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Entertainment Profile: Alex Haley

by Kenney Dennard

One of the premier black writers/journalist in American History, Alex Haley captured the minds of millions in his life and inspired generations of writers, storytellers, historians, viewers and captive readers.

He was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley in August 1921 in Ithica NY. His father was a college professor at Cornell University.  Alex enrolled at Alcorn State University at age 15 although after 2 years he dropped out.  His father convinced him to enlist in the military when he turned 18.  In 1939, he did just that and would serve 21 years as a US Coast Guard.

During Haley's stint in the service, he taught himself the craft of writing stories.  He was often paid by his fellow sailors to write letters to their girlfriends.

After World War One, Alex went into Journalism.  He eventually became the 1st chief journalist in the Coast Guard in 1959.

After retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley focused on his writing career.  He would start out writing for Reader’s Digest, where he eventually became Senior Editor.  Later, Haley conducted the first interview for Playboy Magazine with jazz musician, Miles Davis.  The interview, in which Davis talked in length about racism, was received well and led to the longest interview ever granted to a publication with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This would lead to many other exclusive interviews with such notables as Mohammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr, Jim Brown and Quincy Jones.

During the early 60's, the Nation of Islam was becoming  more and more prominent; growing in size because of the young, fiery minister, Malcolm X. Haley was asked to interview the activist for Playboy.  When asked, Malcolm was hesitant, thinking that the white man would never publish the type of rhetoric he was known for.  He finally granted Alex permission after being given permission by The Honorable Elijah Mohammad, the Nations leader. 

That interview would push Malcolm further into the forefront and draw more interest from the public in the Black Leader.  Malcolm still looked at Haley only as a tool being used by the white man to dig information out of him.  Once published, the interview was received so well that the publishers tapped Haley to seek a full fledge autobiography.

Malcolm really didn't trust Haley or his publishers were sincere in their quest for a tell-all book.  He also didn't feel comfortable in the spotlight overshadowing Elijah Muhammad.   He said he would only agree if Elijah said it was ok.  Furthermore, wanted to make sure he didn't profit off the book so he asked that all the proceeds went to the Nation of Islam.  He would later change his mind, once separating himself from The Nation.

Alex conducted a series of interviews that lasted from 1963-1965, shortly before Malcolm was killed.  He had witnessed firsthand, Malcolm's transformation from militant preacher to his transformation to an Orthodox Muslim after visiting Mecca. 

Inspired by many of the things he'd learned from Malcolm, Haley took 10 years to research, travel to Africa and write his family history.  In 1976, Haley published "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." The novel was based on his family's history, starting with the story of Kunta Kinte, a slave that was kidnapped in the Gambia in 1767.  Haley claimed to be the seventh -- generation descendent of Kunta Kinte.

Roots was eventually published in 37 languages in 1977.  It was also adapted into a popular miniseries that year. It reached a record breaking 130 million viewers. Haley won a Special Award for the work in 1977 from the Pulitzer Board. 

Haley wrote and produced several  other sequels and Mini series to Roots such as "Roots, The Next Generations". Alex Haley died in 1992 of a heart attack.  The following year, "Queen," which was based on his roots from his mothers side of the family was completed.  Neither of those stories reached the success of "Roots."

Alex will be remembered forever for being a brilliant writer and story teller.  His works have reached the hearts of many and will continue on.

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Alex Haley

Alex Haley