AFTER THE FACT: Alex Haley

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 in After the Fact

Have you ever heard the expression, “the pen is mightier than the sword”? Do you believe that a writer has the power to change the world? One of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, Alex Haley used his gifts as an author to raise awareness and appreciation of African American history and culture, not just within the United States, but throughout the world.

Who Was He?

Alex Haley is the United States’ best-selling African American author. In 1965, he published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which detailed Malcolm X’s life story as well as his philosophies, such as black pride and black nationalism. The book went on to sell six million copies by 1977, and was later ranked by TIME magazine as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the twentieth century.

In 1976, Alex Haley wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was based on his own family’s history as enslaved persons. This work was remarkable because it raised widespread public awareness and appreciation of African American history and the importance of family and genealogy, especially within the African American community. Haley thoroughly researched both of these works; his extensive notes and outlines are currently held in a special collection at the University of Tennessee. Roots was immensely popular and went on to be published in 37 languages.

Unfolded books

Writer Alex Haley was most famous for his published books. But he did much more during his life to promote African-American culture.
Credit: Shutterstock/sakr60

What Happened Next?

A year after Roots was published, ABC turned it into a miniseries. It was viewed by a record-breaking 130 million people, further spreading its influence.

As a writer, Haley continued to use mainstream media to share stories of the African American experience. He wrote an article for Reader’s Digest magazine about his brother, one of the first African American students to attend a Southern law school. He also interviewed jazz legend Miles Davis; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; boxing great Muhammad Ali; music producer Quincy Jones; and entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr; for Playboy magazine. In the 1980s, he worked with Disney to develop an Equatorial Africa pavilion in Epcot Center, though it was never built.

How Is He Remembered?

Haley passed away in 1992. During his life, he was the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for his writing, including the Pulitzer Prize and NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for Roots, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In addition, Haley’s military legacy is honored today by the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Alex Haley, Haley Hall at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, and the Coast Guard’s annual Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award for authors and journalists. A statue of Haley reading to young children stands in the center of Annapolis, Maryland: the spot where his enslaved ancestors first arrived in the United States.

What Do You Think? In your opinion, what was Alex Haley’s most significant contribution? Explain.