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.
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,
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
1980 Palmerstown, U.S.A. (producer)
1993 Alex Haley's Queen
With Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine,
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Different Kind of Christmas. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Haley's Queen: The Story of an American Family. New York: Morrow,
Playboy Interviews. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
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.
Ties." The New Yorker (New York), 26 October 1992.
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.
Doreen. Alex Haley: Author of Roots. Hillside, New Jersey:
Meg. "Uncle Tom's Roots." Newsweek (New York), 14 February
"Haley's Rx: Talk, Write, Reunite." Time (New York), 14 February
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),
"Why 'Roots' Hit Home." Time (New York), 14 February 1977.
Sylvia B. Alex Haley. Edina, Minnesota: Abdo & Daughters,
Wilson, Clint C., and Félix Gutiérrez. Minorities and Media:
Diversity and the End of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, California:
Woodward, Kenneth L., and Anthony Collings. "The Limits of 'Faction.'"
Newsweek (New York), 25 April 1977.
See also Miniseries;