For the generation that came of age during the 1970s, Alex Haley's monumental "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" was in many ways a revelation. White Americans saw for perhaps the first time an accounting of the travails of black Americans they could identify with in an intensely personal way. For black Americans, the story of Kunte Kinte and his descendants was both a celebration of their capacity for endurance and absolution of the lingering stigma of slavery.
Alex Haley, who died this week at age 70, was an unlikely candidate to bring about such a remarkable transformation. A quiet, gentle man, he was born in Ithaca, N.Y., and raised in the West Tennessee town of Henning. By his own account a poor student, he joined the Coast Guard in 1939 and spent the next 20 years there before retiring with the rank of journalist, created for him because he was selling stories based on U.S. naval records.
Mr. Haley's first book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," grew out of interviews with the fiery Black Muslim leader for Playboy Magazine in the 1960s. Published in 1965, the book sold 6 million copies. In 1976 came "Roots," which traced his family history from the arrival of his ancestor Kunte Kinte as a slave in Annapolis in 1767. The book became an international best-seller and the basis for a TV mini-series seen by millions.