued that the production of Roots by a predominantly white group led to decisions that resulted in an interpretation of race in the United States reflecting an Anglo-American rather than an African-American perspective. They also criticized the television version of Roots for transforming the African-American experience in the United States into an "immigrant" story, a narrative model in which slavery becomes a hardship, much like the hardships of other immigrant groups, which a people must experience before taking their place along side full-fledged citizens. When slavery is simplified in this fashion and stripped of its context as a creation of social, economic and political forces, those who experience salvery are also stripped of their humanity.

The tremendous success of Roots, can only be appreciated within its social context. The United States was moving away from what have come to be known as the "turbulent 60s" into a era when threats from outside forces, both real and imagined, such as the Middle Eastern Oil Cartel, and instability in Central America, especially Nicaragua, contributed to the need for a closing of ranks.

On one level, then, the program served as a symbolic ritual that helped bring African-Americans into the national community. At another, more practical level, it represents the recognition on the part of television executives that the African-American community had become a significant and integral part of the larger mass audience. As Wilson and Gutierrez have written, "In the 1970s, mass-audience advertising in the United States became more racially integrated than in any time in the nation's history." These writers point out that during this time blacks could be seen much more frequently in television commercials.

The importance of Alex Haley and the impact of his work on television history should not be underestimated. To fully appreciate the contribution he made to medium, the African-American community and the country, his work must be examined within a context of changing demographics, historical events at home and abroad and, most important, the centuries-long struggle of a people to be recognized as full-fledged members of the national community.

-Raul D. Tovares

 


Alex Haley

ALEX (PALMER) HALEY. Born in Ithaca, New York, U.S.A., 11 August, 1921. Attended Elizabeth City Teachers College, North Carolina, 1936-37. Married 1) Nannie Branch, 1941 (divorced, 1964); children: Lydia Ann and William Alexander; 2) Juliette Collins, 1964; children: Cynthia Gertrude. Served in the U.S. Coast Guard 1939-59, ship's cook during World War II, and chief journalist. On retirement from the Coast Guard, became fulltime writer, contributing stories, articles, and interviews to Playboy, Harper's, Atlantic, and Reader's Digest; based on interviews, wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965; author, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, 1976, which was adapted as television miniseries, 1977; wrote A Different Kind of Christmas, 1988. Recipient: Pulitzer Prize, 1977. Died in Seattle, Washington, 10 February 1992.

TELEVISION

1977 Roots
1980 Palmerstown, U.S.A. (producer)
1993 Alex Haley's Queen

PUBLICATIONS

With Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

Roots. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976.

A Different Kind of Christmas. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Alex Haley's Queen: The Story of an American Family. New York: Morrow, 1993.

The Playboy Interviews. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

FURTHER READING

Dates, Jannette L. "Commercial Television." In Dates, Jannette, and William Barlow, editors. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990.

"Family Ties." The New Yorker (New York), 26 October 1992.

Fishbein, Leslie. "Roots: Docudrama and the Interpretation of History" In, O'Connor, John E., editor. American History, American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Ungar, 1983.

Gonzalez, Doreen. Alex Haley: Author of Roots. Hillside, New Jersey: Enslow, 1994.

Greenfield, Meg. "Uncle Tom's Roots." Newsweek (New York), 14 February 1977.

"Haley's Rx: Talk, Write, Reunite." Time (New York), 14 February 1977.

Shirley, David. Alex Haley. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Tucker, Lauren R., and Hemant Shah. "Race and the Transformation of Culture: The Making of the Television Miniseries Roots." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), 1992.

"Why 'Roots' Hit Home." Time (New York), 14 February 1977.

Williams, Sylvia B. Alex Haley. Edina, Minnesota: Abdo & Daughters, 1996.

Wilson, Clint C., and Félix Gutiérrez. Minorities and Media: Diversity and the End of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1985.

Woodward, Kenneth L., and Anthony Collings. "The Limits of 'Faction.'" Newsweek (New York), 25 April 1977.

 

See also Miniseries; Roots