Alex Haley visits the village of Juffure in The Gambia, West Africa. The people pictured are family of the village griot (in the white robe), whose story helped Haley to establish kinship.
In 1921 Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and even after his family moved, he spent his summers there. Haley’s mother, Bertha, died when he was only twelve years old. Haley’s father, Simon, was a respected professor of agriculture who died just before Roots was completed.
Haley was an indifferent student and eventually joined the Coast Guard. He found he had a talent for writing, and began to submit pieces to magazines. When he left the service at age thirty-seven, he had become the chief journalist for the Coast Guard, a position that had been created for him.
After struggling to make ends meet in his new civilian life, Haley received an assignment from Playboy to interview Miles Davis, the first of what were to become infamous as “the Playboy interviews.” Soon afterwards, he began to collaborate with Malcolm X on his autobiography, which after Malcolm X’s death in 1965 became a bestseller.
After finishing his book on Malcolm X, Haley began researching his own family history. He traced the names of Tom and Irene Murray, his great-grandparents, and found a griot in Africa with knowledge of the Kinte family.
After twelve years of research, he wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which became an immediate best-seller. It was adapted into the wildly popular television miniseries of the same name. The miniseries was followed by another, Roots: The Next Generation, and the television movies Roots: The Gift, Queen, a drama about Haley’s paternal grandmother, and Mama Flora’s Family, centering on the life of his maternal great-grandmother.
After the publication of Roots, Haley spent much time lecturing around the country. On a lecture trip to Seattle in 1992, Haley suffered a heart attack and died at age seventy-one.