Alex Haley's Roots

February 12, 1992

Before Alex Haley's monumental chronicle "Roots" appeared in 1976, genealogy was something most Americans thought of as the peculiar obsession of people whose ancestors had come over on the Mayflower. One measure of Mr. Haley's success as a writer is that by the time of his death Monday at age 70, uncovering family "roots" had become a passion shared by all Americans.

Alex Haley was inspired to write by life at sea as a young cook in the U.S. Coast Guard. "I used to write lots of letters," he recalled recently. "And guys on the ship saw I did and some of them began to ask me to help write letters to girls for them. And I began to write love letters and they began to make out so well that they began to give me $1 a letter. That was what put in my mind. . . that there might be something for me in the writing business."

He endured hundreds of rejection letters. His big break came in the early 1960s, when Playboy commissioned a 6,000-word article about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. As the deadline approached, he realized he hadn't enough quotes from the notoriously laconic musician to complete the assignment. So he wrote 3,000 words about the glittering jazz world and filled out the rest with the trumpeter's few utterances strung together in the form of answers to questions the author ostensibly had asked. Readers liked the format so much Playboy made such "interviews" a regular feature.

Another interview formed the basis for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," published after the fiery black nationalist's death in 1965. It has sold more than 6 million copies in eight languages. In later years, Mr. Haley recalled an observation related to him by Malcolm X: "We'll never know where we're going until we know where we came from."

That comment may have been the kernel for Mr. Haley's greatest triumph, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." He combined family history, folklore and fiction to relate the story of Kunte Kinte, the author's great-great-great-great grandfather in Gambia, West Africa, and of his family's capture by slavers and the trials and tribulations they endured to achieve a questionable freedom in America after Kunte Kinte's ship arrived in Annapolis in 1767. The book won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a much-acclaimed (and much-watched) television mini-series.

"Roots" helped erase the lingering stigma of slavery for millions of black Americans and kindled in Americans of all races a new interest in researching their genealogical past. It is an enduring legacy.

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